Fight against savage and despotism … unshaken ‘center of democratization’

Disclaimer: The following is a totally unauthoritative personal translation of an article appeared in <The Hankyoreh> on Dec. 30, 2011, reporting the life time story of a deceased statesman Kim Geun-tae, the symbol of democratization movement during military regimes and a statesman for the ordinary throughout his life as a politician. In particular, he is very well known for his effort to blow up the cruelty of tortures he had to go through during the illegal police interrogation. His life itself is the Korean modern history, which is apparently witnessed through the endless throng of people lining up to pay their final condolences to him. All rights regarding this post stay with the author of original article or with <The Hankyoreh> and this post will be scrapped immediately at their request. Original article of this post can be found in the link at the bottom.

Fight against savage and despotism … unshaken ‘center of democratization’

Reporter Kim Jong-cheol 김종철 기자

Life story of statesman Kim Geun-tae

He was chased from age 21 until the collapse of Park Chung-hee’s regime.
He led the Youth Federation for Democracy and fought against Chun Doo-hwan’s regime, suffering ‘Lee Geun-an’s torture’.
He maintained ‘warm personality’ even after turning into a politician, “international gentleman”.


» A shot with a Canadian missionary Frank Schofield at expatriate professor’s residence in his Gyeonggi high school days in 1964. Adviser Kim Geun-tae in middle row second from left; former prime minister Chung Un-chan in back row first from left.


» Adviser Kim Geun-tae selling stuffs to fellow students at autumn festival in his Seoul National University (SNU) days in 1965.

It is true that the democracy in this soil was not accomplished by bloods of just a few, but the name Kim Geun-tae will stand out among those inscribed in the Korean democratization history. Kim Geun-tae (1947~2011) had been a symbol of anti-despotism democratization fight and unshaken giant who led the democratization movement during dark days of late 1970s to late 1990s. He was a fighter who moved the wheel of history forward solely with his own body.

It was the gloomy circumstance born out of Park Chung-hee’s despotic regime that turned him into an activist. In 1967 when he was a junior of SNU College of Commerce (Department of Economy), he participated in a school protest against presidential election fraud and was coercively drafted against his will, which led him to walk the thorny road of resistance. In 1970, he went back to school and led school protests such as those against military training classes (1971) with his fellows like the late Cho Young-rae, Jang Gi-pyo, Shim Jae-kwon, Sohn Hak-gyoo. In 1971, he was listed in the wanted list for leading the so-called ‘SNU students’ national rebellion conspiracy’ incident, obviously a fabrication of public security authority to suppress students’ movement. He was chased until the end of 1979 when Park Chung-hee’s regime suddenly ended due to his assassination.

Kim Geun-tae who was working in labor movement in Incheon area spearheaded the overthrow movement of despotism by taking the lead in establishing the ‘Youth Federation for Democracy (YFD)’ in Sep. 1983. At that time, Korean society was under intolerable suppression by Chun Doo-hwan’s despotic regime which had come to power after brutally massacring students and citizens in May 18, 1980. The students’ movement was not an exception. YFD, under this circumstance, lit the fire of democratization fight by publishing a newsletter ‘Road of Democratization’ and organizing various rallies. At the heart of that stood Kim Geun-tae, the first and second leader of YFD.


» A shot of Kim Geun-tae’s marriage with his wife In Chae-keun at Heungsadan, Dongsoong-dong, Seoul in Apr. 1978.

Chun Doo-hwan’s regime who considered Kim Geun-tae as a thorn in their side took him on his way of release from detention out of Seobu Police Station and sent him to the Headquarters of National Police anti-communism branch office in Namyung-dong right away on Sep. 4, 1985. From that moment, authority level effort to fabricate Kim Geun-tae as the behind the scene figure of Moon Yong-sik who had led the student movement organization ‘Democratization Committee’ in SNU and its fighting leaflet ‘flag’ started. Kim Geun-tae suffered life-and-death tortures and beatings by ‘torture experts’ such as Lee Geun-an ten times as a whole until Sep. 25. Joint dislocation, water boarding, electric torture; they didn’t spare any torture techniques on him. They were extreme; even those who were helping the torture experts, when Kim Geun-tae was the only remaining one resisting the torture, were about to cry and said “we can’t see you like this anymore. Please leave this place anyhow”. Other YFD officials Lee Eul-ho, Kim Byeong-gon were also tortured. Lee Eul-ho, as the aftereffect of torture, suffered mental illness and Kim Byeong-gon died of gastric cancer in 1990.

Later in a court room on Dec. 19 that year, Kim Geun-tae testified the ‘beast time’ and made everyone in that court room cry. “They made me naked during the torture and tied me to the rack as such. They told me to crawl the floor naked and to beg them to spare my life. I could not help but to follow their orders and to write up the report the way they told me to.”

Kim Geun-tae never backed down to the brutal torture; he stood up and started a legal battle to expose the torture. He collected a fist-sized scab that had formed on one of his heels during an electric torture and kept it in his prison cell. He tried to hand it over to lawyers Lee Don-myeong and Mok Yo-sang on Dec. 13 during an interview but was blocked by prison guards. They eventually robbed him of the key evidence. He applied the ‘preservation of body examination evidence’ to put his damaged body as an evidence to the court but was also rejected due to the pressure of the regime.

His wife In Chae-keun continued the fight as well. In Chae-keun who heard the story of torture from Kim Geun-tae during a brief moment of miraculous encounter in the alley of the public prosecution’s office spread the story wide outside the prison. She, in particular, recorded the torture story in the middle of a famous singer’s song tape and sent it abroad through a Korea Times reporter Shim Ki-seob. The story headlined major newspapers such as New York Times, which cornered the Chun Doo-hwan’s regime to their embarrassment.

For this, Kim Geun-tae and In Chae-keun were awarded the ‘Robert Kennedy Human Rights Award (1987)’ and was recognized as the ‘World Conscientious Prisoner for Political Reasons (1988)’ by the Hamburg Freedom Foundation. After being released in mid 1988, he continued to work on democratization and peace movement as the Chairperson of the Executive Committee of the National Democratic Alliance of Korea (NDAK) and arrested again during 1990 to 1992.


» Adviser Kim Geun-tae (the first chairperson) and former representative of Democratic Party Jang Young-dal (the first vice chairperson) were hanging the plaque of YFD in the Catholic Sangji Building, Donam-dong, Seoul on Sep. 3, 1983.


» Adviser Kim Geun-tae who was released in Jul. 1998 from Gyeongbuk Gimcheon penitentiary and his wife In Chae-geun were shouting the “Release all Prisoners of Conscience” slogan in front of the penitentiary.


» Adviser Kim Geun-tae who had been wanted by the authority for the violation of the National Security Act was caught in Jeju, escorted to Seoul, and shoved into a car by force in Kimpo airport on May 13, 1990.


» On Apr. 12, 1996, adviser Kim Geun-tae who was elected as a representative to the 15th National Assembly of Dobong gab, Seoul was cheering with his supporters. <한겨레>자료사진, <한반도재단> 제공, 김근태 홈페이지 화면 갈무리

Kim Geun-tae who had been the prominent figure outside politics entered politics in 1995 as the vice president of Democratic Party. He later joined the National Congress for New Politics by Kim Dae-jung and elected as a representative of Dobong gab, Seoul to the 15th National Assembly in 1996. He was elected three times in a row until the 17th National Assembly and later served as the floor leader and leader of Uri Party as well as the Minister of Health and Welfare in President Roh Moo-hyun’s participatory government.

Even when he was in politics, he still maintained his posture of strong against the unjust but warm towards the weak. His colleagues called him “international gentleman” since he was always earnest and honest. In 1999, he was selected as the first recipient of ‘Baekbong Gentleman Award’ in an honor of Baekbong Na Yong-gyoon and ranked top in the ‘next generation leader’ survey by politics journalists.

But his principle-oriented political life was often at odds with practical politics where reconciliation takes the precedence. In 2002, he dropped out of the presidential candidacy race of Democratic Party in the middle due to lack of support. But, he made an announcement of conscience “I received 20M KRW from adviser Kwon No-gab at party convention and omitted 240M KRW from the report to Central Election Management Commission” to cut the vicious circle of illegal political fund from our politics. It was a symbolic moment of Kim Geun-tae as a fundamentalist.

In the controversy concerning the apartment construction cost in June 2004, he stood atainst then President Roh Moo-hyun. As President Roh objected the revelation of apartment construction cost that Uri party had pledged during the campaign for general election in Apr. that year for 17th National Assembly raising the reason “it’s against the logic of market”, he protested the President’s position directly making a personal announcement “let’s debate it on a perfect level ground”. In Nov. the same year, he, announcing that “I will do it even if it means splitting the sky into two”, pledged to protect the national pension fund as the Minister of Health and Welfare, objecting to the government’s move to utilize national pension fund in propping up the stock market.

But, the ‘anti-Rho Moo-hyun sentiment’ and the ‘new town fever’ that swept Seoul in the general election for 18th National Assembly did not spare the ‘God Father of Democracy Movement’. Kim Geun-tae lost to a new right Shin Jee-ho of Grand National Party. He, dreaming of comeback in next years general election, setup a progressive reform group in Democratic Party in last Mar., and became the co-representative of it, but caught up with the illness.

“People raised candlelights in 2008 and lined themselves for condolence in 2009. Now, they need to get on the hope bus. … Fortunately, we have two chances in 2012. Let’s participate in them with all our heart. Only those participating souls make power and the power made in that way will decide the future of our country.” These were his last words he left on his homepage ‘The road Kim Geun-tae trod” on Oct.18.

김종철 선임기자 phillkim@hani.co.kr

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