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A letter to Jeon Tae-il, “the flame of an era”

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By Kim Hyeon-seo (Pyeongtaek H
기사입력 2021-03-15

  © weeklymonday

Jeon Tae-il, a young man who shouted “mutual respect for all humans” regardless of their social status, burned himself to death, saying “Don’t waste my death.” That is a message modern society needs though it happened several decades ago. He tried to realize it by sacrificing himself. – Ed 

 

  © weeklymonday

To Mr. Jeon Tae-il, the flame of an era,
Hello, my name is Hyeon-seo Kim. During your lifetime, you fought to protect the rights and interests of laborers working in extremely poor conditions without any sufficient measures for safety in scorching heat or freezing cold.


Even now as I write this letter, labor-management conflicts continue to occur every day. Half a century has passed since you ended your turbulent life. However, the hatred and hostility between employers and laborers still seem to remain unresolved in our society.


As you suggested when you wrote, “I think humans are going the wrong way,” I am also very concerned about the resolution of our society’s absurd problems, such as the poor working conditions of laborers and the harsh treatment toward them. However, as you said in your diary on December 31st, 1969, “If you resent the past because it was unfavorable to you, won’t your unfortunate past become an illegitimate child in your realm of life forever?” It suddenly occurred to me that if I blame the reality of my life because I am not happy my present could be isolated from what I am and my life. Your life impressed me a lot. Thanks to you, I am motivated to help myself, my neighbor, and then, even further, my society as much as I can.


You burned yourself to death on November 13th, 1970. When I read what you said, “Observe the Labor Standards Act! We are not machines!” I felt your desperate struggle against the absurdities of our society. Also, you said, “Don’t waste my death,” before you died, which made me reflect on myself once again.


Unfortunately, the reality of the laborers has not changed much. On December 10th, 2018, a 24-year-old temporary worker Kim Yong-kyun died at Taean Thermal Power Plant after getting caught in a machine on a conveyor belt. His death inspired the enactment of the Kim Yong-kyun Act (an amendment to the Industrial Safety and Health Act), but non-regular employees are still working in the same labor environment, exposed to danger day by day.


On July 31st, 2019, a man-made disaster at the rainwater drainage facility in Mok-dong, Seoul also showed the problems of poor working conditions. Seeing the working conditions of laborers and non-regular employees, I see no fundamental difference between the present situation and the working conditions in the 1970s, when you lived. Even now, 53 percent of workers and self-employed people are estimated to work more than 52 hours a week. Most of the labor problems in our society have not been solved and their seriousness is beyond our imagination.


Korea, in my personal opinion, has escaped poverty in the 21st century because of the remarkable economic development in the 1970s, but we have lost our sense of mutual respect and philanthropical sentiment toward other human beings. I think that as a young man, you saw this abject reality and shouted “mutual respect of all humans,” to try to get back what we have lost. Your final message, “Don’t waste my death,” shows how desperate you were to show the values we have lost in our competitive, indifferent society.


Reading your messages, I thought I should reflect on myself and practice my love for humanity. Thank you so much, Mr. Jeon Tae-il.

 

From Hyeon-seo Kim, a student at Pyeongtaek High School who respects you 

 

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