Seoul—Inside the intensive-care unit (ICU) of Seoul National University Hospital, Baek Nam-gi, a 69-year-old farmer and lifelong political activist, lies in a deep coma. His skull is still partially open after his surgery last November, when he was rushed here after being knocked violently to the ground by a burst from a high-powered water cannon deployed by the police forces of President Park Geun-hye’s government. They were trying to block a massive demonstration of 130,000 people in downtown Seoul protesting Park’s labor and trade policies.
I am here with Doraji Monica Baek, his eldest daughter, a slim, quiet woman who works as an editor for a local publisher of novels. She has asked me to accompany her to the ICU to visit her father. Baek had read my article in The Nation last December about the events that brought her father here as part of her family’s quest for justice. I feel a mixture of sorrow and privilege as we stand quietly by his bed, where he lies motionless except for the deep heaves in his chest as a machine forces him to breathe in and out. I touch her arm, and she places her hand on mine. There are no words at moments like this.
Mr. Baek, whose prognosis is not good, has become a symbol to many Koreans of the increasingly harsh response of the Park government toward dissent. In particular, people are angry and disgusted with police violence and a climate of impunity in which the government refuses to take responsibility for the actions of police officials. In Baek’s case, Park’s government has never apologized to his family and, according to human-rights activists, promoted officials involved in the November incident, including the police commander who ran the operation that day.
“The one time I went to the prosecutor’s office, nobody from the government said anything to us,” Ms. Baek told me in a waiting room outside the ICU. The only officials who have asked about her father, she said, are the detectives from the downtown Seoul precinct who are investigating the case. At one point, she said, the Seoul police commissioner asked to come see her father in the hospital. “I said, if you have no apology, please don’t come.” He didn’t because “he was never intending to apologize,” she said.
Ms. Baek’s family, with the help of human-rights lawyers, filed a civil lawsuit against the police for causing their father’s injuries. She has seen official surveillance footage of the November demonstration and has concluded that the police officers manning the water cannons deliberately targeted her father. “They pointed at him and shot—I could clearly see that,” she told me. The cannons also included large amounts of capsaicin, an active component found in chili peppers, which produces a sensation of burning and is often mixed with tear gas here. “The water was white; it was not transparent,” said Ms. Baek.