By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, Special to the New York Times
Published: July 31, 1987
Some angry South Korean dissidents battle the Government with bricks and gasoline bombs; others hurl verse.
''The role of a poet in Korea is not just to write about sentiment, but also to write about movements in history,'' says Ko Un, one of South Korea's best known dissident poets. ''Poetry is the song of history.''
In this land imbued in poetry, where anthologies of verse sell the way spy novels do in the United States, it sometimes seems that the poems have been as effective as the bricks. The brick-throwers may lose their battles for control of the streets, but the poets have mostly won the battle for Korea's soul, for intellectual legitimacy, for middle-class sympathies.
''Poetry was a factor in the success of the democratic movement,'' said Paik Nak Chung, a prominent literary critic and professor at Seoul National University. ''The poems were important in spreading protest, in inspiring dissent.'' Poets Harassed, Works Banned
The Government apparently agrees, for it has harassed and imprisoned political poets, in addition to banning many poems and anthologies. Korea's most noted poet of protest, Kim Chi Ha, is a household name, largely because his poems have brought him repeated arrests and even a death sentence, which was later commuted
Yet dissident poetry is flourishing as never before. Angry poems are read aloud at vast anti-Government demonstrations, expanding the audience for the verse. Collections are sold under the counter at bookshops. And in the last half-dozen years, countless tiny printing establishments have sprouted illegally around the nation to publish poetry without the required Government permission.
''My book 'A Voice Calling for the Dawn' was banned but sold so well that it went into five editions,'' said Mun Bong Ran, a 52-year-old poet in the southern city of Kwangju. ''When the Government bans such books, that dramatically enhances their appeal.''
Poems are useful weapons in Korea, because the struggle here is not just for power but for legitimacy as well. The Confucian heritage, which emphasizes respect for learning, means that intellectuals and artists are a prime source of legitimacy and are particularly influential throughout society. Others Take Up Protest
All the arts, not just poetry, are being marshaled against the Government. Novelists, artists, photographers, dramatists and singers are all taking up the ideas of protest, while trying to retain their authenticity as artists rather than propagandists.
Dissident artists organized an ''Anti-Torture'' exhibition a few months ago of paintings and woodcuts, which the Government promptly closed down. A new genre of politically oriented dramas and masked dances is catching on around the country. Both of the two main opposition leaders, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, practice the ancient Korean art of calligraphy to copy aphorisms and quotations laced with political meaning.
Yet it is in poetry that protest becomes most fervent and most effective, and it is poetry that has dabbled for the longest time in protest. A century ago, toward the end of the Yi dynasty in Korea, poets began to write against foreign influences, particularly the growth of the Japanese presence. More recently, poets challenged the Japanese occupation of Korea, from 1910 to 1945. The modern flowering of dissident poetry began after the student uprising in 1960 that ousted President Syngman Rhee, and gained momentum in the last few years with the growth of underground publishing houses. Some Ask 'Pure' Poetry.
Still, political poetry is not entirely accepted in literary circles. Debates rage between those who contend that poetry should be ''pure'' and aloof from the fray and those who say it must grapple with social problems. As recently as the 1970's, most critics objected to the political messages in poems by Kim Chi Ha and others, but these days the consensus seems to be that poetic beauty is not compromised - and may be enhanced - by making a political point.
''It is difficult to become a poet today without defining one's position with regard to the poetry of protest,'' said Kim Uchang, a critic and professor at Korea University.
The growing prestige of political poetry largely reflects its popularity. Kim Chi Ha's satirical poem ''Five Bandits'' initially drew some sneers from critics, but became one of the country's best-known ballads. It also helped that poets such as Mr. Kim and Ko Un were recognized as first-class craftsman, even by critics who objected to the nature of their poetry. Other prominent poets began to join them.
Most of the dissident poets insist that they would be remiss if they ignored the most important social issues and confined themselves to such traditional topics as nature and romance.
''Expressing sentiment is important, but you must also express reality,'' said Shin Kyung Rim, an energetic 51-year-old who is among Korea's best-known poets. ''The most important problems in Korea are democracy and reunification of North and South Korea. Without dealing with these problems, you cannot call yourself a poet.''