Thursday, March 31, 2011

50 Most Influential K-Pop Artists: 31. Kim Min-Gi

[Read more reviews from the Korean from the Library Mixer. To join, click here.] 

[Series Index]

31.  Kim Min-Gi [김민기]

Years of Activity:  1971-present (last original album in 1987)

Kim Min-Gi [김민기] (1971)
Factory Lights: Musical Original Soundtrack [공장의 불빛 OST] (1978)
Gaettong'i: Musical Original Soundtrack [개똥이 OST] (1987)
Daddy's Face is Pretty: Musical Original Soundtrack [아빠얼굴 예쁘네요 OST] (1987)
Kim Min-Gi 1 [김민기 1] (1993)
Kim Min-Gi 2 [김민기 2] (1993)
Kim Min-Gi 3 [김민기 3] (1993)
Kim Min-Gi 4 [김민기 4] (1993)
Kim Min-Gi, with Symphony Orchestra of Russia (2003)
Factory Lights (2004)

Representative Song: Morning Dew [아침이슬] from Kim Min-Gi

Morning Dew

긴밤 지새우고 풀잎마다 맺힌 진주보다 더 고운 아침이슬처럼
Like morning dew, prettier than pearls, hanging on every blade of grass
내 맘에 설움이 알알이 맺힐때
When sorrow hangs in my heart, drop by drop
아침동산에 올라 작은 미소를 배운다
I hike the morning hill and learn a little smile

태양은 묘지위에 붉게 떠오르고
The red sun rises over the graves
한낮에 찌는 더위는 나의 시련일지라
And the sweltering heat of the day is my trial
나 이제 가노라 저 거친 광야에
I shall now go, into that barren desert
서러움 모두 버리고 나 이제 가노라
Casting off all the sorrow, I shall now go.

A little bit about the video...  the Youtube video is showing the public funeral of Lee Han-Yeol, a democratization activist who was killed by being shot by a tear gas canister in the head in 1987. Lee was a 22 years old student at Yonsei University. His death served as a spark for the June Struggle, which dealt the fatal blow to the military dictatorship in South Korea.

Translation Note:  Does anyone have a better word for 맺히다?

In 15 words or less:  Korea's Bob Dylan.

Maybe he should have been ranked higher because...  His songs were the spirit of Korea's democratization movement. Korea is now a democracy.

Maybe he should have been ranked lower because...  Through no fault of his own, his music was totally cut off from the mainstream of K-pop.

Why is this artist important?
The world is fascinated by North Korea and its terroristic dictatorship. But it ought to focus more on South Korea, which had no less of a dictatorship at the end of Korean War. There have been many dictatorships in the past, and there will surely be more in the future. But there are not many that transitioned from a dictatorship to a thriving democracy, and there is only one that did so in just 40 years. And Kim Min-Gi wrote the defining hymn of that unprecedented change.

Kim Min-Gi's discography says it all. Kim began his music career as a member of an amateur band at the prestigious Seoul National University in 1969. His talent became obvious to those around him, who urged him to make an album. In 1971, Kim Min-Gi would record his only regular solo album in just one day. The musical value of this album is significant, as it added a layer of sophistication to the "folk rock" of Korea. On top of the simple guitar sound that was the only staple of the folk rock of the time, Kim's album added elements of jazz and classical music.

But of course, the real story is the album's social value. Within a year of its release, the authoritarian Park Chung-Hee regime banned the album. The entire available stock of the album was recalled and incinerated. Kim could not release albums or appear on television or radio anymore, and had to rely on his musical soul mate Yang Hee-Eun to sing his songs instead. A few years later, Kim's song Morning Dew was specifically banned, and even covering the song was not allowed.

South Korea's dictatorship correctly assessed the danger of Kim's gifted songwriting. On top of his elegantly simple tunes, Kim Min-Gi added lyrical poems that were at once hauntingly beautiful and deadly sharp. Morning Dew is the prime example of his ability to metaphorically urge a struggle against oppression. The morning dew is the tears collecting on every blade of grass, every person. When morning dews collect, "I" must go into the barren desert like a messianic hero, toward the glory of the sun that rises over the graves of the fallen.

Another beautiful example of Kim Min-Gi's lyric-writing ability is the song A Little Pond. The pond used to have two beautiful goldfish, who fought each other. One of them died, and as the body of the dead fish rotted away, so did the pond water, and nothing could live in the pond anymore -- a beautiful allegory to the injustice of the divided Koreas. Here is the song, covered by Yang Hee-Eun. (A Little Pond, a movie about the Nogeun-ri Massacre, was named after the song.)

South Korea's authoritarian regime succeeded in some respects -- Kim Min-Gi was driven out of the larger pop culture, and was relegated to composing musicals that were barely played in some colleges. For stretches of time, Kim totally gave up on music and turned to farming for years. But in a more important way, the authoritarian regime failed utterly. The few surviving copies of Kim Min-Gi's first album were secretly copied and distributed like a badge of honor among the democratization activists. The democratization activists would first sing Morning Dew quietly among themselves, and then loudly during their protests. Over time, Morning Dew would be the de facto anthem of the pro-democracy protesters. A song about a fragile natural phenomenon became a roaring call for freedom sung by thousands and thousands of people, beaten down by police clubs and covered in tear gas. South Korea would fully democratize, and Kim Min-Gi's albums were finally unbanned in 1993.

The ultimate testament to the power of the song is the fact that North Korea banned this song also. Because North Korea saw the democratization protesters as its allies (both because the protesters were generally leftist and because enemy of the enemy was a friend,) initially North Korea used Morning Dew as a part of the propaganda. But as the song spread, there was no mistaking the message of Morning Dew -- the song became wildly popular in North Korea, sung by the people who wished to rebel against the regime in their hearts. Finally, North Korea banned the song in 1998.

Interesting trivia:  Kim Min-Gi continued his rebellion by writing musicals with heavily social messages. His musical Factory Lights, describing the fate of the union members at a factory, was also banned. In 1994 Kim directed a musical Line One, which was originally a German musical adjusted to take on a Korean narrative, again describing the downtrodden people in the ghettos of Seoul. It became the most successful musical in Korean history, running for 13 years in the same theater.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I just wanted to thank you for continuing your series. I really value the list when it comes to the older (pre-1990's) music as my familiarity with those artists only occurs when a later artist I follow covers a song, sending me searching for the original artist's version. Thanks to your list, I have plenty more artists to look into (or nod summarily about and ignore). Perhaps an English-language book about the history of popular Korean music is in your future?

  2. Wasn't Lee Han Yeol's death in 1987? I still vaguely remember the democratization movement of that year and the smell of the tear gas that summer.

    As for 맺히다, how about "gathers" or "forms"?

  3. Just finished watching the YT clip. Truly haunting.

    Oh, and I thought of another alternative word for "맺히다." Wouldn't "collect" work here as well?

  4. It is 1987, correction is made. That's what happens when the Korean writes the post out of memory instead of spending a minute to Naver.

    Maybe the operative term is not just 맺히다, but 알알이 맺히다. Need the vivid visualization of the dew drops forming. "Gathers", "forms" or "collects" are all too dry. Even "hangs", as in the post, is too dry.

  5. I really love this song. Thank you for the upload. This some have some sad story by the way.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Since the comparison is being made to pearls, the following translation might be good:

    긴밤 지새우고 풀잎마다 맺힌 진주보다 더 고운 아침이슬처럼
    Like morning dew that has endured the night, prettier than pearls, strung on every blade of grass
    내 맘에 설움이 알알이 맺힐때
    Each grain of sorrow gets strung in my heart
    아침동산에 올라 작은 미소를 배운다
    And when it does, I hike the morning hills and learn a little smile

    Sorry for all the previous deleted comments---I keep changing my mind about the translation.

  10. Good translation. The constant difficulty that the Korean is facing is just how much poetic license the Korean is allowed to take. There are people who are trying to study Korean through this series, so the Korean is hesitant to go from 맺힌 to "strung", although that is a very nice way of conveying feeling.

  11. Enjoying your blog having discovered it only few weeks ago. Moving here has been a traumatic experience for me.

    As for 맺히다, I may try "seeps through". It may not be a literal translation and poetic enough though.

  12. 맺히다 = Heartache or a heart full of sadness according to my K-spouse. I'm enjoying your blog too. Great stuff.


Comments are not available on posts older than 60 days.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...