Hong Se-hwa, 77, a Leading Progressive Thinker

The socialist refugee in Paris became one of South Korea's foremost progressive thinkers.

Hong Se-hwa, 77, a Leading Progressive Thinker

Image: Hong Se-hwa c. 2012. Credit: Public domain.

On April 18, Hong Se-hwa 홍세화 passed away after a long battle with cancer. The best-selling author and columnist was a deeply influential figure in the South Korean left.

Hong Se-hwa was born in 1947, three years before the Korean War broke out. He was raised by his grandparents, and barely knew his parents. In 1966, as a student at the Seoul National University 국립서울대학교, Hong came to learn what had happened to them: in 1950, during the war, in 1950, his entire village in Asan, Chungcheongnam-do Province 충청남도 아산 had been massacred by the South Korean military. Although Hong’s immediate family managed to survive, his parents divorced after Hong’s father left the family to become an anarchist activist. The shock of learning his family history pushed Hong into student activism against the Park Chung-hee 박정희 dictatorship.

In 1979, Hong claimed refugee status in Paris, France, after the Park Chung-hee dictatorship discovered his involvement in the South Korean National Liberation Front Preparation Committee 남조선 민족해방전선 준비위원회, an underground socialist organization. For the next two decades, Hong worked in France as a taxi driver and freelance journalist, serving as an invaluable point of connection in Europe for South Korean democracy activists.

Hong became a bestselling author with his 1995 book, I am a Taxi Driver in Paris 나는 빠리의 택시운전사, a series of essays about his life in exile in which he extolled the French virtue of tolerance. After returning to Seoul in 2002, Hong continued his life of activism through involvement in progressive publications and minor leftist parties. His final project was the Jean Valjean Bank 장발장 은행, a microcredit financial institution that provides interest-free loans to low-income individuals who need money to pay fines for minor infractions.

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