Go to Contents Go to Navigation

(Yonhap Feature) Granddaughter of famed dissident revives symbolic magazine

All Headlines 09:00 April 23, 2013

By James Pearson
Contributing writer

SEOUL, April 23 (Yonhap) -- Running late between meetings, Chang Won-hee, or just "Won" to her friends, is unphased by her unusual choice of interview location: a dark, smoky basement of a rock bar on a beautifully sunny day in Seoul's Jeongno district downtown.

"I need a drink," says Won. "The last few weeks have been busy, what with all this news about granddad. We held a memorial service for him the other day -- you should've seen it -- they had to stop all the traffic around City Hall, it was amazing."

Won is the granddaughter of Chang Joon-ha, one of the Korean left's most celebrated independence and democracy activists.

Chang Joon-ha was conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army in 1942 -- an event that has since been immortalized by the musical "The Young Chang Joon-ha." Upon being posted to occupied Manchuria, he and a group of fellow conscripts trekked barefoot and without shelter through wintery mountainous terrain until they were able to seek refuge in a Nationalist Chinese guerilla camp.

Finding conditions with the battle-hardened guerrillas less than desirable, Chang and his friends created hand-bound magazines packed full of debate on politics, poetry and intellectualism and passed them round the camp to pass the time. Chang continued publishing after he left the camp to join Korea's provisional government in exile.

Years later, after fleeing war-torn Seoul with his family for the comparative safehaven of Busan, a southern port city, Chang reignited his passion for intellectual publishing and created "Sasanggye," meaning "world of thought" or, in essence, "contemplation," a magazine that would later become one of the most prestigious and intellectually stimulating publications of 20th century South Korea.

Sasanggye eventually stopped publishing in the early 1970s whereby Chang's story was complicated by numerous disputed with the ruling Park Chung-hee administration, infamous in its disdain for anyone sitting on the left side of the political center.

Chang was eventually killed in 1975 in an incident that, at the time, was reported as a fall whilst hiking. Recent evidence and further examination of Chang's body earlier this year revealed he had died after suffering a blow to the head with a blunt object, confirming rumors at the time that he had been assassinated by Park's government.

Chang's son, Chang Ho-gwon, took his family into exile for some 27 years following the father's death. His daughter, Won, grew up in Singapore.

There is something quite poignant in the fact that almost 40 years after Chang Joon-ha's death, Won is back in Korea to relaunch her grandfather's magazine Sasanggye to the current generation of South Koreans.

More than just emulating her grandfather's pioneering prowess for content, Won is using this generation's technology to relaunch the magazine -- making this generation's Sasanggye just as pioneering as the last.

KakaoTalk, the omnipresent phone messaging service used by South Koreans young and old, is launching a new service called KakaoPage to allow popular magazines and newspapers to publish digitally, straight into the hands of mobile Korean users. It is this platform, Won says, that should carry Sasanggye into the 21st century.

"I decided to work on reviving the magazine because of a larger problem: the death of the newspaper and magazine industry. As someone who has worked in start-ups and private equity, I think it's fairly uncontroversial that distribution and experimentation is important upfront," Won said, defending her decision to launch into digital publication rather than print.

"KakaoPage is Korean. I'm unashamed to say that I have a Korea-first agenda, and so did grandpa, according to our editorial policy at least. More importantly, KakaoPage is working on a model that empowers publishers with an almost tumblr-like efficiency, cross-platform," Won says, fresh from a meeting with KakaoTalk CEO Sirgoo Lee.

"Granddad wanted a magazine that could be read by all, while reviving the Korean language," she said. The magazine was originally born into an era in Korea where Korean press was severely restricted. "It stressed the importance of the division between political sentiment and press, that the publishing should hold everyone accountable to -- the basics of journalism."

Famous in Korean journalism circles, Sasanggye is practically unknown outside Korea. Some cite the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, or perhaps even the Economist, as suitable English-language equivalents.

"As a demographic, I am specifically targeting the youth in Korea, kids of college age," Won says. "I am concurrently mentoring students who are doing startups and I'm in the running for a professorship at Korea University to be available to students more openly and easily."

The original Sasanggye was small enough to fit in one's pocket, so starting mobile makes perfect sense, Won argues. The new format also promises to be pioneering, using a user-reward system to "pay" for content, rather than adopting the more traditional paywall system some long-standing publications have opted for.

"The way the site actually works is a bit like a game -- we ask you to sign in before accessing content, then send an invite to another person. You get little karma hearts at the top. It goes down as you consume content, it goes up as you engage and share content," explains Won. The idea is the more you share, the less often you have to pay for content.

"If it falls to zero and you'd still not like to share, you can buy hearts for a few cents. If we understand you're pretty much Million-Miler awesome, we give you a lifetime pass."

Whether the new Sasanggye will survive the cut-throat world of Korean publishing remains to be seen. But if Kakao's air-like ability to permeate every nook and cranny of Korean society is anything to go by, a new breed of young Korean intellectuals might just be inclined to put down Anipang and pick up something more intellectually stimulating.

"My grandfather died for his political bend, and my mother was actually part of the original Dong-a broadcasting group that had to disband due to the same dictatorship that killed him," Won says. "I happen to have been born in the era of the rise of the 'interwebs' and the 'internetz,' which I believe, must remain absolutely, essentially, open.

"There is no better democracy, frightening and beautiful, than the internet as it currently pulses," Won says, as a cheeky sparkle shimmers from her eye.

"It's that last little part that I believe my grandfather would absolutely love if he were still alive."


Send Feedback
How can we improve?
Thanks for your feedback!