Yonsei student’s ultimate sacrifice gets due tributeThe photo of Lee Han-yeol is vivid and bloody: the 21 year old sophomore at Yonsei University is embraced by a friend as blood trickles down his nose and mouth. His friend looks on.
On June 9, 1987, Lee was hit in the head by a tear gas grenade during a mass student protest for democracy in Korea. Eighteen years have passed since Lee fell into his friend’s arms crying, “End the dictatorship!” The photo made Lee a martyr and he became a famed symbol of what eventually became known as the June Resistance of 1987.
He died from his injuries on July 5, 1987. Earlier this month, a four story memorial honoring Lee was unveiled in Mapo district near Yonsei University, built with 386 million won ($378,000) of public donations.
Dried blood is still visible on the folded t-shirt and pants Lee wore on the day he was struck by the tear gas grenade. One of his blood stained sneakers with its rubber ends now mostly crumbled away was placed next to his clothing in a glass box. The items were part of a display at the memorial, along with black and white photos taken during the demonstrations along one side of the wall.
Lee wasn’t one of the famous leaders of the democracy movement, and it was his relative anonymity. one of the tens of thousands of students and activists who joined the fight for democracy that made him a legendary hero of the movement.
The famous photo brought more protesters into the streets. As a result, the then-ruling government of Chun Doo Hwan announced it would restore democracy and introduce a direct presidential election system along with freedom of the press.
His mother, Bae Eun-sim, 65, said she did not even know her son, whom she described as a “quiet, disciplined child,” was involved in the tumultuous protests she saw on television.
“My daughter told me a tear gas odor permeated his room when he came back from school,” Ms. Bae said. “She was worried that he was involved in dangerous activities.”
Despite her modest wishes, however, broadcasters and journalists crowded the opening day of the memorial.
“His mother did not want so much media attention over the memorial,” said Lee Eun-yeong, a curator at the Lee Han-yeol Memorial. “She said she felt sorry that her son was honored with a memorial before others [who also died during demonstrations for democracy] have one.”
For Lee’s mother, the meaning of his death was much less historical. To her, it was more about losing her young innocent son without exactly knowing why.
“Time may have passed, but every June brings back the same painful memories,” said Ms. Bae, 65, in a recent interview with the JoongAng Daily.
Lee was her fourth child, but the first son in the family. She said she could not stop her son from going to anti-government protests because it was the “general trend” at the time for college students to participate.
“But I told him to stay in the back, because he was not as big or strong as others,” she said. “He told me not to worry and promised me he was just doing something everyone else was doing.”
“But in the photo I saw in the paper later, he was standing in the very front,” she said, her voice quavering.
Ms. Bae remembered she sent her son back to Seoul after spending the Veteran’s Day holiday together at their Gwangju home. The next afternoon, she received a telephone call that her son was in critical condition at Severance Hospital.
Not believing the story, she went to Seoul. She collapsed on the floor after seeing her motionless son in bed. Twenty seven days later, he stopped breathing.
“I did not know what democracy meant then,” she said. “But I was just so upset that I decided to hate the government.”
Despite the continuous protests to eject government leaders, former president Roh Tae woo (a crony of Chun Doo Hwan) was elected as the new president again. Some said Mr. Roh easily became president because the opposition parties the public supported bickered. Others said the ruling government pulled off another rigged election for Mr. Roh.
Whatever the true reason is, the new president was not welcomed by activists even after he declared the restoration of democracy on June 29, 1987.
Meanwhile, Ms. Bae started following groups of students and activists across the nation, calling the Korean government a puppet of the Americans and demanding apologies for the deaths of protesters.
She became a key member of Yugahyeop, a civic group formed of the families of dead protesters. Another key member in the group was Park Jeong-gi, father of Park Jong-cheol, a Seoul National University student who was tortured to death by the police in the same year Lee died.
Ms. Bae said she spent no more than 10 days a month at her home in Gwangju. Her husband also died several years later, consumed by grief over their son’s death.
“I am on the road most of the time following civic groups around,” she said. The day she was interviewed, she was participating in a walk-a-thon a Seoul newspaper was sponsoring to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the June Resistance.
“I think this is the kind of life that Han-yeol might have wanted me to live as he could not live,” she said. “I try to assure myself that Han-yeol was not killed but died achieving something.”
When asked her opinion of the Korean government now, she answered that times and people have changed.
Many current lawmakers are “386ers,” referring to the generation of youths in their late thirties and early forties who participated in the pro-democracy movement.
“If my son was alive, he would be 38 now, like some of his fellow graduates who are in the National Assembly,” she said.
Representative Woo Sang-ho of the governing Uri Party headed Yonsei’s student council that organized the student demonstration on June 9, 1987. A decade later, he helped collect funds to build the Lee Han-yeol Memorial.
“I hope lawmakers always remember that they were once out on the streets crying passionately to change something,” Ms. Bae said. “I only hope they will not forget their younger days.”
Many activists view that his epochal death made the June Resistance possible.
“On July 9, more than a million people marched from Yonsei University to Seoul’s City Hall grieving his death,” wrote Park Se-gil, former activist and the author of “Rewriting Korea’s Modern History.” “Some say democracy has been given to us as a diplomatic outcome between the United States and the military-backed Korean government, but it had been the people’s fight to achieve democracy.”
“Han-yeol’s funeral was like a symbol to end one phase of a riot but a start of another toward a democratized nation,” he said.
Yun Han-wool, current president of the student council at Yonsei University, said he respects Lee as an alumni and as a prominent figure in the brutal days of Korea’s military-backed government.
The student government of Yonsei during Lee’s time and current student groups have significantly changed. The latter puts less weight on student activism and political protests, focusing instead on student welfare issues on campus, a general trend among student councils at Korean universities.
“But if I went to school during Lee Han-yeol’s days,” he said. “I would have been out in the streets too, fighting for what was right.”
by Lee Min-a