[IntraViews #002] Jung Hyun-Min and 어셈블리 (Assembly)’s Art of Compromise

Jung Hyun Min

It's no secret that dramas like 어셈블리 (Assembly) are not exactly this industry's bread and butter. But more than standing out as an uncharacteristically strong political drama and the sad realization that K-dramas could aspire to be much more than what they're seen as by the majority of their audience, the Jung Jae-Young show is slowly proving what a potential force to be reckoned with its writer, Jung Hyun-Min, could eventually turn into – especially considering his track record so far, and what he has to offer in this genre. Instead of picking an interview and translating it top to bottom, this is a sort of monologue made of several answers from a half dozen interviews, following a somewhat more logical and linear trajectory. They were all more or less made before the start of the show, right around the end of his previous work, 정도전 (Jung Dojeon). But they shed light on the man and the writer, in ways that a simple career retrospective wouldn't be able to.

“I guess I was a late starter as a writer, but I think all the unique experiences I went through helped shape my style. If I had been born into an ordinary family, had an ordinary academic upbringing, graduated from a 4 year university and became your ordinary company employee, I don't think I would have been able to write anything. Instead, I grew up in Busan amidst the gloomiest of atmospheres: they used to give numbers based on our height, and in my senior middle school year, I was No. 64. Measured all of 150 cm, perhaps less. I couldn't pay tuition so I managed to secure the very last number by settling all my debts at the very last moment. I graduated from a technical school and always had to support myself, went through the democratization process as an activist… If you add the odd part-time stint, so far I've had 13 different jobs. Reality was so grim that I guess I was attracted to bright and cheerful things, movies in particular, as a sort of escape valve – to the point that in the late 1980s I even daydreamed of marrying the local rental video store's clerk.

In my senior year at Busan National Mechanical Technical High School I had a practical training stint at Hyosung Power & Industrial's Changwon factory. It was back in June 1987, right when the Democratic Uprising began, but I was just a high school student and had no real interest in participating in the protests. I do remember how surprised I was, on my first day there, when I saw all the factory's windows broken or damaged. I went from building gear speed reducers to designing parking sensors; from producing science toys to building pipes. Out of fun, I started working as a sketch artist for the company newsletter; one of the staff members of the labor union saw my work, and offered me a position as editor in the union journal. It was back then that I helped launch a new labor union journal called 해돋이 (Sunrise), which inevitably led to a more significant involvement in union activities.

I had been writing union journals and hand-written posters for a while, so I would often come into contact with journalists. They always looked so cool that I was moved to ask them what it would take to join their ranks, and they advised me to major in journalism. I took night classes to prepare for the college admission, and managed to enroll in the Class of 1990. The “honeymoon period” I experienced didn't last long: in 1991, student activist Kang Gyeong-Dae was bludgeoned to death by riot police with iron pipes, which motivated me to join the demonstrations. During my college days, I was also a part-time English lecturer, and during spring and summer breaks I would voluntarily go back to my old factory and help with steel plate production.

Fast-forward to my return from the military, as the country was in full IMF crisis, and you couldn't find a job anywhere. The Federation of Korean Trade Unions contacted me, and I ended up working for them for a few years. I then moved to the 매일노동뉴스 (Daily Labor News) where I worked as a reporter, which would eventually pave the way for my transition into the National Assembly. Remember how Gukmin Bank and Jutaek Bank had a merger in 2001, and both unions went on strike? I joined them as a sort of “gun for hire” and planned their strike from December 2000 onwards, to then set up camp and join the protests with the employees for seven months. They were just bankers so they needed a “player” in the field. At first I told them I'd only do it for a few months, but when our union leader was arrested, I just couldn't leave my post, if anything out of loyalty for him. There's a big difference between merely witnessing something and actually being part of it heart, mind and soul.

I was a card-carrying member of the Democratic Labor Party, but I decided to leave the party when they set an allowance of 1.2 million won for assemblymen and 800,000 for aides. Every other party's aide would make anywhere between 3 and 4 million, but instead of giving us the average wage set by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and live up to their party name, all they did was demand sacrifices from us. That was when I met Assemblyman Lee Gyeong-Jae [ed. Grand National Party member], who was back then chair of the Environment and Labor Committee. I applied for the Labor Policy Aide position, and despite having the worst “specs” I was chosen because my cover letter was the best written one he got. The four years spent working with him were a great opportunity to understand conservative politics.

I may sound pretentious, but I think that for a writer all those different experiences add up in a way that is crucial. Sometimes while I write I feel emboldened by the fact that I went through all those ordeals, and it makes me feel I'm more qualified to write about them because of that experience.

Think about it... what could be more dramatic than being a congressional aide?

Say that a random morning, North Korea launches a missile into the sea: a few hours later, there is an assembly meeting, you need to contact National Defense and brief them, and organize mobilization questionnaires. You have very little time to present facts and their mutual correlation, and the price for failing could be an international incident. Say that the next day the issue of free school meals is on the table: you need to quickly organize reactions on both side of the equation and present a case to your assemblyman for why he should be for or against the motion. Can't do it? That gets you a so-called pink slip.

It's easy to deal with dramatic tension when that is what your job entails on a daily basis.

It started all when writer Kim Yoon-Young, of 카이스트 (KAIST) and 반울림 (Sharp) fame, asked to interview me back when she was preparing a show about a political aide. I told her that I dreamed to be a writer back when I was younger, to the point that I participated in the Jeon Tae-Il Literary Award and went all the way to the finals. But she was quick to tell me that writing drama scripts was more about everyday dialogue than anything requiring a literary background, and that it was something that could really suit me, because I had a knack for dialogue. Back then I shrugged it off as lip service she'd use in all her interviews, but then I began to have second thoughts about two years later, when working as an aide just didn't feel rewarding anymore. It just happened that the Korean Television Writer's Association building was right around the corner, so I took classes once a week as a sort of healing process. At first I felt a little embarrassed, so I skipped some lessons, but it really grew on me eventually. After having to endure the stoic, matter-of-fact assembly life, the idea of having to write about stories of ordinary life and love all day, to meet with colleagues afterwards for a drink, that kind of lifestyle in itself became a sort of healing process which allowed me to find some kind of inner peace and stability. It was then that one of my works was selected by a KBS Short Drama scriptwriting contest.

I wrote that script in my second year, which gave me the opportunity of an internship with KBS. The “job” didn't require me to actually show up for work, so I could juggle in between my aide work and this. After three months of this unique kind of multitasking, I felt like I could make a living out of it, so I sat down with my wife and had a serious talk. “How much have we saved?” I asked her. “If I don't do this now, I'll regret it later when I'm older. Give me two years.”

Then again, we were a bit reckless back then: without knowing what would happen soon after, we signed for a big mortgage to buy a house. My monthly salary at KBS was 1.2 million won. The mortgage? 1.4 million a month.

It was 2010, and my plan was to try my best for those two years and then revert back to my aide career if it didn't work – knowing that there would be elections in 2012, and I could easily get back in. My kids are now four and seven, so back then my wife was still pregnant with the little one. Honestly, if back then I had been working for huge corporations to the tune of Samsung or Hyundai, I wouldn't have been able to quit like that – I'm not what you'd call a brave person. But I've never had a permanent contract in my life. Even something like a congressional aide is a job you can be fired from overnight, but after ten years on the job, you kind of gain a stable position within that environment. That's because for every new election there are new faces who need aides with experience, so I always was confident that I had a place there. So what did I possibly have to lose?

A lot more than I thought.

For instance, at first the drama industry seemed at odds with my personality. I love being in contact with people, and this job consisted of being trapped all day inside a room, writing. I could find no identity as a writer back then, as my mind was still too influenced by the assembly and labor policy. I'm not really what I'd call a “history buff.” I haven't touched a history book since I graduated from high school, actually. I wouldn't even say I'm a big sageuk fan, considering I didn't even watch 용의 눈물 (Tears of the Dragon). I prefer documentaries, but I also think that I have a peculiar trait that distances me from most male viewers: part of me feels like an ajumma, seeing how much I like fluffy romantic comedies and warm variety shows. I think I watched every 러닝맨 (Running Man) episode at least twice, because I loved all the characters in there.

But then 정도전 (Jung Dojeon) came and changed everything.

Jung Dojeon equated politics to the pursuit of a “just way of life.” He said that at the opposite end of what we call “just cause” is not a “wrong cause,” but merely another cause that might be as just as ours, yet different. I think of politics as the art of mediation, the assembling of varied and diverse concerns and the new period awareness that comes from the resulting compromise. People today think that all there is to politics is leading others, creating a new vision that is only concerned with one's own needs and viewpoint. That is why I believe no new period awareness has been able to gain a foothold after the industrialization of the 1960s and the democratization of the 1980s: we keep throwing neologisms out there, like “창조경제 (creative economy),” but there is a distinct lack of fresh and topical discourse in our political circles. Politics and politicians first and foremost need keen empathy. Ask yourself why Jeong Dojeon was so different from his friend Jung Mong-Joo: it's because he spent time in exile and managed to witness the plight of Joseon's people firsthand that he was able to understand their needs. That is why he sought Lee Seong-Gye and together they were able to successfully initiate a revolution that struck a chord with the people. Empathy comes with firsthand experience.

I don't think our current situation is any better or worse than at the tail end of the Goryeo dynasty, nor am I suggesting that we need the same kind of revolution. Everyone thinks the particular period they live in is historically turbulent, after all. But I just think that with an increase in national income and standard of living we've reached a level of stress and danger that is hard to bear. We're no longer experiencing inequality, it's as if the 99% of the people were put against the remaining 1%. The big difference is that back at the end of Goryeo's history, politicians were willing to stake their lives to repel the corrupted and self-serving ruling elite that created a similar kind of inequality: look for examples like that of Lee Jon-Ok, who died in exile after chastising the king on many a memorial, and even reproached him straight to his face. Read those memorials and you'll see that courtiers back then were lashing at the king with the kind of fury you'd never see in a Blue House message board. It's incredible how Goryeo's elites, numbers which were limited to about a thousand people, managed to establish such deep communication, exchange of information, constant development and devotion to their cause. You think anyone, be they secretaries or any other bureaucrat, would be willing to sacrifice their job and admonish their superiors on their misconduct today? A politician should embody a certain philosophy of life and seriously worry about the people he represents, but how many people do that today?

Depicting that kind of figure helped me realize I'm getting used to life as a writer, and that I no longer need to be ashamed of what I write. I don't think I'd be able to go back to life as a congressional aide now, and I probably even couldn't if I wanted – aides need to live in the shadows of the people they assist, and I don't think I would fit the bill right now. More than anything, I think my wife wouldn't take it. I make a little more money now...”

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