Mother Lee So-sun
By Kim Heung-sook
The first two weeks of November is the busiest season for Lee So-sun and she has more visitors and interviews than her ailing 80-year-old body can handle. Yet, she never complains, being the mother of Chun Tae-il, the man who sacrificed his own life for the human rights of exploited textile workers 40 years ago.
Marking the death anniversary of ``Laborer Jesus” on Nov. 13, citizens and workers held a variety of events on and around the day, often without the presence of his mother. She spent three months in hospital this year and lives on handfuls of medicine. The physical pain, however, doesn’t seem to affect her mind.
``What did my son die for? President Lee Myung-bak, (Samsung) Chairman Lee Kun-hee, laborers, they were born with the same human rights. How did the (Korean) economy grow to the present level? Laborers grew it with their blood and sweat. But they are not treated as humans now. They are treated like dogs, made into irregular workers … They get work, which is nothing but dregs, and they can’t make money.”
In a recent interview with Kyunghyang Daily News, Lee also said, ``It’s becoming a lawless world. Why do they push the laborers? Pushed and pushed, the laborers fall into the river but no one offers hands … What are the politicians doing these days? I wish I could see the good world before I die.”
Lee’s son set himself on fire on Nov. 13, 1970 in Pyonghwa Market near Dongdaemun, shouting ``Abide by the Labor Standards Law!” ``We are not machines!” ``Don’t overwork the laborers!” ``Don’t waste my death.” He was a tailor at one of the sweatshops in the Dongdaemun and Cheonggyecheon areas of Seoul, He was 22.
Korea’s labor scene has much to be desired as Lee pointed out, but the current level of workers’ rights and welfare wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for her son’s sacrifice.
In ``Chun Tae-il Biography,” the late author and lawyer Cho Young-rae describes a dialogue between the young crusader and his mother at his deathbed: ``Mother, please carry out the things I failed to.” ``Don’t worry. I will carry out your wishes as long as I live.”
In the interview with Kyunghyang, Lee recollects that she hesitated to answer her son’s demand then. ``He said that if I didn’t do what he said, that would mean I had been a hypocrite. There is a place where souls go after death, he said, and he wouldn’t meet me there.” The mother was a daughter of an independence fighter. Her father died at the hands of the Japanese colonial rulers when she was three. Japan ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945.
When Lee’s son died, the government of President Park Chung-hee had the Methodist pastor of her church perform the mediator role and suggested through him to pay 70 million won in compensation. ``The pastor said that no nation would give this much compensation for a single laborer’s death. Other people may talk like that but not a pastor … I refused the funeral (by the government).”
Over the past 40 years, Lee So-sun has lived as she promised to her dying son, launching and leading ``Yugahyeop” or the Association of Bereaved Families of National Democratic Fighters, and helping workers in distress. Despite her life-long struggle, Lee says she is afraid if ``Tae-il will see me in heaven,” as Korean society doesn’t seem to have changed in the way her son had hoped. Her fear seems well-grounded, given all the absurd happenings in the nation, particularly at the National Human Rights Commission.
In the meantime, more than a few people are preparing to immortalize her life, first as Chun’s mother and then the mother of all the powerless. In December last year, writer Oh Do-yeop put his two-year conversation with Lee into a book, ``To Those I Can’t Thank Enough: Lee So-sun’s Memory of 80 Years.”
Film director Tae Joon-sik has been shooting a documentary on Lee’s life under the tentative title of “The Mother” since late last year. Some 70 percent of the shooting has been done by the voluntary efforts of Tae and many others who plan to release the film on the next anniversary of Chun’s death, but financial difficulties are worrisome.
Chun was a torch lighting the path for modernizing Korea and his mother has been the most loyal bearer. Chun’s life was written in history not only by his biography but also through the movie, ``A Single Spark,” produced in 1995. Fortunately, we still have his mother with us and the documentary on her will be a great legacy for our future generations. By donating 50,000 won ($44), anyone can support the creation of ``The Mother.”
Donors will be invited to the film’s preview and their names will be on the sponsors’ roster of the film. You can send money to Woori Bank in the name of Director Tae, account number 1002-134-937553. To aid the project in other ways, contact the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.