Just one day before the expiration of an autopsy warrant, tension mounted Monday over the police’s plan to conduct a post mortem examination on the body of activist farmer Baek Nam-gi, who died last month after being hit by a water cannon.
Baek’s bereaved family and an emergency committee vowed to block the police from taking his body for an autopsy during a press briefing in front of the Seoul National University Hospital.
“We are shaving our heads and going on a hunger strike to show our determination to protect Baek Nam-gi to the Park Geun-hye administration and to the police,” the committee said. “We will uphold the wishes of Baek’s family who wants to keep the police off of Baek’s body.”
Lee Chul-sung, chief of the National Police Agency, said in a meeting with reporters Monday that it is “not right” to use excessive force to enter the hospital building and take away the body.
The police attempted to forcibly execute the autopsy Sunday morning, only to withdraw in the face of fierce opposition from Baek’s bereaved family and civic groups.
“We will not carry out the warrant (without a notice) at night as if it is some kind of a military operation,” he said. “We will again persuade Baek’s family to discuss conditions for the autopsy with the police.”
But Lee renewed the police’s determination to carry out the autopsy on Baek before the warrant expires under the required conditions.
“There is no reason that we cannot enter the hospital building and conduct the autopsy. It is our role to do our best in executing the warrant within the valid period,” he said, adding that he would consult with the prosecution over whether to apply for an autopsy warrant again.
Baek died on Sept. 25, nearly 10 months after he was knocked down by a water cannon blast during the Nov. 14 anti-government rally last year.
His death has been marred by continued controversy, with Baek’s family and the emergency committee protesting the autopsy plan. They said that the cause of death was clearly the use of excessive force by the police and the autopsy is an attempt to shift the blame for his death.
They have called for a special investigation into Baek’s death and punishment for key police officials in charge of using the water cannon that day.
The police, however, secured an autopsy warrant, claiming there was no confirmed link between the police water cannon blast and Baek’s death. The court ordered the police to reach an agreement with Baek’s family on where, how and by whom the autopsy is executed.
Further complicating the situation, the main doctor for Baek from the Seoul National University Hospital wrote in the death report that Baek died of an underlying illness, not of an external injury.
Amid the growing tension over the police’ attempt to forcibly take away the body, ordinary Koreans have staged a sit-in round the clock inside and outside of the university hospital building, where a memorial altar for Baek has been set up.
From the basement to the third floor of Seoul National University Hospital, scores -- possibly hundreds -- of Koreans were seen chatting, watching news on their phones and reading books. Just outside the first floor, a food truck was serving instant cup noodles for citizens paying a visit to Baek’s memorial altar.
Many of them are ordinary citizens voluntarily joining the sit-in to protect Baek’s body from being taken by the police with the hope of creating a “better future” for society.
Despite an upcoming mid-term, Yoo Keum-moon, a 21-year-old university student majoring in social welfare, refused to stay at home to study after hearing about the police trying to force their way into the hospital.
“I took the last train on Saturday to come to Seoul and have slept at the lobby of the hospital for the past two days,” Yoo told The Korea Herald while fixing his eyes on a textbook he was revising for an exam on Thursday.
“I was too angry to sit still. Those who left the farmer killed are not admitting to their wrongdoings and further using violence, which is barbaric,” he said, criticizing “the government’s attitude.”
The death of the farmer, following the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, made him realize that he cannot expect protection from the government any longer.
“My future is uncertain, but what is more important than a test score is making this society better. My action might be really small, but I hope it can be a stepping stone for a bigger movement,” he said.
Choi Sung-hee, a 26-year-old office worker living in Seoul, tries to visit the scene whenever possible despite her busy work schedule.
“If we don’t take action now, the death by state authority could happen to me or to my friends or to my parents,” she said, who was also participating in the Nov. 14 rally last year when Baek collapsed. “I don’t blame police officers, but I blame the governing system that made the police use force to clamp down on dissent,” she said.
Among the group of people calling themselves “protector of the citizens” was Lee Jun-hyeok, 18, who made his way from Jeju Island to Seoul to join the people protecting Baek’s body.
“I learned about the people staging a sit-in on social media. For the past week, I have witnessed the police’s several attempts to force their way into the hospital, which was scary,” he said while having instant cup noodles inside the hospital. “Isn’t it the role of the police to protect people?”
“My parents are worried about me being here alone, but they support me for doing what is right,” said Lee. “I hope the society I will live in will not be governed by the powerful who only care about their own well-being.”
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org