“ “Grandpa, please wake up for me!” Dad, I taught your grandson Jio to say this ten times and he can now say it really well. Dad, Gio said he wants to play janggu (traditional Korean drum) and dance with his grandpa, so you have to wake up.”
Baek Minjuwha’s plaintive yet hopeful prayer to her father Baek Nam-gi posted on Facebook three days after the farmer fell into a coma now resonates with a keen poignancy. Ten months after being struck unconscious by police water cannon on 14 November 2015 while protesting against the South Korean government’s agricultural policies, the 69-year-old veteran political activist died in hospital on Sunday afternoon (25 September). Baek Nam-gi never woke to set eyes again on his wife and three children, nor to play janggu with his three-year-old grandson.
A doting husband, father and grandfather, Baek Nam-gi had run his own farm, growing wheat, rice and beans, since 1981, after a career as a political activist that saw him jailed when South Korea was still under martial law. He raised a family on it, but with age catching up, he was to eventually pass the work onto his son. But he was never far from the activism of his youth and continued to work to improve the livelihoods of poor rural farmers. When diverse civil society groups organized a major anti-government demonstration in Seoul, Baek Nam-gi boarded one of the three buses departing from his rural Boseong County for Seoul to join some 20,000 farmers from around the country converging on the capital to protest against falling rice prices.
The demonstration turned out to be one of the largest since President Park Geun-hye was sworn in in 2013, with an estimated 130,000 demonstrators that included farmers, workers, high school students and ordinary citizens.
I am deeply ashamed that the government hasn't done a thing.Baek Doraji, Baek Nam-gi's daughter
Baek Nam-gi never made it back to his family or farm. During the largely peaceful protests, the South Korean police deployed 679 buses and 19 water cannon trucks to surround and disperse protesters, reflecting President Park’s renewed hardline about anti-governmental protests. Baek Nam-gi was hit in the head by the blast off a water cannon. Video footage of the incident shows him knocked to the ground by the direct hit to his head, and lying unresponsive. Police officers manning the cannon did not stop after the fell to the ground. Indeed, video footage shows police continuing to direct the water cannon at his limp body as other protesters try to drag him away. Over the course of the day, according to the government, over 200 tons of water mixed with chemical irritants and colored dye were pumped out at the demonstrators from 10 water cannons.
Over the past ten months as he lay in hospital, Baek Nam-gi’s family has been trying all possible avenues to seek accountability and redress. They filed a criminal case against seven officers accusing them of attempted murder, and brought a separate lawsuit against the state demanding compensation. The National Police Agency conducted an internal investigation but did not release findings. To date, the authorities have accepted no responsibility for the incident, and not a single police officer involved in the incident has faced any charges.
With little progress gained through official channels, family and friends started to press publicly for his case. For three months beginning in March, Baek Nam-gi’s eldest daughter Doraji held a daily one-person protest in front of the presidential Blue House in Seoul. She told me of her deep frustration, “I am deeply ashamed that the government hasn’t done a thing. It is incomprehensible that the government hasn’t taken any action on my father’s case.”
His youngest daughter Minjuhwa flew to Seoul from her home in the Netherlands in July to visit her father and attended a press conference at the National Assembly (South Korea’s national legislature) where she described how painful the experience has been for her family. “Our family is watching our father slowly dying,” she said. Reflecting widespread concern about the way the government has handled the case, a petition from Amnesty International Korea calling for a public hearing over the incident collected over 10,000 signatures. A public hearing was finally organized on September 12. Despite repeated requests, former National Police Agency Commissioner General Kang Sin-myeong has refused to offer any official apology over the farmer’s condition. Now that Baek Nam-gi has passed away, his family is calling for a special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate the incident.
Justice has been denied Baek Nam-gi while he was still alive, but his family is still waiting for answers. The South Korean authorities must undertake a thorough, prompt, impartial, independent and effective investigation and bring charges against any law enforcement officials found responsible for unnecessary or excessive use of force. Baek Nam-gi’s family deserves nothing less.