20 years later, father still seeks truth in son’s death

Posted on : 2007-01-15 14:23 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Student activist died during torture; no charges have been filed
 Park Jong-cheol
Park Jong-cheol

"Will my tears ever stop? As long as I am living, I cannot abandon my child. I can’t do so and I will never do so. Are you asking me why is it?’’

On January 14, 1987, nearly 20 years ago to the day, Park Jong-chul, a 23-year-old Seoul National University student, died as a result of being tortured by the police. During his interrogation, he had been "waterboarded," his head held underwater for long periods of time. Park’s death inspired the nationwide demonstrations demanding the democratization of the nation; eight months later, South Korea once again agreed to hold democratic elections after decades of dictatorial rule. With the passage of 20 years, democracy has been firmly established on the Korean peninsula, but Park Jeong-gi, 78, Jong-chul’s father, is nowhere near ready to let the bitter memories surrounding the circumstances of his son’s death fade.

At the time of Jong-chul’s death, the investigators who tortured him, along with several high-ranking police officials suspected of trying to conceal the torture, were brought to justice, but to date, suspicions linger that other high ranking officials involved remain at large.

"The police visited his room at midnight on January 14, 1987, but nobody knows what happened for the seven hours and 40 minutes after that," the elder Park said, the hours and minutes leading up to his son’s death. "As long as what happened during that time isn’t clarified, we cannot declare an end to what happened."

Renewed interest in clearing up the case is sparked every year on the anniversary of Park Jong-chul’s death, but there has been no progress in getting to the bottom of the case. "This year, in particular, reporters at up to 18 media outlets visited our house for two weeks, but nobody is interested in the truth, or punishment of related persons. Can there be a statute of limitations for this case? All the responsible persons should be punished," the father said.

 at the spot
at the spot

Park Jeong-gi, who was a civil servant in Busan at the time of his son’s death, has since been transformed into an advocate for justice and the spirit of democracy. Due to his leading a 422-day demonstration in front of the National Assembly, a law granting restitution to former democracy activists who were victims of torture or violence was passed. His signature-collecting campaign across the nation resulted in the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which works to clarify the facts surrounding suspicious deaths during times of dictatorship in South Korea.

"As the dead cannot speak, we have to do so on their behalf," he said.

But he thinks that politics have not changed much overall. "Politicians are indifferent to things that bear no connection to their interests. I have suffered humiliations in the National Assembly. The level of politicians’ acceptance doesn’t satisfy the public," Park said. Current politicians that come from the student activist generation "can be voted out, as well, if they don’t listen to the voice of the people." he added.

During the interview on January 12, the father received a telephone call. After hanging up the phone, Park said, "That was someone that said he was holding my son’s photo during a major demonstration at that time, which took place in front of the university gates. He said he will participate in this year’s memorial service for Jong-Chul. We haven’t seen each other for 20 years," he said.

Looking at Jong-chul’s photo hanging on the wall, I asked the father if he still harbored some hatred. "I have wished over and over that the incident had not occurred, but if not for my son, I would have lived without knowing about democracy, like a fool. Because of the incident, I was able to feel a kind of happiness, for I was able to realize the true meaning of democracy. But I have heard that young people in South Korea these days are not much interested in such things," he replied.

Park said that he had requested to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to clarify the truth surrounding his son’s death. "Related persons should apologize to the public, as well as to my family. It is said that truth and justice come slowly. No matter how slowly, they should come."

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

Related stories

Most viewed articles