A hero’s bridge

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A hero’s bridge


The restoration of the Cheonggye stream caps Seoul’s long and torturous battle toward economic development, so it’s a little ironic that one of its 22 bridges has become a shrine to the most famous opponent of Korea’s sweatshop industry.
His name was Chun Tae-il, and in 1970 he sat down on the streetcorner across from which the bridge now rests, doused himself with gasoline, shouted, “We are not machines,” and burned himself to death.
The bridge, the 13th of Cheongye’s 22 new bridges, is paved with 800 copper plates commemorating his death. The plates, each of which cost 100,000 won ($95) were paid for by Seoul residents, each bearing the sponsor’s name and a short message.
Among the thousands of plates are three from President Roh Moo-hyun and former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam.
A 210-centimeter (6 foot, 9 inch) statue also rests at the center of the bridge.
The two streets on each side of the bridge will also be paved with 4,000 copper plates, in the direction of Imagination Bridge, the 12th bridge on the stream.
The city did not make the statue nor did it organize the collection of the copper plates, which ended last Thursday. It was instead done by the Chun Tae-il Memorial Society. The group’s publicist said she was glad the city had approved the group’s plan to adorn the bridge in the name of a man often regarded as the father of the Korean labor movement.
“We were rejected several times [by the city] when we suggested one of Cheonggye bridges should be used to honor Chun Tae-il,” the publicist said.
Cutting across the stream near the Pyeonghwa market in the Dongdaemun area, the bridge just happened to be located right next to the site where Mr. Chun performed his act of self-immolation. His death served as a catalyst for the Korean labor movement.
Chun had been a young worker at a Seoul garment factory in the Pyeonghwa market in the 1960s, when the city was rapidly developing and girls, but also some young men, worked for up to 20 hours a day in sweatshops.
Seeing his co-workers working in intolerable conditions with no time to sleep and even enduring sexual assaults, Mr. Chun tried to study labor laws to fight his employer. In response, the company fired him.
Labor-rights activists revere Mr. Chun, saying that the suicide captured the public’s attention.
At the same time, Lee Myung-bak, currently the Seoul mayor, was busy at his job as a top executive at Hyundai Construction, which was turning the city into a vast concrete block.
In an interview, Mr. Lee said he was aware of the mistakes he made back then and that he was now trying to make Seoul a greener city. The Cheonggye stream’s restoration was part of this plan.
The official name for the bridge, however, is “Beodeul,” meaning “willow tree” in Korean. The city said it would not go so far as allowing the group’s additional plea to call the bridge the “Chun Tae-il Bridge.”
“Records say that there were many willow trees around the area, so we named it Beodeul Bridge,” Cho Yong-sang, official from the city’s Cheonggye stream Festival Divison. “We have no plan to change the name.”

by Lee Min-a
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