By K.J. Noh | February 17, 2021
Baek Gi Wan, 1933 - 2021
Slideshow of his life here.
Baek Gi Wan, the quiet, thoughtful, progressive conscience of South Korea, and its most impassioned, idealistic voice for reunification, passed away on February 15, 2020 from pneumonia at the age of 89. His last words were a message of support for a grieving mother fasting for the passing of Labor Rights Legislation and words of encouragement for the fired labor organizer, Kim Jin Suk. All intended money for funerary flowers or wreaths was requested to be spent on aiding the poor, the marginalized, the struggling. In commemoration, sixteen regional memorial sites will be held across the nation as well as in the capital, Seoul. If the old saw, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” has any meaning, it might well apply to Baek: his words, thoughts, and speeches have altered the course of South Korean history.
While other politicians took the limelight or the applause, Baek continued working selflessly and fluidly in and out of the shadows: both on center stage and from the sidelines, dedicating his whole life in struggle for worker’s rights, people’s rights against capital and empire, and for Korean reunification. He was a key pillar in the struggle against the U.S.-installed South Korean military dictatorships, which imprisoned and tortured him multiple times--almost to the point of death. He participated in the April 19, 1960 student protests that overthrew the genocidal dictatorship of Syngman Rhee, and the anti-Japan normalization protests in 1964, where he opposed the Park Chung Hee dictatorship’s collusion and “normalization” of relations with Japan which absolved Japan of all responsibility for crimes committed during colonization (this agreement, among other things, unilaterally threw South Korean slave laborers and so-called comfort women under the bus). His opposition to this agreement, pushed by a United States eager to consolidate South Korea as a capitalist neo-colony, resulted in his arrest and torture. In the seventies, he was arrested and tortured again for leading protests against the “Yushin Constitution,” the constitutional self-coup by the military dictatorship that gave the U.S.-propped dictator Park Chung Hee powers comparable to the Meiji Emperor. He was imprisoned and tortured again in 1979 for organizing a mass protest for democracy, and then imprisoned again in 1986 for protesting the sexual torture of a student activist. In 1987, he urged the two leading progressive politicians (Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung) to unify to defeat the military candidate running for president. (They did not, and a former general held the presidency for 5 more years). He also opposed South Korean participation in the Iraq war, and was an important elder and leader in the Candlelight Protests that brought down the regime of Park Geun Hye, the daughter of the dictator who had imprisoned him in 2017. Although he was the director of the Unification Research Institute in his later years, he never relinquished his role as a revolutionary in action: even as he became sick and frail, he implored his daughter not to put him into institutional care: “Please let me die fighting at labor sites.”
In 1987, with his health having deteriorated due to the aftereffects of torture, Baek Gi Wan was on the streets during the June Uprising.
An autodidact raised in abject poverty but with dignity--his mother told him “chew sand [to stave off hunger] if you have to, but never kneel because of your poverty”--he was also an accomplished artist, writer, and poet. He penned the words to the protest song that became the anthem of the people’s movement that took down the military dictatorship in 1989. The song itself grew out of the martyrdom of protestors at the U.S.-enabled-and-abetted massacre in the city of Gwangju in 1980. It later became a pan-Asian protest anthem. If a single poem can be considered to have helped bring down a dictatorship, Baek’s poem is a prime candidate:
In November 24, 1979, a large wedding ceremony was held indoors at the YMCA in Seoul. A huge, well-heeled crowd had gathered, but the bride was absent, and the groom seemed distracted. The ceremony went ahead anyway. The groom’s name was called, and at that moment, loud chanting broke out, and a proclamation was read, demanding an immediate end to military dictatorship, fundamental democratic reforms and elections, and opposition to the farcical election of the president by an unrepresentative, subservient, sycophantic electoral college.
Within minutes, the rally, announced as a wedding to throw off the authorities--the missing “bride’s” name was an anagram of “democratic government”--was dispersed by massive brute force, and the participants—including some of the most venerated activists in Korean History—were beaten, arrested, and spirited away to the Defense Security Command to be tortured. Baek Ki Wan [the organizer of the protest] was one of them.
A year later, still in jail, Baek had just been interrogated and tortured within inches of his life, and was writhing alone in a freezing prison cell. Staring up at a 15-watt light bulb in his cell, at the utter end of his rope, Baek told himself, “I can’t just die like this.” Conjuring up his last powers, he composed up a chant, a prayer, a shamanic incantation to give himself strength and to pass on to others should he die. “Moetbinari,” “Prayer for the Mountain—A Song for a Shamanic Dancer of the South” was the result:
Without leaving love, or name,
a passionate vow to continue our whole lives,
The fight was brave but the banner is torn,
and though time flows,
the winding rivers know,
Comrades, until the new day comes,
Do not falter!
Even the river reeds stand up,
Their voices shout out endlessly,
Rise up, rise up, a blood-coagulated cry:
I’ll go ahead, and you the living follow!
After the massacre in Gwangju, at the nadir of the Korean resistance movement, these words, whispered from Baek’s hospital bed into the ears of visitors and transcribed into a poem, were adapted and put to music. They became the basis of the “wedding song” for two martyrs of the Gwangju democracy movement; a message of strength from the dead or dying to continue fighting.
In South Korea, at every protest gathering, at every labor action, the March of the beloved is the anthem that is chanted with upraised fists at the beginning of each rally. It has become a pan-Asian protest song, accompanying mass movements in seven countries.
(See here for the full history of the origins of the song).
In 1990, during a peace march with violence incited by riot police.
After the defeat of the military dictatorships, Baek continued his struggle fighting on the side of the oppressed against capitalism, while articulating and teaching a philosophy of communalism, sharing, and love called “Nonamaegi.” He also became the most sustained, uncompromising, and passionate voice for Korean reunification and for radical change: “Unless you fundamentally change the rotten society that capitalism has created, you cannot solve the problem. As workers, you have to understand that all labor struggles are a struggle to fundamentally change society.”
1992, the Revolutionary People's candidate for the 14th Presidential Election.
His passion, clarity, integrity, strength, stamina, and depth of commitment were inspirational and legendary to generations. His words, hummed, shouted, incanted are the soundtrack of revolution in South Korea. His last message, foreshadowed in his poems, urged the continuation of the struggle against capital, injustice, and colonizing powers.
No passing could undo his example or message:
I’ll go ahead, and you the living following!
With the neoliberal Biden administration primed to re-escalate tensions against North Korea to thwart reunification, his message to fight against colonization and capital becomes even more poignant and important.
K.J. Noh is a scholar, journalist, and peace activist focused on the geopolitics of the Asia Pacific. He writes for Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Monthly Review Online, Black Agenda Report, and is the Asia-Pacific correspondent for KPFA Flashpoints. He is a member of peacepivot.org, a grassroots effort to de-escalate conflict in the Pacific.