Yoon Han Bong, a leader in the Korean democratization movement

This page was last edited on 15 July 2019, at 10:59.

1 A man of integrity

While attending Cheonnam University, Yoon was a model student. He read his textbooks three times over, underlining passages with a differently colored pen each time. When other people in his boarding house approached him to talk about politics, Yoon told them, “Don’t waste your time chattering! Don’t you have studying to do?”

So what drove this quiet, studious man to become an activist? Most activists in the student movement had been inspired by older friends. But this wasn’t the case with Yoon. Moreover, unlike most of his comrades, he hadn’t read any of the critical texts, such as “Listen Yankees” by C.W. Mills, which praised the Cuban Revolution, or “What is History” by E. H. Carr. And yet, when Kim Jeong-gil asked Yoon if he was willing to take on a leadership position in the student movement in 1971, Yoon did not hesitate. “Do you want to be just a model citizen forever?” Kim Jeong-gil asked. “No,” Yoon replied. “Now I fight.”

One thing about Yoon’s character set him apart from others: his integrity. When Yoon was in middle school, he returned to his hometown during break. His hometown friend – perhaps speaking out of jealousy or spite – said, “It’s no use studying. It’s enough just to learn Chinese characters.” Chinese characters had been used in Asia for about two thousand years, and they dominated education and literature. Yoon’s hometown friend was arguing in favor of a more traditional education.

But Yoon argued against him. “No, those days are over. Chinese is obsolete.” After the end of Japan’s rule of Korea, Korea finally started using Korean characters in textbooks. It was this modernized education that Yoon championed.

As the argument got heated, Yoon declared, “If I ever use Chinese characters, I’ll be a son of a bitch.” It was just an outburst, spoken in a moment of passion. But Yoon never reneged on his promise – he never wrote in Chinese characters again. This was a very inconvenient decision, at a time when Chinese was still widely used in everyday life. He was once even severely beaten by the police because he refused to write his name in Chinese characters at the police station. He was meticulous – almost obsessive – when it came to keeping promises.

2 Three resolutions

Even before Kim Jeong-gil made his proposition to Yoon, Yoon had made resolutions to become an activist on three separate occasions.

The first time was the night that the Yushin Constitution{{주|The Yushin Constitution was created to legalize and legitimize what was a de facto tyranny by Park. }was declared on the radio. Groups of students gathered in twos and threes to whisper together. Was it true? North Korea was planning to invade? What exactly was meant by this “all-out national security” business? Dissolution of the National Assembly? Amendments to the constitution?

“In the face of such blatant declaration of tyranny, what am I supposed to do?” Yoon asked himself. He tore his textbooks to pieces and threw them away. Enraged, he proclaimed, “As of today, I’m done sitting behind a desk. I’m going to fight against this dictator who treats the people like dirt.”

Yoon immediately informed his father of his decision. It was an unusual thing to do – most activists hid their activities from their parents because they knew their parents would not approve. But Yoon’s father was as extraordinary as Yoon himself. He gave Yoon his blessing. Later, when Yoon was arrested, his father grew sick. His health worsened, and he passed away while Yoon was in jail.

Yoon was sentenced to fifteen years. In prison, he received a collection of poems by Dasan Jeong Yak-Yong, a poet who lived nearly two hundred years ago. In Dasan’s poetry, Yoon heard the people’s cries, protesting against corrupt officials. As he read, Yoon repented for his past idleness – his dream had been to buy the fields of Chilyang and make a garden where he could grow vegetables and flowers. In the lake, he would float a small raft and spend his time singing about the moon. But reading Dasan’s poetry made him reevaluate his goals; even while Dasan was exiled, all he thought about was the suffering of commoners. Yoon resolved to lead that kind of life.

The third occasion for Yoon’s resolution came abruptly. Though the death penalty was legal, it was uncommon in Korea to actually execute it. But Park jailed student activists[주 1] and he put eight of them to death within a day. Kim Sang-Jin, a student at Seoul University, protested this atrocity by committing suicide. When Yoon heard the news, he declared on the steps at the Cheonnam University library, “I’ll sacrifice my life at the altar of history.”

3 Comradery

Yoon cared deeply for his comrades. After Kim Jeong-gil was tortured[주 2] by the police, he returned home, unable to move. A folk remedy to treat Kim’s illness was to consume black goat soup. Because Yoon didn’t have the money to buy a black goat, he started selling books. Yoon’s childhood had been comfortable; his parents had been quite wealthy, by the standards of the rural village they lived in. But Yoon didn’t mind peddling books for money if it was to help his friend.

Later, when Yoon inherited land from his father, he sold it. With the money, he began a small business with his comrades, but they soon went bankrupt. Jeong Sang-yong was one of the comrades who ran the business with Yoon. Later, he admitted that when he heard bullets flying in the last days of the Gwangju Uprising, it wasn’t his wife he thought of, it was Yoon.

Yoon once asked an elder what comradery was.

The elder explained:

“When we’re young, we live a communal life, sharing our possessions. But once people get married and have children, they get busy feeding their wives and babies. They start to prioritize possession – they want a clear boundary between what’s mine and what’s yours. Then, one comrade ends up rich while another ends up poor. That’s not real comradery. Real comradery comes from mutual aid between those who have and those who have nothing."

At this, Yoon resolved to share all his possessions with his colleagues and keep his personal belongings to an absolute minimum. Yoon stuck to this principle until the day he died.

Around the summer of 1979, I, the writer, got to see Yoon’s personal belongings myself. Yoon must have sensed that he was being followed, hunted down. He wanted to move out of his room to throw his followers off his trail. He asked me to come with him. His room was tiny – no more than 3.3 square meters. There was no closet. I didn’t even see basic kitchen items like knives or chopping boards. In the middle of the room, there was a large luggage bag. That’s where all of Yoon’s possessions were. Next to the bag was a sheet of paper, where Yoon had written a neat list of everything he owned: pants, socks, razors, and so on. I watched as he changed his clothes. He was bony, and his ribs stuck out.

The poet Kim Nam-ju describes Yoon in a poem as the model of an activist:

The Fighter - 1

In everyday life
He was a quiet man.
He didn’t shine a light on his own name,
didn’t show off his own face.
Above all he knows that strictness with time
is the first step of self discipline;
He doesn’t waste a minute, a second.
He cares for his comrades as though they are his own body.
He reflects on his own life unflinchingly
but never abuses criticism as a weapon against comrades.
He sacrifices his personal life
for the sake of the common good
in all things, big or small.


4 The Hampyung Farmers’ Struggle

In April, 1978, the Catholic Farmers Association held a meeting in a cathedral in Gwangju. Eight hundred participants from all over the nation gathered demanding compensation for a ruined sweet potato harvest in Hampyung.

In Hampyung, there was a lot of red clay well-suited for growing sweet potatoes. The agricultural cooperative of Hampyung encouraged farmers to grow sweet potatoes, and promised they would buy all the sweet potatoes that were harvested. About one thousand families planted sweet potatoes, but the agricultural cooperative did not hold up its end of the bargain. The farmers piled up the sweet potatoes in the street, but no one bought them. They rotted away.

The farmers began their protest for compensation in 1976, but after years of no results, most of the farmers gave up. By 1978, there were about a hundred farmers who continued to fight. The meeting in Gwangju gathered many participants, but unfortunately, it was right in the middle of planting season. Most of the farmers went home after the first meeting, and only seventy remained. They began fasting as a part of their protest.

Because of the military dictatorship, protests of any kind were repressed. It was incredible that a group of farmers began a hunger strike in that kind of political environment. But because the hunger strike was rushed, the farmers were unprepared. Yoon, who had been checking in on the protests, was shocked and concerned that the farmers were starving themselves. He said, “The farmers just started their protest without any kind of planning. There were no beds, nowhere to wash themselves. They didn’t even have salt.”

Yoon immediately began to look for solutions. It wasn’t easy to collect bedding for seventy people. Yoon collected blankets, towels, toothpaste, and toothbrushes at the house of a famous resistance poet, Moon Byeong-ran. He sneaked in toiletries and bedding into the chapel through an entrance that remained hidden from the police.

The leaders of the protest were determined to continue their hunger strike indefinitely – even if it meant death. But one of the farmers, Jo Kae-seon, disagreed. He said compensation for rotten crops was not worth anyone’s life. Yoon agreed with him. He secretly supplied the fasting farmers with a powder made of mixed grains.

Yoon knew there was no point in a hunger strike if it wasn’t publicized, so he mobilized the activists of Gwangju. They protested in front of the cathedral every day to make the hunger strike more visible. On the fourth day of fasting, a thousand students assembled at the YWCA[주 3] and marched to the cathedral, shouting “Out the tyrant!” This was quite a feat, considering that these were days when even on-campus student demonstrations were dissolved within ten minutes by police force.

At first, the farmers found Yoon’s instructions to be quite tedious, because he sent them excruciatingly detailed plans every day, written on tiny scraps of paper. Hwang Yeon-ja was in charge of smuggling in these messages. She pretended to be a kindergarten teacher at the church, and went inside every morning holding the hands of local children.

But soon the farmers were astonished by how accurate Yoon’s plans were. He would claim that a certain number of people were going to rally at the cathedral – and at night, exactly that many protestors would gather. Every plan was executed perfectly.

Thanks to the publicity the student protests garnered, the hunger strikes became well-known. On the fifth day of the hunger strike, a negotiation meeting was held. The leader of the strike, Seo Kyung-won, upbraided the representatives of the agricultural cooperative. The government, pressured by the hunger fast, took the side of the farmers and ordered the cooperative to pay 3 million won as compensation.

Even after the hunger strike was over, Yoon kept busy. He had to return the donated bedding and clean the church. His hard work and dedication earned him the respect and trust of the farmers.

5 A hot meal

Now that he was friends with the farmers, Yoon took on new tasks. In November, 1978, the farmers held a meeting to protest the failed grain policies implemented by the government. The Catholic Farmers' Association hosted the meeting, gathering eight hundred farmers. The meeting went on for three days.

At first, the Farmers' Association asked Yoon to prepare cheap lodgings for the farmers. Yoon looked into all of the cheap inns in Gwangju and assigned the farmers to each one. When Yoon asked if there was anything more he could do, the Farmer’s Association asked if he knew of a place from which they could order boxed lunches. They needed eight meals for eight hundred members.

But Yoon did not want to give cold boxed lunches to the farmers. “It’s cold now. The farmers should have something hot and fresh to eat. I’ll feed them a home-cooked meal.”

It was an absurd proposition. “Do you even know how to cook rice?” the organizers asked. “Think of all the pots you’ll need. And the bowls, spoons, chopsticks… where will you get them from? The most important thing is to deliver the meals on time. If we fail to arrange the meals on schedule, we cannot proceed with our program. Do you really want to be responsible for all this?"

All the farmers objected to Yoon’s plan, but Yoon was adamant. He promised that he could deliver the rice and stew right on time, not a minute later. The farmers relented. They had seen what a miracle-worker Yoon had been at the last protest. “If anyone can do it, it’s him,” they said.

Yoon had work to do. He had to find the equipment to cook for eight hundred people, so he wrote a list of everything he needed: rice bowls, stew bowls, spoons, chopsticks, and ladles. Then he transported all the ingredients to the site by wagon. Who would tend the fire? Who would make the rice? Who would distribute the food? Who would wash dishes? Yoon asked the women to help him. Yoon ended up washing dishes all day. He didn’t even have time to dry his hands.

Winter came earlier than expected. Temperatures dropped below freezing, and it even began to snow. To make matters worse, there was no place large enough to seat everyone at one time. Every meal took two hours, because the farmers had to eat in shifts, but Yoon was never late to deliver his meals. He fulfilled his promise.

Even after all the meals had been served, Yoon didn’t rest. He had to return the washed kitchen utensils by handcart. The policemen who watched him struggling with the handcart clucked their tongues. “He’s a stubborn one, I’ll give you that,” they said.

6 Women's Association of Gwangju

Ever since Yoon became involved in the student movement, he had to go from one friend’s house to another. He often stayed at his sister’s house. Kyung-ja recollects:

My brother had no permanent address, per se. He went from one friend’s house to another. When I married and moved to Gwangju, my brother stayed with me often. He was homeless, really, but even so he was trying to take care of the prisoners. One day he said to me, “Let’s set up a women’s organization that takes care of prisoners. Remember all those women who helped out when I was serving meals to the farmers?” And that’s how the Women’s Association of Gwangju, or Songbaekhwe, began.”

The novelist Hong Hee-dam became the leader of the Woman’s Association. She was the wife of a novelist, Hwang Seok-young. The two had moved to an area near Gwangju in 1977. This was around the time that Hwang was becoming famous for his novel, “Jang Kil-San.” Hong met Yoon for the first time when he came by to talk to her husband.

It was an especially cold day. My husband brought a man to our house. I’d been told he had just gotten out of jail, and I could see that he wasn’t an ordinary man. He was skinny, and his shoulders sloped forward. He looked ready to counter any attack. He was very straightforward. He could easily hurt others with his direct way of talking. But his fingers were unexpectedly thin. Hands reveal character. And his hands said he was delicate, easily injured, and full of sorrow.

The Songbaekhwe[주 4] formed in December, 1978. Most female activists at the time were attached to religious groups, but the Women’s Association of Gwangju had no such affiliation. It was funded through membership fees. They studied history and social science on a weekly basis.

Yoon suggested that the Songbaekhwe knit socks for the prisoners. He was as persuasive as usual. He talked about the hardships of life in jail, especially during the winter. Then he told them about his personal experience in vivid detail – Kyung-ja had mailed him socks she had knitted, and they were immensely helpful for getting through the bitter cold of winter. He even showed them the very socks Kyung-ja had sent him. He explained the need for knitting them, since thick knit socks weren’t on the market. It didn’t take long for everyone to get on board.

The women knitted 147 pairs of woolen socks. Since there were 40 prisoners, each prisoner could have three pairs. The women knew that Yoon would never have asked for their help toward selfish ends. He was free from any private interest or political ambition. These women were the women who would later feed the protestors in the Provincial Hall during the Gwangju Uprising.

7 Idealists and pragmatists

The poet, Kim Nam-joo, was a well-educated poet. His ideals were ahead of his time and he was a talented writer. He was well-read. His mind echoed with the chants of famous revolutionaries, and he liked to quote them. He once said to his girlfriend, “I go to dig the tyrant’s grave.”

Kim Nam-joo, like many activists in Gwangju, joined an organization called the “Liberation Preparation Committee of South Korea,” an illegal organization comprised of those who strove to emancipate Korea from dictatorship. Kim Nam-joo’s aspirations were noble and lofty – he was an idealist. The organization came up with absurd, symbolic performances. One time, they broke into a wealthy person’s house to steal a golden calf.

Yoon was, in many ways, the opposite kind of activist. From the start, he believed in pragmatic goals. The following is Kim Hee-taek’s recollection:

One day, I found myself being persuaded by Yoon’s argument. He said that the key was to have the student movement and the intellectuals cooperate. “We need to start grassroots organizations locally, starting with large cities.” I started to see his point, and eventually, I conceded that he was right. In retrospect, meeting Yoon was really a turning point in my life.

Yoon felt that a locally organized youth movement was crucial. His opinion was unusual – most activists put more emphasis on the farmer’s movement and the labor movement. But Yoon was assessing the situation with a realistic eye. He understood that the most practical solution was the strengthening of the youth movement.

8 The protest

On June 27th, 1978, two months after the Hampyung farmer’s protest, there was another protest in Gwangju at Cheonnam University. The professors at the university had declared their opposition to the “Charter of National Education,” the education principles implemented by the government. The professors suggested that the Charter of National Education was a legacy inherited from Japanese colonialism.

In those days, students were required to salute the Korean flag and chant, “We will give our bodies and minds for the infinite glory of the nation.” They also had to recite the Charter of National Education, which began with “We were born on this homeland to take on the mission of national restoration." The charter demanded that the students be loyal to the nation and refrain from criticizing the government.

Yoon knew ahead of time that the professors were planning a public protest. He also felt certain that, without a student protest to back it up, the effort would be in vain. The teachers would be arrested and jailed, and that would be the end. A student protest, on the other hand, would publicize the event. A few days before the teachers planned to make their declaration, Yoon met with Professor Song Gi-sook.

“How are your … plans going, professor?” he asked.

The whole thing was supposed to be top-secret. Song’s face hardened.

“My plans? What are you talking about? I don’t have any plans.” Song turned away and began to walk.

“Either way,” Yoon called after him, “I hope it’s going well.”

Song stopped. He invited Yoon to his house for some tea.

“What have you heard?” he demanded.

Yoon grinned. “What haven’t I heard? Aren’t there about ten professors who have signed your petition? I know who they are too…” Yoon began naming professors.

Song stopped him. “Yoon, you cannot breathe a word of this to anyone.”

“Don’t worry. You do your part, and we’ll do ours. We’ve got some plans too.”

On June 27, Professor Song, along with 11 brave professors at Cheonnam University, publically denounced the military dictatorship and its principles for education. Everyone was immediately arrested.

As soon as the professors were taken away, Yoon began the student protest. The students were indignant that the teachers whom they respected were under arrest. On June 29, 1978, leaflets protesting the military dictatorship were distributed on campus, and more than 1,000 students gathered to shout, “Out with the tyrant!” The police immediately came to campus, but the protest continued even while the police beat and dragged away the students.

The next day, about a thousand students poured into the streets in protest. The police arrested as many students as they could get their hands on, and many protestors were injured in the process. Still, the protest continued until July 3rd. About five hundred students were arrested, and fourteen had to serve jail sentences. Professor Song, of course, had to serve time in jail as well. All the professors who were involved were fired. This event was the spark that led to the May 18th Gwangju Uprising.

9 The Gwangju Uprising

What exactly was Yoon’s contribution in the Gwangju Uprising? This is a difficult question to tackle. Yoon escaped Gwangju on May 18. He stayed in hiding for the entirety of the Gwangju Uprising. But what else could he have done? As soon as the incident broke out, the police rounded up and arrested all the leaders and instigators. In times of action, it is inevitable that the leaders go into hiding. The course of history ordered Yoon Han-bong off stage, and put Yoon Sang-won in the spotlight.

"There would have been no uprising without the citizens, and there would have been no uprising without the resistance leaders.”

On May 18, the Gwangju Uprising started from Cheonnam University. Cheonnam University was the only university that carried out its pledge to gather on campus and fight against the police. But if the citizens of Gwangju had not joined in, the students would not have endured the violence of the soldiers.

One of the leaders of the resistance, Jeong Sang-yong, was a student at Cheonnam University. When he was throwing stones along with fellow students on May 19th, he asked himself, “Isn’t there something else I can do? Something besides hurling stones with everyone else?” He had no idea that something else was brewing – soon, the citizens of Gwangju would arm themselves with guns to revolt against the soldiers. But when this happened, Jeong Sang-yong himself chose not to participate. Instead, he went into hiding.

From May 20th onward, it was the nameless masses who did the work of fighting against the soldiers. The population of Gwangju was around 700,000, and 300,000 of those people participated in the struggle. They attacked city hall all night, and they would not give up, even as they faced helicopters and ruthless soldiers who gunned down everyone in sight. Then, at last, the citizens managed to push back the soldiers and claim the city as their own. Jeong Hae-jik, one of resistance leaders, stated:

“I returned to my house, which was near the back gate of Choseon University. The machine guns were firing like mad. I couldn’t sleep at all. I could hear helicopters all night. When I got up in the morning, people told me to go to campus. They said all the soldiers had fled. It was incredible. We fled, but the citizens came, and they managed to capture the city hall.”

What motivated hundreds of thousands of citizens to fight against the military? And how unbelievable was their success! The credit of the Gwangju Uprising belongs to Gwangju

But at the same time, we cannot ignore the role of the resistance leaders, who managed to guard city hall until the early morning of May 27th. When the citizens of Gwangju managed to drive out the soldiers, they anxiously waited to hear of uprisings in other cities – Jeonju, Daejeon, and Seoul. They hoped for backup, for solidarity. But they received no such news.

Isolated, the citizens of Gwangju trembled. They even voluntarily returned their weapons to the army, as a form of surrender. Had it not been for the leaders of the student movement who encouraged the people to fight until no one was left standing, the Gwangju Uprising may have dissolved into a mere riot.

Yoon Sang-won was central to the resistance leadership. He and several other leaders – Lee Yang-hyun, Jeong Sang-yong, Yoon Kang-ok, Kim Yeong-cheol, Park Hyo-seon, Jeong Hae-jik – undertook the task of protecting Gwangju. All these leaders led the student movement of the 70’s alongside Yoon Han-bong. Without the student activism of the 70’s, there would have been no Gwangju Uprising.

Yoon Han-bong led the student movement alongside other dedicated colleagues – so many that this book cannot record all their names. Yoon was one thread in a larger tapestry; to claim that anyone is more than that would simply be incorrect. Through their collective efforts, Yoon and his comrades accomplished something in Gwangju that no other city had managed: on May 16, 1970, a sea of torches burned bright against the night.

Continue reading in: Returning Home

10 Notes

  1. Do Yejong, Yeo Jeongnam, Kim Yongwon, Lee Subyeong, Ha Jaewan, Seo Dowon, Song Sangjin, and Woo Hongseon were put to death 18 hours after their sentence.
  2. The police beat and waterboarded protestors. In some cases, they used electric shocks as torture.
  3. Young Women’s Christian Association
  4. The name refers to a pine tree, a symbol of a life guided by unwavering principles.
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