A devout court lady and string of protester suicides

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A devout court lady and string of protester suicides

May 4, 2001
When Seong Ok-yeom first entered the royal court in 1935 to wait on the last empress of the Joseon Dynasty, she was 15 years old. Until she died on this date in a small hospital in Seoul, Ms. Seong was so faithful to Queen Yun that, following court tradition, she lived alone in a nursing home without getting married.
Queen Yun, wife of Joseon’s last ruler King Sunjong, lived in the fetters of history, which naturally influenced Ms. Seong’s life. Starting with Japan’s colonization, the queen suffered during the Korean War (1950-1953) and subsequent military regimes, when nobody seemed to pay the royal family any respect.
Ms. Seong, who attended to the queen’s clothes, bathing and washroom, remembered her mistress as sweet and kind.
Though most of the court ladies fled the palace, Ms. Seong stayed on, one of the last three to protect the queen. During wartime, Ms. Seong accompanied the queen in hiding.
Lacking funds, the queen and Ms. Seong got by for a while during the war by seeking handouts. The queen and her three court maidens shared one small room.
When the war was over, the queen went back to Changdeok Palace in Seoul and died in 1966. After three years of mourning, Ms. Seong finally took off her court lady outfit.
As the last surviving court lady, Ms. Seong lived alone and wandered around, passing through different nursing homes. She left behind only 23,000 won ($20).
Her last wish was to have her funeral held in the temple where Queen Yun’s memorial tablet was placed. Ms. Seong believed that by doing so, she could also serve Queen Yun in her next life.

May 8, 1991
For Korea’s student activists, May 1991 was a pure nightmare. After decades of military regimes, starting with Park Chung Hee in the 1970s and on to Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo, the patience of the populace had reached its limit.
On April 26, the death of a student activist at the hands of riot police triggered a chain of tragedies. After watching Gang Gyeong-dae get beaten to death with iron pipes, college students nationwide began to follow Mr. Gang’s path by immolating themselves.
Three days after Mr. Gang’s death, Park Seung-hee, a young activist, attempted to set herself on fire, igniting another round of suicides. From May 1 to this date, 11 activists ― college students, laborers and others ― burned themselves to death, after which Koreans swarmed downtown to demonstrate by the hundreds of thousands.
Some colleges even instructed officials to carry fire extinguishers in case they came upon a suicide attempt. Doors to building rooftops on campuses were welded shut to prevent possible suicides.
The suicide of Kim Gi-seol, in particular, stirred up heated controversy. After setting himself on fire on the Sogang University campus on this date, Mr. Kim stepped off a rooftop, leaving behind a two-page suicide note.
In the wake of Mr. Kim’s death, Sogang University President Park Hong drew public attention by saying, “The truth about a hidden force that’s promoting the deaths of students must be disclosed.”
Activists were even more shocked to read a column that day by Kim Ji-ha in the Chosun Ilbo, a conservative newspaper. This respected poet, who’d been a freedom fighter himself, wrote, “Drop this dance of death right away.”
The column, which criticized the lack of respect for life, made the writer a traitor in the eyes of activists. A progressive group of writers swiftly expunged him from their membership rolls. Only recently did the group and the writer reconcile.
On top of this, rumors began to spread that student activist groups were advocating such suicides. Some even brought up the idea that an activist friend had ghost-written Mr. Kim’s suicide note. Others claimed that activists chose lots to determine who would commit suicide next.
While many rumors remain unproven, the suicide frenzy ended around this date. Those who committed suicide didn’t live to see their wish fulfilled ― the resignation of Roh Tae-woo the following year, who was the last holdout from the military regime.


by Chun Su-jin

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