Justice for Farmer Baek Nam-gi!
“A farmer has been knocked down by a direct shot from a riot police water cannon and is in the serious condition!” The shocking news came as I was running through the streets of central Seoul last November with a runny nose and tears streaming down my face as water infused with capsaicin was being fired from police cannons.
On Nov. 14, 2015, over 100,000 people gathered in central Seoul to protest government-published history textbooks, wrong direction of labor reform and solutions for youth unemployment, a drastic drop in rice prices, and extreme poverty. Farmers marching from Jongno to Gwanghwamun shouted “Fulfill President Park’s pledge to increase the price of rice to 210,000 won!” and “No to imports of table rice for human consumption!”
Facing walls of police buses set up as obstacles for the protesters, the farmers tried to moved them. That was the very moment the water cannon was directly fired at a farmer’s head. Even after he was knocked down on the concrete ground, the police continued firing on the lying body for 20 seconds.
The farmer was transferred to a hospital for an emergency operation, but he has yet to regain consciousness. Recently, his kidneys began to fail, and he is being treated with the highest levels of diuretics and antibiotics. If they do not work, nothing can be done to treat him. This was an obvious act of state violence, but nobody has been held accountable, and the media has turned their backs on him. About 290 days have passed since the incident.
The farmer’s name is Baek Nam-gi. He started his path in the student movement and moved on to the farmer’s movement. Son Young-jun, the general secretary of the Corea Catholic Farmers Movement, said Baek was “an example of someone who has shown the path of peace and life.” While Baek was the only person who went to university from his hometown, he fought against the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee and was imprisoned.
After he returned to his hometown of Boseong in South Jeolla Province, he kept farming and working on reviving Korean wheat. Baek’s two daughters, Baek Doraji and Minjuhwa, remember their father as “a person who was always surrounded with people and liked giving.”
Living without any greed, Baek collapsed brutally under state violence while he was marching in November to demand a rice price increase and against the import of table rice. Almost 300 days have passed, but nobody has been punished or apologized.
Rather the police have started a widespread investigation on people involved. Han Sang-gyun, president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, was arrested on charges of instigating violent protest on Nov. 14 and damaging police buses. About 400 protesters were also investigated.
Meanwhile, the leaders of police who were in charge of suppressing the protests went on a different path. Lee Jung-gu was promoted to chief of the Gangwon Police Agency, Jo Hyun-bae to chief of the South Gyeongsang Police Agency and Jeong Young-sun to chief of the Gyeonggi Police Agency. Recently, the chief of the National Police Agency, Gang Shin-myeong, held his retirement ceremony without any mention of Baek’s case.
To make matters worse, there has been no proper investigation on the violence committed against Baek.
“Our demand was very simple,” Son said. “Let’s investigate, and if there is a violation of the law, we are willing to get punished. Let’s do the same to those who are responsible for the state violence.
But there has been no response or progress, let alone apology.”
The National Committee for Baek Nam-gi and his family submitted a bill of indictment on Nov. 18, but the investigation started after seven months. Worse, we do not even know the results since the police have said they cannot be open to public.
The committee, his family and other organizations are demanding punishment for those responsible as well as a president’s apology and measures to prevent another similar incident. There was a 17-day, 16-night march from Boseong to Seoul. A number of people attended the sit-in site and made paper cranes in hopes of Baek’s recovery.
Countless press releases, demonstrations and daily mass have also been done. Baek Doraji did a one-person demonstration outside the Blue House, the president’s residence. Recently, Baek Minjuhwa attended the 32nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, held in Geneva, and presented to the international community on how the Korean government has been violently suppressing assemblies and demonstrations as well as on Baek’s condition.
It has been about 290 days of struggle. “The government says the Special Committee on the Sewol Tragedy should be dismantled even though there has not been a truth investigation into why 304 people died on the Sewol Ferry. It is absurd,” Son said.
“However, there are many cases like this. Last winter, I heard that workers from Kia Motors went up to the outdoor billboard to have their voice heard. What they got was not their demand met but a 500 million won damage claim from the company. Baek’s case is one of these.
That is why we cannot stop. If we stop, another case like Baek’s will happen. When we set the tent here last winter, college students had to sleep on the street without a tent to fight against sexual slaves during Japanese colonization. We have to win since those students and their sons and daughters should not go through what we are going through.”
So the struggle goes on. From Aug. 18 to 25, leaders of the Korean Woman Peasants Association went on a hunger strike and the 416 Network of Sewol and National Committee for Baek Nam-gi occupied the office of Korea’s main opposition Minjoo Party to demand a hearing on Baek’s case.
As a result, the ruling party and three opposition parties agreed to conduct a hearing in early September.
“We want to show that we can win.” said Baek Minjuhwa. To make that hope true, we need to fight together. We need to show that we are not going to stand still when we face state violence.