Hong Se-hwa, voice for tolerance whose memoir of exile touched a chord, dies at 76

Posted on : 2024-04-19 18:09 KST Modified on : 2024-04-19 18:09 KST
Hong’s compassion and hands-on activism made him one of Korea’s most important and recognized progressive intellectuals
Hong Se-hwa. (Park Seung-hwa/The Hankyoreh)
Hong Se-hwa. (Park Seung-hwa/The Hankyoreh)

Hong Se-hwa, a writer, journalist, social activist and president of the Jean Valjean Bank who brought the spirit of tolerance to Korean society, passed away on Thursday at the age of 76. 

Hong was born in the Ilhwa neighborhood of Seoul’s Jongno District on Dec. 10, 1947. He attended Kyunggi Middle and High School and joined the department of metallurgical engineering at Seoul National University in 1966.

Hong rose to prominence in Korean society upon the publication of his autobiographical essay collection “I am a Taxi Driver in Paris,” which was published in 1995 while he was in exile in France. Readers loved the book, which masterfully interwove the struggles Hong faced as an exiled dissident and life in Paris. 

The theme of tolerance at the core of the essay collection is regarded as having been the impetus for a wave of intellectual reflection in a Korean society dominated by black-and-white logic.

Hong was forced into exile when the South Korean National Liberation Front incident erupted while he was in Paris, France. At the time, he was an employee at an overseas branch of Daebong Industrial, a trading company. When it was revealed that he was a member of the movement, he found himself unable to return to his home country. 

It was only in 1999, after living in exile for 20 years, that Hong was finally able to return to Korea, upon which he published his book of cultural criticism, “The Seine River Divides left and right, the Han River Divides North and South.” The book became a bestseller, once again solidifying his position as one of Korea’s most important writers. 

Hong Se-hwa stands before the grave of labor martyr Jeon Tae-il on Oct. 26, 2020.
Hong Se-hwa stands before the grave of labor martyr Jeon Tae-il on Oct. 26, 2020.

He moved back to Korea in 2002 and joined the Hankyoreh newspaper in February of that year. While serving on the paper’s planning committee, he created the opinion section “Let Me Tell You Why,” which ran guest essays from a diverse array of voices, all with unique experiences and perspectives. The section appears in the Hankyoreh’s pages to this day and serves as a forum for public opinion and the exchange of views. 

From late 2011 to 2012, Hong also served as the co-leader of the New Progressive Party and then as the publisher of Word and Bow magazine in 2013. Hong then took on his position as the president of the Jean Valjean Bank, a non-profit that helps cover fines for people who are imprisoned for not being able to pay the fines imposed on them. 

In his first year of university, in 1966, Hong heard that some families belonging to his clan were collectively massacred during the Korean War. According to the author, this was a major turning point in his life which shattered the foundation of his way of thinking.   

He began to question his path and dropped out of school. By the time he returned to Seoul National University in 1969, this time to study international affairs, he was a completely changed person.

After hearing of the death of labor activist Jeon Tae-il in 1970 and the execution of eight people involved in the People’s Revolutionary Party incident in 1975, Hong decided to devote himself to activism. This is how he came to join the South Korean National Liberation Front Preparation Committee, an underground organization that opposed the dictatorial rule of Park Chung-hee and his Yushin regime. 

Despite being diagnosed with cancer in February 2023, Hong continued with his activities without receiving chemotherapy. 

His surviving family members include his wife, Park Il-seon, and their children, Su-hyeon and Yong-bin.

The funeral will be organized by the Hankyoreh Media Group. The wake will be held at the Yonsei Severance Hospital Funeral Hall in Seodaemun District, Seoul. The farewell ceremony and hearse procession will be held at 8 am on Sunday, April 21. 

By Koh Kyoung-tae, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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