Activist in South Korea brutally pummeled by police water cannon dies
The farmer died as a result of injuries he sustained while opposing President Park Geun-hye.
SEOUL — An activist farmer who was expelled from school twice for protesting the rule of the military dictator Park Chung-hee of South Korea died Sunday as a result of injuries he sustained while opposing Park’s daughter, President Park Geun-hye.
The farmer, Baek Nam-gi, 68, was struck by a police water cannon in November during the largest antigovernment demonstration under Park Geun-hye.
He had remained in a coma at Seoul National University Hospital since, becoming a symbol of what government critics call rising police brutality and the erosion of the freedom of assembly under Park Geun-hye.
After the hospital announced that Baek had died of kidney failure Sunday afternoon, hundreds of students and other supporters gathered there. Thousands of police officers were deployed to the hospital over fears that his death might lead to anti-government protests.
At the protest in November, a water cannon hit Baek and continued to blast him as he lay on the ground and also blasted those who tried to drag him away. Doctors later reported that he had a cerebral hemorrhage that they suspected was caused by the water cannon. Prosecutors are still investigating the case.
In June, Maina Kiai, the special rapporteur at the United Nations on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, cited Baek’s case in criticizing what he called an excessive use of water cannons by the police and shrinking space for exercising the right to peaceful assembly under Park Geun-hye.
“In footage made available to the special rapporteur, the water cannon was used against largely peaceful crowds. In certain cases, lone individuals were targeted, a use difficult to justify,” he wrote. “The case of Mr. Baek Nam-gi is a tragic illustration of this.”
Baek was born in 1947 in Boseong in the rural southwest of South Korea. He was expelled from Chung-Ang University in Seoul in 1971 for leading a demonstration against Park Chung-hee’s deployment of troops on college campuses to intimidate student activists.
He was later allowed to reenroll but was soon on the run from the police for organizing protests against Park’s constitutional revision aimed at extending his dictatorship. While in hiding in a cathedral in Seoul, he became a Roman Catholic.
He was expelled again from school in 1975 but returned after Park’s 18-year rule came to an end with Park’s assassination by his intelligence chief in 1979.
Baek then led students in a march against Chun Doo-hwan, an Army major general who seized power in a coup after Park’s death. Chun’s martial-law troops arrested Baek during raids on school dormitories in 1980. He was expelled from school a third time and was later sentenced to two years in prison. He was freed in 1981.
Unlike former student activists who entered politics and became national figures, Baek devoted himself to advocating for the rights of impoverished rural farmers.