Photo: Baek Gi-wan. Credit: Good Morning Chungcheong.
On February 15, Baek Gi-wan 백기완 passed away in Seoul after battling heart and lung conditions for years. Born in 1932 in Hwanghae-do Province 황해도 of what is now North Korea, Baek was born into a landlord family that was active in Korea’s independence movement against Imperial Japan. Having fled south during the Korean War 한국전쟁, Baek became one of South Korea’s first civil activists, initially involved in the education of farmers in rural Gangwon-do Province 강원도. Baek Gi-wan became a democracy activist around 1961, when Park Chung-hee 박정희 overthrew the democratically elected government at gunpoint and installed himself as the dictator. Baek was imprisoned and tortured numerous times, to a point that he lost half of his body weight in his 40s. Baek was a key member of the June Struggle 6월 항쟁 in 1987 that democratized South Korea, and continued to work in civic activism for democracy and unification of the Korean Peninsula.
Baek Gi-wan was also a storyteller and poet, with a loving reputation of being one of the “three best raconteurs of Korea.” His poem “Moetbinari” 묏비나리 was the basis for the lyrics for March for the Beloved 임을 위한 행진곡, the defining anthem of South Korea’s democracy movement. Baek favored purely Korean words over Sino-Korean words or loan words from English or Japanese, crafting an array of neologisms that are a part of today’s common parlance such as daldongnae 달동네 (“moon village”, or a slum), dongari 동아리 (a club), and saenaegi 새내기 (freshman, or newcomer). Over 1,000 people, including President Moon Jae-in 문재인 대통령, attended the public memorial for Baek.