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Transcript of Yoo Seung-jun's interview about military exile

  • Published : May 20, 2015 - 15:34
  • Updated : May 20, 2015 - 15:34

Below are excerpts from the live interview broadcast from Hong Kong on Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. Yoo Seung-jun -- also known as Steve Yoo -- was a successful K-pop singer whose career came to a halt in 2002 when he renounced his Korean citizenship after becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was deported for suspected evasion.

The interviewer was Korean film director Shin Hyeon-won.

The original news report is published here: Yoo Seung-jun appeals to Korea to lift exile, vows to 'do whatever it takes'

(Yoo kneels before the camera, teary-eyed)

Shin: How have you come here?

Yoo: I am kneeling asking for forgiveness. I want to talk about my true emotions. I don't want to make excuses. This is my time to apologize for my wrongdoings to you all. I want to talk completely honestly about what's in my heart.

Shin: Please take a seat. Some people have suggested that you are talking now because of financial reasons.

Yoo: I don't know how to respond to this. I have done about 14 films in China. I also completed a 60-episode TV drama. I have supported my parents since I was 20 (Korean age). If I were to say I have a lot of money (shakes head). It's absolutely not to do with money.

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Korean singer-actor Yoo Seung-jun (AfreecaTV)
Shin: There's a (local) report gaining attention that you might be able to return to Korea, saying, "It's possible that the exile of Yoo Seung-jun will be lifted and his Korean citizenship restored." But the article states that the courts would consider it only if the military requests it. The military has said that it hasn't changed its stance (against you) and that it’s "absolutely impossible" for you to return. Is it possible for you to enter Korea, perhaps on a tourist visa?

Yoo: No, I believe not.

Shin: What does article 11 of the national entry law say?

Yoo: I think it deals with political offenders and criminals. I'm not sure, but that's what I've heard.

Shin: The issue about your indefinite leave was an issue (before Yoo's exile). (Yoo left Korea around age 13 to reside in the U.S. for about six years, before returning as a K-pop artist.)

Yoo: Those who have indefinite leave in the U.S. are not allowed to stay more than six months in a foreign country. If they fail to abide by this, they lose their indefinite leave. That's why I flew to and from Korea. My father even told me to change my nationality. He applied for my U.S. citizenship without my knowledge a year before (Yoo's scheduled enlistment date).

Shin: There was also mention that you had been nominated as a navy promotional ambassador. Is that true?

Yoo: That's not true. I have no recollection of being a promotional ambassador other than for (an) anti-smoking (campaign). Perhaps if the institution (one-sidedly) decided that, I'm not sure. I was very busy at the time. (I recall) there was an article at some point about my being an army promotional ambassador.

Shin: There were articles about (your announcement to enlist) at the time.

Yoo: My manager usually accompanied me to my home (entrance), but one day he just stopped outside my apartment. As I was walking, a reporter jumped out from the bushes. It wasn't an interview, but he said, "You're doing well these days. Your physique is looking good. You know you need to go to the military." So I said (casually), "Yes, of course." Then he said, "You might be considering the navy." And I said, "Yeah, maybe." The next day, the front page news was that I and (baseball player) Park Chan-ho had volunteered to enlist in the navy. From that point on, I constantly got questions about enlisting in the military -- and of course, I responded to them.

Shin: Were you considering enlisting in the military?

Yoo: I never resisted the prospect of entering the military. My father instilled that in me from childhood as well. I didn't mind a healthy and group lifestyle. I just always thought I had to go. My father thought the same way.

Shin: If you could go back to early 2002, what would you do?

Yoo: Of course I would enlist. The decision I made, I didn't know it would give rise to such a controversy. If I could go back, I would enlist without a second thought (breaks down in tears).

Shin: One online user said that it‘s fortunate timing that you are now aged 39 (Korean age). 38 is the upper age limit for military enlistment.

Yoo: I have gone through a variety of emotions. I have wondered how to convey my situation. But whenever I tried to, it wasn't conveyed well. Whatever kind of interview I did, it wasn't explained properly. Even if I did an hour-long interview, the (actual) article was quite short with one headline. My emotions weren't conveyed faithfully. Whatever I said, I was hurtfully criticized and upbraided. To be honest, I don't have much confidence. I don't know how to resolve this situation. I have barely looked at Korea for the past 13 years. I felt that was the only way I could bear it.

Shin: How have you summoned the courage to speak up now?

Yoo: My son sings my songs and dances my dances. I didn't even let him know (about my career). I thought that I shouldn't negatively influence my son because of my problem. My first son Ji-ho must have heard at school, "Your dad is famous so why can't he go back to Korea?" Whenever I talk about Korea, he looks like he's about to cry. I don't know what he knows, but it hurts. That's why I want to (resolve) this problem about Korea. I feel it's not right for me to not be able to express what's in my heart.

Shin: What have you tried to do so far?

Yoo: I tried to give up my (U.S.) nationality and return to Korea as a naturalized citizen. Last year, I contacted Korean officials -- I was (Korean age) 38 at the time. I resolved to go to the army. I told my father and said to actor Jackie Chan, "I have changed my mind and decided to enlist after 12 years." (Chan) said, "You made a good choice. I think that's right." I told my wife and children, "Daddy's going to the army." But after two days, the Korean official asked for my date of birth. I found out that the new law (which raised the overseas Koreans' upper age limit from 36 to 38) applied only to those born after 1980. I was born in 1976. I am not liable for conscription and I was rejected.

Shin: If you could recover your Korean nationality based on the condition that you give up your U.S. citizenship, even though you have surpassed the upper age limit, would you accept?

Yoo: Yes. I want to step on Korean soil whatever it takes. I want to go with my children honorably (breaks down in tears), honorably to Korea. I was called "the beautiful youth" Yoo Seung-jun in the past. I wasn't beautiful but I tried to be. I worked really hard. I did my utmost to be a good influence on young Korean people -- I think even my superiors looked at that positively. But now my kids hear that I'm a liar because of my problem. Users on the Internet say that I'm a shameful person. That's understandable and it looks that way (struggles to hold back tears).

Shin: Do your kids know about your past?

Yoo: They're growing (and will know). My two sons know that I am famous. They're proud of me for taking part in films with Jackie Chan. Since I'm a little bulkier than their friends' fathers, their friends say, "Your father is a superhero." But my sons heard, "Your father can't go back to Korea for so-and-so," so they asked why. I wasn't able to give them a good answer. I just said, "Daddy did something wrong in the past." When they grow up, I don't know what I'll say. They're so proud of me now ... I feel it's not right for me as a father to leave that kind of disgrace to my sons, so I'm getting the courage to speak now.

Shin: Do they know you're in Hong Kong now?

Yoo: Yes, I said, "Daddy's going for an interview." I was thinking of saying, "Daddy's going to apologize," but I didn't. My first son asked me, "When will you know the result?" My wife and I looked at each other because we don't know what he knows. I said, "I'm just going for an interview" (breaks down). To be frank, I'm usually good with interviews. I feel like people will be so burdened watching this. Even when I meet Koreans now, I feel a barrier. I don't know how to react to them.

Shin: Is it because you feel awkward around them?

Yoo: I'm not sure. When they see me, some of them cheer me on and say, "Work hard." Some of them know my songs and the dances. I don't know whether to smile or how to react. I'm thankful but I don't feel quite at ease. I don’t have much confidence.

Shin: What was the result when you went for a physical examination for your military service in Korea?

Yoo: I was a grade 4 (commonly the lowest passing rank for the organized military forces). It was because of my lower back problem. During my fifth album, (singer) Cho Yong-pil remade a song. While we were filming the music video in a high altitude, I fell and hurt my lower back and had to go to the hospital. They said that if I didn't receive surgery immediately, my disc would be dislocated, so I had to have surgery. At the time, (a local media outlet) immediately reported that I had attempted to evade my military service. I honestly couldn't understand that. My back was in pain, but it didn't hugely hinder my lifestyle. Even though it was uncomfortable, I went up on stage and danced. That's why I didn‘t even want to receive surgery, but my father persuaded me. He said, "It's not a matter of your celebrity activities. Your health is important." So I underwent surgery.

Shin: There were rumors that you had been specially offered public service for six months (in lieu of your military service) before returning to celebrity activities.

Yoo: That's not true. It wasn't six months, it was 26 months. I never received a preferential offer. Since there were rumors that kept coming up, that's when the most articles were published where I said I would enlist. I didn't say it first -- it was in response to questions.

Shin: Before your scheduled enlistment, you departed for a concert in Japan in January 2002. That was preplanned. Did you have plans to (fly directly to the U.S. afterwards and) accept your U.S. citizenship at the time?

Yoo: Absolutely not. I honestly believed I had to go to the Army. There was an interview for my U.S. citizenship in October 2001, which my father applied for. I was contacted about the interview, but I refused to attend because I promised the public that I would enlist. But after the 9/11 incident (in 2001) the law changed that if you reject a citizenship offer it will be (virtually) impossible for you to reapply for it. It was again "fortunate timing" that I was contacted for another interview in January 2002.

Shin: You flew straight to the U.S. after Japan.

Yoo: I already said that I would fly directly to the U.S. before the Japan concert. My father persuaded me and said, "Just come. Let's talk after you come. Let's just see each other before you enlist." He said it might be difficult for us to see each other in the future, so he wanted to see me.

Shin: Did you intend to evade your military service by flying to the U.S.?

Yoo: Absolutely not.

Shin: What influenced your decision?

Yoo: My family's views played the main role. I planned to go to the Army but my father persuade me to (take on my U.S. citizenship).

Shin: You didn't intend to intentionally evade your military service?

Yoo: Absolutely not. I meant to enlist, but when I went to the U.S., my father persuaded me. My family played the greatest role (in my decision). As I mentioned before, I've supported my parents since I was age 20. There was also the matter about my agency contract to produce a sixth and seventh album -- I think it was about a 3.7 billion won ($3.4 million) deal. I had to work. There were lots of employees at the company and, other than me, there wasn't really a (lucrative) celebrity at the agency. My father said, "You can't behave that way. Your decision to enlist could actually be the more selfish option," which struck me. Celebrity life is not all that glamorous for me. I was tired. At first, I felt a sense of success, but it was very difficult. It has its obvious benefits, but you smile when you have to smile, cry when you have to cry. It's a service industry. Work started as soon as I touched down from the airport. I went straight to work with my makeup done. I don't know a single restaurant in Korea, except in Yeuiodo. I always ate on the go -- whether it was in the car -- anyway, it was always on the go. There was an idea at my agency that I had to make a lot of (public) appearances to make money. I was exhausted. I really wanted to rest. I thought going to the military would be a chance for me to rest. I'm not blaming my parents. How can I? I was an adult. But there was no one to restrain me. There were (several) multi-billion-won deals that I signed at a young age. Unlike a K-pop group, as a solo artist, I could do whatever I wanted and no one would say anything. I was really ... proud.

Shin: How is it looking back now?

Yoo: It was chaotic. I wasn't mature enough to deal with that (pressure).

Shin: How old were you?

Yoo: I think I was 25 (Korean age) at the time.

Shin: What were you thinking on your return flight to Korea?

Yoo: I just thought I was going back to work. After accepting my U.S. citizenship, since there was (the military issue), I thought I had to go quickly and explain so that there wouldn't be misunderstandings or complications. So I thought I had to hold a press conference at 63 Building (in Seoul). Even at that time, I wasn't aware how things were going.

Shin: Didn't you have access to local news?

Yoo: Yes, but not deep access. The Internet wasn't as developed at the time.

Shin: What happened when you landed?

Yoo: First, there were reporters outside the gate. Not after the customs desk, but waiting right before the plane doors (in the jet bridge). And there were bodyguards who took me on either side. They all spoke really harshly and coldly -- there were head reporters. They demanded to know what my thoughts were. Since there were no cameras, they spoke to me really harshly. Anyway, I went to the customs desk and they asked to see my passport. I showed them and then they said to me in English that I had been deported and had to go back.

Shin: They spoke to you in English.

Yoo: Yes, they said, "Steve." Because I was a U.S. citizen now.

Shin: How did you feel?

Yoo: I was baffled. I felt like I had arrived in a foreign country. But you know, after all that, they all come to me for autographs. I signed about 100 autographs. It was all very unfamiliar. Reporters all took photos of me and then just left, saying they had something else to report on.

Shin: What were you thinking while you were signing the autographs?

Yoo: I just signed them diligently. You know how chaotic things were -- when I was refused entry and had to return to the U.S., I called my wife -- my girlfriend at the time -- and said (happily), "I am resting for now."

Shin: When did you understand the gravity of the situation?

Yoo: I didn't know for a long while. I heard that I had been removed from a broadcast. I was little hurt because (in my mind) I was still Yoo Seung-jun. I foolishly thought I shouldn't make excuses and just wait for the situation (to subside). The situation became farther and farther from what I thought.

Shin: How did you feel when you heard about media reports that you were "traitor Steve Yoo?"

Yoo: I didn't look at the reports. I thought I shouldn't, otherwise I didn't think I could live. There was a comedy program dealing with me. All the viewers were laughing. It was themed along the lines of "that bastard who has fled to America." I saw that with my family. Then I turned off the TV. After that, I didn't want any more Korean (shows). I thought that was my only option to remain sane. So when I met Koreans, I pretended even more that I was fine and cool about it.

Shin: Didn't you think about enlisting?

Yoo: I couldn't judge the situation properly. I thought I was the victim. If I say that, people who start slurring me again. There was only one person (and) my wife around me who told me to change my mind and enlist. "If you want to step on Korean soil again, go to the Army," they said. But my pride was hurt. I'm sorry to repeat myself. I just wanted to run away from the situation. If I look back now, that was my most foolish moment.

Shin: I repeat this in case some viewers didn't catch the earlier segment -- if you could relinquish your U.S. citizenship and be allowed to return to Korea, would you do so?

Yoo: Absolutely. I would like that very much.

Shin: What do you want to say to Korean military officials?

Yoo: Please arrange the situation to open the way for me to step again on Korean soil. Please give me and my family another chance. I will do whatever it takes. I unconditionally apologize and ask for forgiveness for the foolish decisions I made when I was young.

Shin: What do you want to say to the Korean public?

Yoo: I apologize and am sorry that I’m asking for forgiveness so belatedly. I should have apologized earlier, but I lacked the courage and couldn't find an easy opportunity. I apologize that this time has come so late. I want to go back to Korea through whatever means possible. I want to recover my honor as "Yoo Seung-ju." I'm so sorry for causing a controversy. I genuinely apologize for letting you down and disappointing you.

Shin: How do you feel now?

Yoo: I still feel suffocated (laughs wryly). When I heard the report that I might be able to go back to Korea, my wife and I cried. I really didn’t mean to ridicule or lie to the Korean public. I honestly intended to enlist in the army and I feel like I cannot but give the excuse that there were personal reasons at the time. However, I really didn't intend to deceive you (the Korean public). I'm sorry that I couldn't keep my promise at any rate and that I couldn't deliver my apology sooner.

By Yoon Sarah (sarah356@heraldcorp.com)