Change comes from withinAs I watched the movie “1987,” I faced an image of myself at age 20.
In the movie, Yeon-hee, a friend of Lee Han-yeol, the Yonsei University student who was killed after a tear gas canister hit his head during a democracy protest, asked, “Will any of this change the world?” Her heartbreaking words instantly summoned memories. As I saw her disharmony between conscience and reality, my heart began to beat.
Yeon-hee’s question is a familiar one. During that era of turmoil, I struggled against society and heard the question as advice countless times from the older generation, who were so used to giving up. Now, I want to tell them, “Look. The world changed in the end.”
On Jan. 14, 1987, a police officer killed Park Jong-chul, a Seoul National University student, after shoving his head into a tub of water during an interrogation.
The officer was sent to Yeongdeungpo Prison, where he sang hymns all night long, feeling that his imprisonment was unfair. I wonder if he considered what God would think about the unfair death of a young university student.
I was reminded of an interrogation I experienced in the winter of 1978, when I was a sophomore in college. During one of the breaks, an officer gave me a cigarette and asked for advice on how his son could do better in school. In the eyes of the demon who just threatened me with death, I saw a father’s love.
With vain hope, I gave him some advice, even while my body was covered in blood. For a brief moment, I thought he was just another ordinary person who was supporting his family with an occupation that involved torturing other people’s bodies and souls.
It was a time of savagery in which I could learn the “banality of evil” as explained by Hannah Arendt through the experience of my own body. I felt lost because I had no idea how to end my discord with the world, which showed hostility toward me for “daring to dream about democracy.”
The truth of Park Jong-chul’s death, which served as a spark for the democracy movement in 1987, came from experts who broke the inside cartel of established power. They were Choi Hwan, a top prosecutor, and Hwang Juck-joon, a pathologist at the National Institute of Scientific Investigation.
Both were civil servants at the time, and both were professionals — one a jurist, one a doctor. Choi fought against government pressure to cremate Park’s body without an autopsy and demanded one be performed, a product of his conscience as a jurist. Hwang respected the ethical code of a doctor and revealed Park’s cause of death to the public.
If these two men had submitted to organizational powers, Park’s death would have been dismissed as a simple accident, as the authorities argued he had died of shock.
As a prosecutor, Choi was notorious for his arrests of student activists and democracy activists, but he spoke seriously and surprisingly about the necessity of an autopsy. “How can we let a body be cremated after just eight hours,” he asked, “when the parents haven’t even gotten a chance to see the face of their son, a Seoul National University student?”
Kang Min-chang, the head of public security at the time, said he would stop the autopsy, using force if necessary, but Choi threatened to arrest him for obstruction of justice if Kang refused to turn over the body. Kang eventually gave up. At the decisive moment, Choi was not a dog to the powerful but a follower of conscience.
The ball was then in Hwang’s court. Despite pressure to fudge the conclusion, Hwang made clear that Park had indeed suffocated to death. After the media reported on his diary, in which he recalled the police leadership’s attempts to cajole him, Hwang resigned from his post. “It was because of my conscience as a doctor and professional,” he said.
Other people worked hard to lay bare the truth. JoongAng Ilbo reporter Shin Sung-ho wrote the first story on Park’s death. Hwang Ho-taek and Yoon Sang-sam, journalists at Dong-A Ilbo, reported that the death by torture was concealed as an accidental death by shock.
Guards at the Yeongdeungpo Prison informed Lee Bu-young, secretary general of the United People’s Movement for Democracy and Unification who was imprisoned there, about the police’s attempts to cover up the incident and delivered a secret letter from Lee to another activist named Kim Jeong-nam.
Kim then relayed the message to the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice, and Father Kim Seung-hoon published an exposé.
The final blow was an entire nation’s rage and desire for democracy. The crowd demanding regime change reached critical mass.
We are living in the 1987 regime, living with the hard-won constitutional amendments that introduced direct elections.
As the movie “1987” shows, democracy was never free. The heroes and heroines were the students and people. Politics just picked up spoils from the victory accomplished by students’ sacrifices, struggles by a prosecutor and doctor, and the people who ousted a dictator through street demonstrations.
And politics was never the leading role in the protests that brought down President Park Geun-hye.
Three decades have passed since democratization, and the time has come for politics to play its role.
But politicians have failed to read the public’s sentiment because they have been intoxicated by the sweetness of privileges and are ignoring our time’s task, the construction of our future.
Unless they change, their incompetence will be the next target of the nation’s rage.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 1, Page 27
*The author is the chief editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.
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