Kim Young-oh: The Emergence of a Reluctant Icon

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He is working-class. Poor. Divorced. He represents everything many in South Korea hold in contempt.

But Kim Young-oh is also a father who mourns the loss of a daughter in an unexplained tragedy. He fasted for 46 days to demand a transparent investigation into the sinking of the Sewol. Not everyone in the nation loved him for it. But he commanded the attention of all, including Pope Francis who visited the country last month.

Kim’s transformation from an ordinary citizen into a political icon over the course of his hunger strike was captured in full by Jun Michael Park, a freelance photojournalist who befriended and trailed Kim through the ordeal.

More than any words could, Park’s pictures give the clearest view of Kim as he really is: an unassuming man whose desire to do right by his deceased child thrust him onto the national stage, before a divided public, under the harsh spotlight of media’s attention. They show Kim in moments of hope, despair, pain, and joy without embellishment or distortion.

While Kim enjoys the support of many in and beyond South Korea, he has his share of detractors. Right-wing rallies have taken place to vilify him, the National Intelligence Service allegedly investigated him, and President Park Geun-hye has steadfastly and obstinately refused to meet him.

Yet Kim vows to continue his course and return to protesting when his health allows for it.

Korea Exposé features Kim Young-oh as the subject of our first photo essay with gratitude to Jun Michael Park. We do so because Kim occupies an important place in the current struggle against the South Korean state’s shift toward greater repression, and because we believe that beneath the surface of an icon – or a villain if you are to trust the certain papers – there lies a human being whose story has not been fully told.

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