The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Why Korea needs a bank for modern-day Jean Valjeans

Hong Se-hwa, former journalist, writer and civic activist, calls for income-based fines for petty offenders

By Kim Hae-yeon

Published : Dec. 1, 2020 - 17:40

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Hong Se-hwa, president of Jean Valjean Bank(Kim Hae-yeon/The Korea Herald) Hong Se-hwa, president of Jean Valjean Bank(Kim Hae-yeon/The Korea Herald)

“Welcome to our bank that’s always running out of money!” said Hong Se-hwa. Despite its precarious situation, the 74-year-old head of Jean Valjean Bank seemed cheerful.

Hong, who runs the bank as a microcredit program for people in need, greeted visitors with a humble smile, documents held tightly in one arm and a large coffee mug in his other hand.

As the name suggests, Jean Valjean Bank helps petty offenders avoid going to jail just because they can’t afford to pay relatively small fines and penalties.

Before starting the donation-based bank, Hong held multiple jobs in diverse fields ranging from journalism to politics. Throughout his career, he was drawn to the nation’s criminal justice system as it was fraught with problems.

After doing field research in and around prisons and meeting with prisoners face to face, Hong found out that many were breadwinners who had committed trivial crimes either on impulse or for survival.

But with no money to pay their fines, they were jailed and ordered to do labor. A vicious circle led them to more hardships after returning home, since many had families who depended on them.

“How many people do you think in Korea are locked up in prison for failing to pay fines? It comes to nearly 40,000 each year,” Hong said with a big sigh.

Jean Valjean Bank started in February 2015 as a sort of movement, or a protest, against the current judicial system. The purpose of this bank was to help those in need to pay their fines, but also to change the system in the long run.

Hong aims to change the nation’s system so that fines are commensurate with an offender’s income, rather than based on an absolute amount of money for a particular crime.

Hong believes that traditional fines imposed without regard to income are bound to make breadwinners suffer, with no second chance to overcome past mistakes.

Six years have passed, and close to 900 people have been released from prison thanks to the bank’s loans.

The special bank’s financial status is far from solid. It stays open thanks to generous citizens who care about its mission and are willing to open up their wallets.

“The poor are inevitably tempted by some small amounts of money,” said Hong. “But we want to share the voice to those who have been neglected and abandoned by society for making small mistakes in life, to thousands of Jean Valjeans living in Korea today, that there is still some warmth left in society.”

Discussing the eligibility criteria to receive support from the bank, Hong said the person’s family situation is key, such as whether family members can carry on with their lives if one member is imprisoned. The next aspect to consider is age. “We believe that it is the last thing to do, to make young people in their teens and 20s to be held in prison at such an early stage in their lives,” Hong said.

Experts and scholars from various fields get together for the auditing process to ensure objectivity throughout the evaluation, he said.

Hong’s focus on building and running an institution for those in need developed after many ups and downs in his life and career. After graduating from Seoul National University, he got his first job at a trading company. While working to earn a living during the day, and at the same time fighting for civil rights and freedom when the nation was still under military dictatorships, Hong was suspected of espionage for his involvement in the 1979 Namminjeon (South Korean National Liberation Front Preparatory Committee) Affair. This incident pushed him to live in France as an exile for 20 years.

After seeing the struggles and frustration in his country continue, Hong felt helpless at one point, reaching the conclusion that it was neither the right time nor the right way to go back to South Korea. He made up his mind to begin a new life path in France, and chose to become a taxi driver in Paris.

Hong was content with his job in France, driving through the narrow streets day and night, knowing every inch of the crowded city and what filled its vibrant air. But his endless quest to work for human rights, freedom and peace continued.

The long search resulted in his book “A Taxi Driver in Paris (1995),” a memoir full of poignant reflections on his college life as a student activist and on French society. The book, featuring his lively social criticism, became a bestseller in Korea and remains popular among the younger generation.

Upon returning to Korea in the early 2000s, Hong became a journalist for one of the liberal newspapers. He also served as a guest editor for Le Monde Diplomatique Korea. Although he went back and forth in politics, serving for a time as a New Progressive Party delegate, Hong officially ended his political career in 2012.

Asked about the future of Jean Valjean Bank, Hong did not hesitate to express his view: “My hope as president of the bank is that it closes its doors as soon as possible. But for that to happen, an income-based fine system should be legislated in Korea.”

By Kim Hae-yeon (