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[Newsmaker] First Korean Culture Minister Lee O-young dies at 89

President Moon-jae-in, presidential candidates pay respects to Lee

The funeral portrait of former Culture Minister Lee O-young at a funeral parlor at Seoul National University Hospital in Seoul (Yonhap)
The funeral portrait of former Culture Minister Lee O-young at a funeral parlor at Seoul National University Hospital in Seoul (Yonhap)
Lee O-young, who passed away on Saturday at 89 after a long battle with liver cancer, was Korea’s first culture minister and considered one of the foremost “intellectuals of this era” here.

In 2017, Lee was diagnosed with liver cancer and underwent two surgeries. Since then, he had been refusing cancer treatment and continued writing books and conducting various interviews to share his insights.

Recently, he published “Memento Mori” in January and “Where Are You From?,” the first book of a 12-volume collection titled “Korean Series” that he had planned, last year, to publish sometime in the future.

Under the Roh Tae-woo administration, he served as the country’s first cultural minister in 1990-1991. It was after the Ministry of Culture and the Department of the Public Information was divided into two separate units in 1989.

Lee was born in 1933 in Asan, South Chungcheong Province.

While attending Seoul National University’s Korean language and literature department in 1956, Lee made his sensational debut in the literary circle at the age of 23 with an article titled “Destruction of an Idol,” which was published in Hankook Ilbo newspaper. The writing mainly criticized veteran writers for their authoritarianism, while emphasizing the use of literature as a form of resistance.

After graduating from university, he worked as an editorial writer in several newspapers including Seoul Shinmun, Hankook Ilbo, Kyunghyang Shinmun, Joongang Ilbo and Chosun Ilbo from 1960.

In 1966, he also started his career as a professor and taught Korean literature at Ewha Womans University in Seoul and became an honorary professor in 2011.

After being appointed as the first culture minister, he focused on creating the foundation for developing the country’s cultural policy. Under his leadership, he began four key projects, which included establishing the National Institute of Korean Language and Korea National University of Arts.

One of the best-known achievements that he made during his time in the cultural minister’s office was during the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He directed a special performance of a boy rolling a hoop during the opening ceremony, a scene that many Koreans still recall.

In October last year, Lee was awarded an order of cultural merit for his contribution to the development of the country’s literature.

In 1958, Lee married Kang In-sook, whom he met while attending Seoul National University, and had three kids -- two sons and one daughter. He also established Young-in Literary Museum with Kang, which they named after themselves. Kang currently serves as the director of the literary museum.

His eldest son, Lee Seung-moo, is a filmmaker and a professor at the Korea National University of Arts and his second son, Lee Kang-moo, is a professor at Baekseok University.

Lee’s daughter, Lee Min-ah, died of stomach cancer in 2012 at the age of 53 in Los Angeles, while working as a minister.

On Saturday night, President Moon Jae-in visited Lee’s memorial altar at Seoul National University Hospital.

“I offer my condolences. Growing up, our generation read a lot of Lee’s books and was greatly influenced by them. He is a great teacher of our country, and I am sorry that he passed away,” Moon told Kang.

Major political figures including presidential candidates also relayed their condolences.

Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, who visited the memorial altar on Saturday, posted on Facebook saying, “I pray for the best intellectual of our time professor Lee O-young to rest in peace.”

Presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition conservative People Power Party also mourned his death.
Former Culture Minister Lee O-young poses for a photo at the Young-in Literary Museum in August 2021. (Yonhap)
Former Culture Minister Lee O-young poses for a photo at the Young-in Literary Museum in August 2021. (Yonhap)
“There is no place in our life where the insight and concerns of Lee have not reached,” Yoon said in a Facebook post.

“I will follow the professor’s will and make a country with a strong culture where the people are happy because of the culture.”

Sim Sang-jung of the minor progressive Justice Party emphasized the late Lee’s teachings on embracing new ideas and acknowledging changes that take place over time.

“Following his teachings, we will revive the values of welfare and life that had been pushed aside during the industrialization era, and we will do our best to create a country where all life can enjoy equal welfare,” Sim wrote in a Facebook tribute.

Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party recalled Lee’s teachings on making a better future and wrote on Facebook, “I will do my best to make the future better than today.”

The funeral proceedings will be led by Culture Minister Hwang Hee. The official send-off ceremony for Lee is set to take place at the National Library of Korea at 10 a.m. on Wednesday next week.

By Song Seung-hyun (
Korea Herald Youtube