Gabonese President El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, right, shakes hands with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun at Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul, Aug. 10 before holding a summit. / Korea Times
By Choe Chong-dae
My wife and I recently had the honor of meeting El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, president of the African Republic of Gabon, at a welcome reception at the Shilla Hotel in Seoul.
The reception was hosted by the Gabonese Ambassador Jean-Pierre Solo-Emane on the occasion of the president's visit to South Korea.
President Bongo was awarded the Manhae Grand Prize for Peace for the year 2007, from the Manhae Foundation in Korea, in recognition of his ceaseless efforts to promote regional peace and security by contributing to solving conflicts in Central African countries, including Congo, Angola and Chad.
An awards ceremony was held at Baekdam-sa Temple in the town of Manhae, in Inje County, Gangwon Province, on August 12. Although other distinguished figures were awarded Grand Prizes for Literature and other different fields, I was deeply inspired by the Gabonese president because he donated the prize money of about $32,000 to the Association of Literature for the Disabled of Korea, upon receipt of the prize.
There are many large, distinguished and well-known organizations in the world to whom the president might have donated his prize money, but instead he donated the prize money to such a humble group. He deserves respect and attention in Korea as well as abroad for this.
This visit was the fourth trip to Korea for the Gabonese president, who visited Korea in 1975, 1984 and 1996 as well. In celebration of his visit past years, the Korean government has issued postage stamps. Furthermore, the popular ``Bongo’’ vehicles _ vans and pickup trucks produced by Kia Motors _ were named after President Bongo at the time of his first trip to Seoul in 1975.
Thus, we Koreans are familiar with the president of Gabon. Korea established diplomatic ties with Gabon in 1962 _ among the first ties with an African nation. Gabon is situated on the Atlantic coast of Central Africa, at a point in the world quite distant from Korea, and it possesses abundant natural resources, such as oil, minerals, timber and fish.
Thus, we must consider Gabon to be an essential partner of Korea in Africa, and must continue to invest in the development of its natural and human resources.
The Manhae Grand Prize is one of the most prestigious prizes in Korea, established by the Manhae Foundation, in honor of the late monk and poet Manhae, which is the monastic and pen name of Han Yong-un (1879-1944).
He is highly respected in Korea as a great poet, a Buddhist scholar, and an independence fighter who devoted himself to the struggle for Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule which lasted from 1910 to 1945.
Manhae is widely known for his writings about Korean society and for his poetry _ in particular, for an anthology of 88 lovely poems commenced by him at Baekdam-sa Temple in 1926.
Because his poems are presented in major Korean textbooks for middle and high schools and his literary works are studied by college students and by schoolchildren alike, most Koreans vividly remember many of Manhae's remarkable poems.
Among his poems, ``The Silence of the Beloved" and ``My Way" have been inspiring me, with their unique expressions of the spiritual voices of karma which Manhae experienced in monastic life. The poems are especially memorable because they deal with formidable challenges regarding the realities of life.
The following are lines from ``The Silence of the Beloved’’:
``Ah, the one I love is gone.
Crossing the narrow path to the maple grove that shatters the mountain green, she tore away from me.
Promise, like bright gold blossoms, turned into ash scattered by gentle winds.
The memory of a sharp first kiss fixed my destiny, and then, withdrawn into oblivion.
I was defeated by her scented voice, blinded by her flowerlike looks.
Since loving is a thing humans can take on, when meeting I already feared parting, and still dealing with separation, my heart burst with fresh sorrow …’’
Part of ``My Way’’ is as follows:
``There are many ways in the world.
There are stony roads in the mountains.
There are watery seaways …
Yet I have only two ways.
One is the way into my lover's arms
The other one is the way into death's arms …’’
The terms ``lover" or ``beloved" expressed in the above two poems are understood to be subject to various options of interpretation, including the range of meanings associated with not only lovers in the romantic and erotic senses, but also anyone or anything that is held in loving esteem, such as a (religious) spiritual being, a country's sovereign, and even one's own destiny.
Therefore, they can refer to human lovers, as well as everything yearned for. However, since these poems are primarily recognized as a metaphor for patriotism, the term ``lover" is largely interpreted as referring to a much-beloved country _ and thereby, Manhae particularly chants for Korea's freedom.
His long, rhythmical expressions are considered as sweeping forward with an almost ``Scriptural" cadence in some places, and in others as breaking apart into brief, almost conversational phrases that are different from the depictions of other poets.
Because Manhae's mixed descriptions of the philosophical, the mystical and the sensual are uniquely distinctive, his poems shall forever remain masterpieces of Korean literature.
I hope that Manhae's thoughts of peace and reconciliation will be realized and that his philosophies and ideologies of love, life and peace, based on a spirit of universalism, will continue to be acknowledged as having greatly contributed to Korea's freedom and to its social improvement _ as well as to world peace, including inspiring the award recently presented to the president of Gabon.
Choe Chong-dae is president of Dae-kwang International and Korean representative of Compagine Cotonniere of Paris, France. He is also a longtime director of the Korean-Swedish Association.