PEN and Sword in Seoul


There is a joyous feeling of justifiable national pride flowing through this huge city on the eve of the Olympic Games. Indeed, when the 700 writers participating in the 52nd Congress of PEN (for Poets Essayists Novelists), the international writers’ organization, toured the ultramodern Olympic Village, we were told that our meeting here from Aug. 28 to Sept. 2 would be seen by the world as a “cultural Olympics.”

Why not? What better plans for Gold Medal intellectual heavy lifting than a country with a 2,000- year-old literary tradition? Here, movable metal type was discovered 200 years before Gutenberg used it--although it appears to have escaped the attention of the Eastern world. Today, Korea boasts an astonishing literary rate of 98% and an avid readership that supports about 2,000 publishers and more than 5,700 magazines.

Energized by this Korean setting, the PEN Congress opened with a call for international unity, as International President Francis King proposed “a year of reconciliation” to end many years of conflict in the literary and political areas. Unfortunately, practically as he spoke, the Korean reunification talks at Panmunjom were breaking down, and ominous events marred the spirit of friendly international celebration during the five days of the Congress:


--Korean President Roh Tae Woo canceled his scheduled address to the Congress as a result of a reception in honor of imprisoned Korean writers hosted by American PEN.

--A series of arrests of writers and intellectuals just before the Congress was climaxed by the detaining of a Korean publisher en route to the American PEN party.

--After lengthy and vigorous debate, the Congress failed to pass a resolution demanding the release of the Korean writers in prison. Instead, a petition was delivered to Roh regarding the matter.

At the beginning of the Congress, Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko observed that there was such a division of opinion regarding appropriate tactics in dealing with repressive governments that there appeared, he joked, “to be two PENs.” By the end of the meeting, however, his joke became reality: The body became divided into two almost equal tactical camps. The traditionalists, led by the American and Scandinavian delegations, advocate the use of public statements from the prestigious international body to focus world opinion on violations of freedom of expression. A moderate non-confrontational approach described as “quiet diplomacy” was championed by the French and English delegations. Although the moderates succeeded in defeating the Korean prisoner resolution, they claimed that behind-the-scenes negotiations with the government were harmed by the American PEN party.

The controversial party (characterized as an illegal gathering by one Korean newspaper), hosted by American PEN president, Susan Sontag, was a reception for about 150 people, who heard friends and relatives of five imprisoned writers and two dissident writers read poems and describe their situations. Responding to criticism that the party was regarded as an insult to the Korean government, Sontag said, “We are writers here to help other writers. It is not our job to be silently polite house guests. The job of writers is to speak out.”

Earlier, members of the PEN delegation from Los Angeles, headed by local president, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, met with the family of Lee Tae Bok, an imprisoned publisher who has been adopted as an honorary member by the Los Angeles center. Tears welled in the eyes of Lee’s mother as she spoke of the “hypocrisy” of the Korean government to put her son in prison for life because he allegedly published Communist propaganda, and then to greet writers from Communist countries as “honored guests” at the PEN Congress and to invite Eastern-bloc athletes to Korea for the Olympic Games.


Thomas von Vegesack, chairman of the Writers in Prison Committee for PEN, was granted permission with three other observers to visit briefly with two of the imprisoned writers. The visit was the first ever permitted PEN in Korea and was considered a sign of progress.

Within PEN, considerable opposition has been voiced to the inclusion of countries in which freedom of expression is denied. But each individual joining a center is required to sign the PEN charter, swearing to uphold freedom of expression. These centers often provide information and diplomatic channels that help censored or imprisoned writers.

Several countries had objected to holding a PEN congress in Korea while writers were still in prison because it might give the appearance of endorsing the political repression in that country. But the consensus of the writers attending suggested that some good had been done in simply calling attention to their plight.

Michael Scammell, the distinguished biographer of Solzhenitsyn and an international vice president of PEN, voiced concern about the subdued mood of the congress. “There was less attention paid to writers in prison and problems of censorship than there has been at previous congresses,” he asserted. “There was a tendency to sweep questions under the rug, particularly when those questions concerned our host country. By being good guests, PEN has made an exception of Korea. I hope that it is not a precedent.”