Restrospective: Kim Geun Tae, Godfather of Democracy in Korea

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He was jailed, he was tortured and he was an enemy of dictators. His involvement in the pro-democracy movement earned him a place on Korea's most wanted list for nearly 20 years. But Kim Geun-tae never gave up the fight. Eventually he was elected to office in the very democracy he helped create. He passed away late last month, but the greatness of the man will forever live on.

GWANGJU, South Korea -- For most of us it is easy to take for granted the freedoms we enjoy each day. South Korea, while not perfect, counts itself as being one of the freest nations in the world.

When a figure, such as political activist Kim Geun-tae passes on, with such an admirable legacy in his wake, it offers us a chance to consider these freedoms we take for granted and those brave souls who fought to secure them.

While most Koreans recognize Kim's face or even his name, interestingly, when shown a photo or asked for more information about him, most can’t quite place who he was or what he did. We’re all guilty of it, and that’s mostly due to the fact that history books and mainstream media are not written by those who sacrificed the most for our freedom. Rather, they are most often written by those who currently hold power.

While Kim's passing received media attention, it didn’t dominate prime time news. And we all are the lesser for that. For what an incredibly principled figure he was.

Kim Geun-tae at a pro-democracy rally.

“When I faced the shadow of death, I determined that I’d die standing, rather than begging for life on my knees,” he once wrote in his memoirs. Coming from Kim Geun-tae these words carry great weight and significance.

During the 1980's, while fighting the military regime that ruled Korea, Kim was imprisoned and tortured for his pro-democracy activism. And to be clear, he was traumatized for the rest of his life as a result of that torture, which involved the use of electricity and water with the aim of obtaining his submission.

In the years that would follow he suffered from severe post traumatic stress syndrome that likely contributed to his relatively early death at the age of 64.

Kim’s activism started while he attended Seoul National University, where he majored in economics. He primarily protested against the authoritarian rule of Park Chung-hee. Park took over Korea by military coup in 1961 and was a dictator until his assassination in 1979.

Park remains a controversial figure. Older Koreans credit his tenure with developing Korea’s prized industrial infrastructure, while Kim and others of the younger generation felt that his leadership style was too authoritarian for a nation then striving to be a democratic republic.

Kim was repeatedly arrested and finally spent several years in prison. Apparently unfazed after finishing his prison sentence, he got right back to his activism and started the Democratic Youth Coalition in 1983.

Then, in 1985, he was arrested again, this time on the charge of “profiting North Korea” --a common legal maneuver used against South Korean activists at that time.  It was during this period of Kim's detention that he was severely tortured for over three weeks by a military police official named Lee Guen-an.

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A version of this story was originally run in Gwangju News Magazine

Joined: 01/30/2012
Re: Restrospective: Kim Geun Tae, Godfather of Democracy in ...
The reason why a lot of people may not know what he did is probably because we don't hear too much about the heroes who fight for freedom but we do hear about those who fight for other ruling methods.


It is always amazing that the true freedom fighters are not taught in the history book without being left out and seldom discussed on television or the print media.

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