[THIS WEEK IN HISTORY]Tragedy marked Korea’s path to democracyApril 26, 1991
Kang Gyeong-dae was a 21-year-old economics major at Myongji University. Similar to other college students at that time, Mr. Kang thought street demonstrations were the best way to change the world, and also better than staying in the library.
President Roh Tae-woo, the successor of President Chun Doo Hwan, was in power. On this day, Mr. Kang was with his fellow student activists on the street lobbing Molotov cocktails toward riot police. But the riot police reacted too strongly, and the result was tragic.
Mr. Kang was severely injured when he was beaten by riot police with iron pipes. After he collapsed on the street, Mr. Kang was taken to a nearby hospital, but soon died. It was a time when riot police and student activists were enemies, and people on both sides suffered injuries and deaths.
Mr. Kang’s death ignited the anger of student activists around the country, and it led to a chain of suicides in his memory. Student activists mostly chose to immolate themselves. The government maintained the incident involving Mr. Kang was a planned event, and which only further angered activists.
A much-respected poet, Kim Ji-ha, wrote a column entitled “Stop the exorcism dance of death” in the conservative paper Chosun Ilbo. The column only led to bigger controversy, and the literary scene turned its back on Mr. Kim.
With the passage of time, things have changed, but many university student unions still pay tribute to Mr. Kang on this day.
April 28, 1960
Lee Kee-bung seemed to have the world in his hands. As the successor of then-President Syngman Rhee, Mr. Lee enjoyed the second highest position in the political hierarchy of South Korea ― until April 1960.
The seemingly almighty President Rhee, once a much-respected independence fighter against Japanese colonial rule, gradually decided that he wanted to rule the country for the rest of his life. As the president’s right-hand man, Mr. Lee could have never imagined that he and his family would commit group suicide, but that’s what happened on this date in a small room in what was then the presidential mansion.
It was after the April 19 uprising, where citizens and students rose up against President Rhee, asking for democracy. What ignited the revolution was a corrupt election earlier that year in March where Mr. Rhee and Mr. Lee had been instrumental in fabricating the results of the vote. Though the revolution did not lead to democracy, it was soon followed by the coup d'etat that put Park Chung Hee in power. But the public at least succeeded in ejecting Mr. Rhee and Mr. Lee from office. On April 26, Mr. Rhee said he’d resign and live in exile in Hawaii with Francesca Rhee, his Austrian-born wife whom he met while studying in the United States.
The resignation was followed by the suicide of Vice President Lee, in a small room next to the First Lady’s secretary’s office in the presidential residence.
Mr. Lee entered politics as Mr. Rhee’s secretary after studying in Iowa in the United States. He had quit Yonhi University, today’s Yonsei University. His wife, Park Maria, who was an Ewha University graduate, was very close to First Lady Rhee. After he was appointed as vice president, he had his own following called the Mansong Group after his pen name.
Upon the news of the mounting revolution, the Rhee administration made a choice that Korea would never forgive ― sending armed riot police into the crowds, leading to more than 6,000 casualties around the country. As the government’s massive force responded, Mr. Lee reportedly said, “Guns are made to shoot.”
Mr. Lee later decided to commit suicide by having his eldest son, Kang-seok, shoot the whole family with a .38-caliber handgun then himself. At the time, the oldest son was 24 years old. Mr. Lee was 64 years old and his wife was 54. Some alleged that the Lee family was murdered, but most experts agree it was a group suicide.
Mr. Lee’s house in Seodaemun, which was later torn down, was sarcastically referred to as a second presidential residence because of the power the vice president wielded. His residence was always crowded with people who wanted to move up in the political hierarchy. Today, the site is used as the official library for the April 19 uprising.
by Chun Su-jin