The death of Baek Nam-gi: tragic local story connects to troubling global trend

By Gayoon Baek

On the 25th of September 2016, a 70-year old farmer died in South Korea of a brain haemorrhage after 317 days unconscious. Since then, people have held candlelight vigils and a daily mass in front of the hospital where he passed away. Those unfamiliar with his story might wonder why this old farmer’s death caused such a public response in South Korean society.

Almost a year ago, on the 14th of November 2015, Mr. Baek Nam-gi came to Seoul to join a protest demanding that farmers be paid a fair price for rice. On that day, around 130,000 people gathered on the streets to protest against government policies, perceived as a threat to democracy. While he was peacefully marching on the road together with other farmers and protesters, Mr. Baek was blocked by police bus barricades set up as a pre-emptive measure. Soon, police started to shoot water cannon containing capsaicin at protesters behind the barricades. The power of the cannon knocked people off their feet while the capsaicin in the water cannon was so strong that people could not open their eyes. 

Mr. Baek took a direct hit from the water cannon and fell to the ground. The high-pressure water cannon continued to hit him directly, even after he had been knocked over. Mr. Baek was taken to the emergency room of Seoul National University Hospital, where he remained unconscious for 317 days, until he passed away on 25th September.

Mr. Baek’s family has received no apology, no proper investigation and no justice. No one has taken responsibility for his death. Instead, the government has attempted to justify its actions by saying that Mr. Baek was an ‘illegal’ protester and the use of water cannons was inevitable to disperse ‘violent’ protesters. It is hard to accept this was a proportionate response, when you consider that 182 tons of water was blasted from water cannons mixed with 651 litres of capsaicin liquid, which was indiscriminately used on the protesters, 679 police buses were deployed and at least 100 people were injured that day. 

Worryingly, states using excessive force against protestors is not a phenomenon unique to South Korea, but part of a disturbing global trend. I am contributing to a new tool for tracking the rights to protest, organise and speak out around the world, called the CIVICUS Monitor. This new tool is documenting how attacks on protesters like the one in Seoul on that day are one of the most common civic space violations. According to analysis of more than 200 updates to the Monitor so far, the people who are most often attacked are those who speak out against their governments, monitor human rights abuses, or, as in this case, call on governments to meet their basic economic or social needs.

The CIVICUS Monitor shows that many governments are flouting their obligations under national and international law to uphold the right to protest. In this case, even though the South Korean Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, the government limits this right by subjectively applying articles in the Assembly and Demonstration Act. According to the Article 12 of the Act, assemblies may be banned if they are held on a main road of a major city or if heavy traffic is expected – but these conditions can be arbitrarily applied by the police. Also, there is evidence that police set up bus barricades and used water cannons as pre-emptive measures against protesters on the day.

There has been an international outcry following Farmer Baek’s tragic story. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, expressed his dismay over the death and “called for a full and independent investigation into the police’s use of water cannon.” Many international NGOs including CIVICUS also issued statements expressing their concerns on the situation and calling for a full and transparent investigation.

But still not enough attention is paid globally to shrinking space for civil society. One of the reasons that I am contributing to the CIVICUS Monitor is because it channels important local stories like these from organisations like mine to the international level. We believe there is a need for the up-to-date information and nuanced analysis of civic space violations that the Monitor aims to provide. (Still, there are language barriers for non-English speaking users which CIVICUS Monitor need to overcome in the future) 
Farmer Baek’s death is a definitive example of how the human rights situation is regressing in South Korea, which once had a reputation for impressive democratic and economic progress. Unfortunately, as recent reports show, civic space is rapidly shrinking in the country. It is very easy to bring one country’s democracy and human rights back to the dark past, while to bring it to the bright side takes a lot of effort including loss of many lives. Procedural democracy in South Korea was established on people’s bloodshed, but actual democracy is not yet come. 

In this disturbing situation, what we need is for people to participate in civic activities and to show solidarity with victims. It may sound too idealistic and optimistic, but I believe that this is the only answer to overcome these challenges and consolidate democracy and human rights. This is not only about professional civil society organizations, but also open-minded and reasonable individuals who can stand up against injustice. Individuals can hold candlelight vigils, write solidarity letters, let their friends know about the issues, hold campaigns on the street and conduct online campaigns. All these things can make a difference. 

And this solidarity should go beyond borders. Even though it is people at the national level who bring real change, support from outside is also important to add value to national movements. Together, we need to ensure that we put governments that violate civil society’s rights under the global spotlight – and hold them there.

Gayoon Baek is a coordinator with People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy