GWANGJU, South Korea — For most of us it is easy to take for granted the freedoms we enjoy each day. South Korea, while not perfect, counts itself as being one of the freest nations in the world.
When a figure, such as political activist Kim Geun-tae passes on, with such an admirable legacy in his wake, it offers us a chance to consider these freedoms we take for granted and those brave souls who fought to secure them.
While most Koreans recognize Kim's face or even his name, interestingly, when shown a photo or asked for more information about him, most can’t quite place who he was or what he did. We’re all guilty of it, and that’s mostly due to the fact that history books and mainstream media are not written by those who sacrificed the most for our freedom. Rather, they are most often written by those who currently hold power.
While Kim's passing received media attention, it didn’t dominate prime time news. And we all are the lesser for that. For what an incredibly principled figure he was.
Kim Geun-tae at a pro-democracy rally.
“When I faced the shadow of death, I determined that I’d die standing, rather than begging for life on my knees,” he once wrote in his memoirs. Coming from Kim Geun-tae these words carry great weight and significance.
During the 1980's, while fighting the military regime that ruled Korea, Kim was imprisoned and tortured for his pro-democracy activism. And to be clear, he was traumatized for the rest of his life as a result of that torture, which involved the use of electricity and water with the aim of obtaining his submission.
In the years that would follow he suffered from severe post traumatic stress syndrome that likely contributed to his relatively early death at the age of 64.
Kim’s activism started while he attended Seoul National University, where he majored in economics. He primarily protested against the authoritarian rule of Park Chung-hee. Park took over Korea by military coup in 1961 and was a dictator until his assassination in 1979.
Park remains a controversial figure. Older Koreans credit his tenure with developing Korea’s prized industrial infrastructure, while Kim and others of the younger generation felt that his leadership style was too authoritarian for a nation then striving to be a democratic republic.
Kim was repeatedly arrested and finally spent several years in prison. Apparently unfazed after finishing his prison sentence, he got right back to his activism and started the Democratic Youth Coalition in 1983.
Then, in 1985, he was arrested again, this time on the charge of “profiting North Korea” –a common legal maneuver used against South Korean activists at that time. It was during this period of Kim's detention that he was severely tortured for over three weeks by a military police official named Lee Guen-an.
In a gracious act of compassion, Kim publicly forgave Lee when the infamous torturer came out of hiding in 2000. Lee would later go on to become a pastor, though last week he was ousted from the church and stripped of his pastorship in the wake of Kim's death.
Kim Geun-tae in 2006
Though Kim Geun-tae was able to set aside animosity for his torturer, he was unable to shake the physical effects of the ordeal. The trauma was reportedly so severe that he dreaded going to doctors and dentists for the remainder of his life, as they reminded him too much of the agonizing experience at the hands of Lee.
Following Kim's release from imprisonment, news of his torture led to an international outcry.
Kim's vivid descriptions of his ordeal in prison were hidden among songs in a cassette tape and sent to American human rights groups, thus triggering movement on the issue due to pressure from outside of Korea.
Though hardly guilty of any crime, Kim was pardoned by President Roh Tae-woo in 1988, just before Korea hosted the Olympics.
Kim was not the only victim of torture by the military regime. Then 21-year-old Seoul National University student, Park Jong Cheol, was tortured to death in January of 1987. Park's death drew even more international attention to South Korea's fight for democracy.
Over 60,000 Koreans participated in a nationwide funeral for Park despite police crackdowns. On April 13th of that same year, then President Chun Doo Hwan banned all speech on constitutional reforms. It was at this point that South Koreans had no other choice. It was this proverbial final straw that brought about the June Democracy Movement that eventually led to South Korea becoming a legitimate democracy.
It was later in his life that Kim Geun-tae got involved in politics through the more conventional means that he and his fellow freedom fighters brought about. He served in Korea’s Parliament from 1996 to 2008. He was also the leader of Korea’s former ruling Uri Party and was Health and Welfare Minister from 2004 to 2006. He even ran in a failed bid for the Korean presidency in 2002. However, in 2006 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which grew progressively worse until his recent death.
Today, Kim is often referred to as “Korea’s godfather of democracy.” Hopefully, in the future, the Korean media, as well as the education system, will revive interest in Kim’s contributions and the sacrifices that he and his fellow activitsts made to help bring about the freedoms that South Korea enjoys today.
“Mr. Kim was the living witness to democratization of South Korea; he himself was the history of democracy,” Oh Jong-sik, a spokesman for the main opposition Democratic Unity Party, said in a statement released after Kim's death.
Kim's body was laid to rest in the historical Moran Cemetery along with other Korean activists. May he long rest in peace.
A version of this story was originally run in Gwangju News Magazine www.gwangjunewsgic.com