Heo Se-uk, a 54-year-old taxi driver who immolated himself two weeks ago in protest of the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA), died on April 15. The cause of his death was a septic infection caused by his burn injuries.
Heo had been undergoing treatment at a Seoul hospital for three-degree burns.
Heo had been a taxi driver for 16 years, and lived alone in Bongcheon-dong in Gwanak-gu, Seoul, after leaving Anseong, Gyeonggi Province. He was a member of a taxi drivers’ union, but while young, he had not been interested in the labor movement or the lives of the underprivileged. In an interview with the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy in February, Heo said, "I realized many things during the demolition of houses in the name of redevelopment in [low-income neighborhood] Bongcheon-dong in 1995. I was ashamed of myself, as I just watched as a female activist was beaten and dragged along the ground by members of the demolition team."
After that incident, his activist spirit was awakened. He joined more than 10 organizations, such as the progressive Democratic Labor Party (DLP), the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, and the Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea.
Na Gyeong-chae, an official of the DLP, said, "Most of the members of the DLP are in their 20s or 30s, but Heo was in his 50s. Even though he was working odd shifts, he was so enthusiastic and made regular appearances at the party office."
Na continued, "Some say that Heo was very self-assertive, but they were wrong. Moreover, he didn’t live recklessly. For us, he was a faithful taxi driver and a devoted activist."
Heo was said to have been earnestly interested in seeking justice for two middle-school girls who were run over by a U.S. military armored vehicle in June 2002. Kim Dong-un, owner of a bookstore in Heo’s neighborhood, said that at that time, the newsstand in front of his store was full of written materials and posters about that incident brought in by Heo. "He also continuously delivered printed materials regarding problems surrounding the U.S. bases in Yongsan Garrison and Pyeongtaek, as well as the plight of taxi drivers, to inform people about these issues," according to Kim.
Heo began to scrap newspaper articles in connection with the proposed Korea-U.S. FTA last year. While driving his cab, he would show the articles to his customers and ask their opinion. His colleagues began to call him "a missionary opposed to the FTA." He never missed a rally against the FTA, and waged a one-man protest in front of the presidential office on March 29 after hearing that the FTA would soon be finalized.
At 3 p.m. on April 1, Heo doused his body with flammable liquid and set it ablaze with a cigarette lighter near the Hyatt Hotel, central Seoul, where final FTA negotiations were being held.
Jeong Gi-yeol, a seven-year colleague, said, "He took part in all the rallies related to the FTA, but he never skipped work. When the government decided to extend the FTA talks after he waged his one-man protest, his face - which had always worn a smile - became serious." However, Heo used to say it was not right to use violence against others, added Jeong.
Heo’s family took his body to their hometown of Anseong, where a wake will be held for him in the mortuary of St. Joseph’s Hospital.
In the will that he penned before setting himself on fire, Heo wrote, "I haven’t abandoned myself."
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