[Column] Remembering the life of Jeon Tae-il and his sacrifice 49 years ago

Posted on : 2019-11-13 16:20 KST Modified on : 2019-11-13 16:20 KST
Young labor activist sparked the S. Korean labor rights movement by setting himself on fire
A scene from Park Kwang-su’s film “A Single Spark,” based on the life of Jeon Tae-il. (Hankyoreh archives)
A scene from Park Kwang-su’s film “A Single Spark,” based on the life of Jeon Tae-il. (Hankyoreh archives)

November 13, 1970, is the day when Jeon Tae-il poured kerosene on his body and set himself aflame in front of Seoul’s Pyeonghwa Market -- and became a light to the world in the process. That light has not faded since. But it does seem that the significance of that eternal light has not been sufficiently understood. Then again, the world was utterly unaware of him while he was alive. A light came into the world to shine on in the darkness, and the world rejected him. So he assumed the fate of all those who are holy. Even now he is endlessly persecuted and ostracized by this world, and so he returns to the center of this world.

Who was he? Based solely on what we’ve seen, young men who did not graduate elementary school led lives of panhandling on the street. According to his recollections and journey, he was someone who “grew up moving from darkness to darkness.” His life was “harsh and sorrowful,” a life of “being rejected within rich environments.” At 16, he took his younger brother and fled from a home that knew nothing but poverty and desperation, only to return when he could not find any place to stay; then he ran away again with his youngest sister to escape his father’s abuse, but was unable to continue looking after her and had to leave her in the care of an orphanage. In the helpless and grim life of this young man, we see none of the dignity benefitting a light unto this world; it was simply a tragic and hungry existence. “Why must we always be hungry? Why must our hearts always be aching?” What does it say when the last words he spoke before succumbing to his burns were “I’m hungry”?

But that hunger was not merely a physical hunger. More than any physical hunger, his was the hunger and anguish of someone starving for justice. Whenever I think of the desperate anguish such a pure soul had to endure in this depraved world, I find myself asking the question, like Boethius when he was sent to his death after being falsely accused of treason: if there is a God, how can He allow an innocent young boy to undergo such gruesome suffering? But if there is no God, what is the source of the endless seeds of love that rooted so miraculously within the poor boy’s heart? I cannot know the mysteries of that unfathomable being. Whatever His reasons, God purified His own son for 17 years in a furnace of suffering and despair so that He could shine his undying light on the world. And when the time came, the Father in Heaven delivered his son on Earth to Pyeonghwa Market in Dongdaemun. It was autumn of the year he turned 17.

Sacrificed his own well being to help young girls

What he saw at Pyeonghwa Market was the suffering endured by girls even younger than him. At the time, over 90% of the market’s more than 20,000 employees were “young women with an average age of 18.” While the tailors were predominantly male, all of the sewing machine operators, assistants, and trainees were female. The trainees, who accounted for 40% of the 20,000 or so employees, were “children with an average age of 15.” These young girls were forced to “work 16-hour days for pay amounting to 90 to 100 won [less than US$1]” -- an amount that might just cover the cost of a bowl of noodles. Seeing this situation, he made a resolution: “In this horrible world where human beings are stripped of all that is human, I will never compromise with any iniquity. I will not remain silent before any injustice, but pay heed and work to rectify it.” At the same time, he bore no hate for anyone. “Love before arms”! This was his creed -- for “love is the greatest of all things tangible and intangible.”

Yet his resolution is also what sealed his fate. Would any other destiny besides persecution and ostracism have been allowed in this unjust world to someone who vowed never to compromise with injustice? After progressing quickly from trainee to sewing machine operator through his hard work, he made the decision to seek re-employment as a tailor’s assistant -- accepting a more than 50% pay cut so that he could protect the young girls by becoming a tailor, a position that held the most power among employees. Even then, he would spend his travel fare buying snacks for the hungry young girls, making the three- to four-hour trip from Cheonggye Stream to his home in the Mt. Dobong foothills on foot. Sometimes the curfew would be declared while he was on his way, and he would sleep at the Miari police station. It was a terrible love, a love one would not dare to emulate.

Changing and living up to his name

It is this same love that ennobled his own name. The original Chinese characters for Jeon Tae-il (全泰一) translate as “whole,” “great,” and “one” -- a person greatly united with the whole. But when this humble Christian young man realized that the only one who was one with the whole was God Himself, he changed the last character of his name from “one” to another character (壹) meaning “to unite.” The Father in Heaven is forever both the one and the whole in Himself. The son on Earth achieves oneness purely through love amid a reality of division.

Yet that love was also the reason he became increasingly marginalized in a world governed by hatred and violence. First, he was let go from his workplace because he was seen as being “too soft” on the young female workers. He found another job, only to be fired once again for the “crime” of enlightening fellow workers who were enduring their exploitation unquestioningly. With nowhere to go, he went to work as a laborer on a church construction site at the Samgaksan prayer retreat. He worked during the day and spent his nights reading up on the Labor Standards Act, ending each time with a prayer: “Today is Saturday, the second Saturday of August, and I have made a decision in my heart. I am fighting to become a drop of dew in these times when innocent living beings are withering away. May God grant me compassion and mercy.”

A few months after he came back from a spiritual retreat in the mountains, and all of his renewed efforts for the sake of innocent lives had been thwarted, he poured kerosene upon himself, and became an undying flame.

S. Korean labor rights movement has followed path Jeon laid out in 1970

By committing his entire being to answering the suffering of others, he opened a way toward the Heaven that should rightly be created on this earth. Indeed, South Korea’s contemporary history has followed the path that he showed to us. Yet as if to bear out the words of Jesus Christ, who said that prophets are not esteemed in their hometown, the city of Daegu has done its utmost to shun the light he shared. The reason has to do with the specter of the dictator Park Chung-hee. But it is Jeon Tae-il, not Park, who was the true Daegu native, with both his mother and father’s families in Daegu. Jeon was born in Daegu’s Namsan neighborhood in 1948, and the happiest time of his life was the one he spent at Cheongok Civic High School (middle-school level) in Daegu the year he turned 15. Yet his hometown turned its back on him after his death.

Kim Sang-bong, professor of philosophy at Chonnam National University
Kim Sang-bong, professor of philosophy at Chonnam National University

The wonders of history never cease. It was in Daegu that a corporation called “Friends of Jeon Tae-il” was formed this past spring, ushering in a campaign to purchase the home where he rented a room during his Cheongok Civic High School days and turn it into a memorial. His revival came in the very same Daegu that turned its back on him! I believe without a doubt that just as this light came to us from Daegu to shine the path ahead, so that light now resurrected in Daegu will make the world a warmer place. (Contributions can be sent to Friends of Jeon Tae-il: Daegu Bank 504-10-351220-9)

By Kim Sang-bong, professor of philosophy at Chonnam National University

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