Family of Korean Farmer Critically Injured at Mass Protest Speaks Out

More than a month after 69-year-old Korean farmer Nam-ki Baek was knocked to the ground by high-powered police water cannons at a Nov. 14 rally in Seoul, he remains unconscious and hospitalized.

Baek had joined tens of thousands of protesters in the largest street rally in years to protest the government's policies and demand the resignation of President Park Geun-hye. On that day, the riot police shot water mixed with pepper spray onto those gathered on the streets.

In the videos documenting what happened to Baek, one can see the water cannons spraying him directly in the head, knocking him down and sliding his body some distance on the ground. What has raised the ire of many, however, is that the police continued to hit the unconscious Baek with their water hoses, as well as the people who came to his aid.

The police have admitted that the pressure of the water they were using that day was 10 atmospheres of pressure -- an amount that a Korean physics professor likened to 100-mph equivalent of blast velocity, an extremely dangerous level of pressure when directed at humans.

While there has been some coverage of the incident, not much has been said about why Baek went to Seoul. What did he want to achieve? The following interview with Baek's eldest daughter, Doraji Baek, reveals more about the man captured in the videos.

korea protest

What is your father's current condition and prognosis?

The doctors said my father will be unconscious until he dies. He will probably not wake up. But he is showing brainwaves, so he is not brain dead. But he can't breathe by himself -- he's dependent on a respirator. The doctor said our family should wait and that he will live for six months to one year. But his consciousness will not return, since half of his cerebrum is damaged and his brainstem is also damaged.

Why and when did your father join the Korean farmers' movement?

He joined the Korean Catholic Farmers' movement in 1986. In the beginning, he raised cows for dairy farming. I think he joined the farmers' movement because he began to see how government policy, such as the dictator's brother importing foreign cows, affected his ability to make a living. He wanted to change the situation and also repeal the irrational taxes and duties that were levied on farmers. He has fought since then for farmers' rights.

Why did your father attend the rally in Seoul on Nov. 14?

The main reason was that rice prices have fallen. But the president had promised farmers that she would increase rice prices. Instead, this year, the price has fallen to the same level as 20 years ago. This is because of Korea's trade agreements and other trade agreements that Korea is interested in joining, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Accord. Usually for one bushel, or 80 kilograms of rice, the price is 170,000 won. President Park promised to pay 210,000 won per bushel. But this year, it dropped to 150,000 won per bushel.

The doctors said my father will be unconscious until he dies.

How important is rice farming to your father's farming income and to farmers in Korea?

Around 80 percent of my father's farming is dedicated to rice. My father-in-law is also a farmer, as well as my brother and all of my grandfather's brothers. I can see how, as farmers, they work incredibly hard but with very little to show for it. In the countryside, generally, farmers are growing older, and their lives seem to be getting harder. But I cannot tell if the government is preparing any countermeasures to address this.

In any case, even if the importance of farming declines, it's not as if farming can disappear. Food is a basic need, but the government's policies up until now have not been good for farmers. That reality makes me so sad.

Much of the news coverage of the rally is focused on the opposition to labor law reforms and the government's plan to replace all history textbooks with a state-approved one. But there is not much coverage of farmers' demands. Why do you think that is?

I've thought about this problem a lot. Historically, the Korean government has always sacrificed agriculture for a policy in favor of other manufacturers and the service industry, because Korea has no natural resources and is an export-driven economy depending on manufactured goods. In order to maintain this, they have to keep labor costs low by feeding workers with cheap rice. That's why the rice price has not gone up for more than twenty years.

In addition, when the government signed bilateral trade agreements and prepares for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it allowed agriculture to be sacrificed in favor of conglomerates that want to export more goods, like cars and ships.

What are you and your family asking of the government or police?

We want an apology and punishment of the police in charge. We charged the police with attempted murder and filed the petition on Nov. 18. I am going to the prosecutor's office, and after that, they will call in witnesses. The lawyers said this may be a long process.

I was so angry when the president compared the protesters to the so-called Islamic State. It was unbelievable and beyond absurd to hear this. The chief of police also talked about those at the rally as "expert protesters."

No one wants to be an "expert protester." Everyone just wants to live his or her own life. And so does my father. He had something to say on that day as a farmer, demanding that the president keep her promise. He is an old man, so just two policemen could have easily arrested him.

What is the reaction of the general public to what happened?

A committee has formed to support my father, and the Korean Catholic Farmers Association members have been at our side every day. There is also a daily sit-in outside the hospital.

On Dec. 5, there was another huge rally, and people marched to my father's hospital. Until that day, the Korean media had not shown much interest in our story. But on that day, so many people came, and we were very thankful. I thought: if only our father could regain consciousness and look out at this scene. On that day, the rally proceeded as it should have in November -- the police were walking alongside the protesters, protecting them while they marched.

But why, on Nov. 14, did the police attack the protesters like that? I hope that people won't forget this incident and will pay attention -- so that something like this won't ever happen again.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

South Korea Daily Live