Seo Il-Gweon: Gwangju’s Public Service Activist

Written by Wilson Melbostad
Photographs courtesy of Seo Il-Gweon
Translation and interpretation by Han Young-lee, Yang Jun-ho, and Anastasia Traynin


Nestled up with a cozy adult beverage and some peanuts in the rather unassuming Imagine, a collaborative art and recreation space situated across the street from the Asia Culture Center, I struggle to find the words to even begin to interview this month’s Gwangju News feature subject. I begin our conversation scrupulously:

“I’m not even sure how to address you. I’ve never met someone with so many job titles.”

Mr. Seo Il-Gweon, the aforementioned man with seemingly innumerable titles, grins at the question. He thinks for a second and then casually replies, “These days I am just introducing myself as a public service activist.”

Though “public service activist” would certainly be far from an incorrect way of addressing Seo Il-Gweon, the title barely scratches the surface of the work he has thus far undertaken. Working with the Gwangju Asia Emergency Relief Council (now Gwangju Asia Sharing Organization), Seo Il-Gweon helped facilitate distribution of local emergency relief not only by way of clinics in the Gwangju area but also through clinics situated throughout Asia, including in Nepal, Cambodia, and Mongolia. Seo serves on the board for the Universal Culture Center (UCC), an organization that serves migrants, international students, refugees, foreign workers, and migrants’ wives. Though busy with current and pending endeavors, Seo was nice enough to give us the scoop on his newest project, Band for Good, as well as shed some light on his personal motivations for becoming a community leader.

Seo’s Establishment of the Gwangju Clinic in Cambodia.

Gwangju News (GN): Can you tell us about your newest project?
Seo: Actually, I’ve combined some of my previous projects into my current work, running an operation called Band for Good. I am the executive director of Band for Good, with participating board member, Kim Youn-ok. As executive director, my main plan this year is working to set up a free afterschool education center in Cambodia. So, after the school day is finished, children from poor families can learn life skills. For example, since there are many sewing factories, they can learn sewing skills, or otherwise take Korean, English, or other language classes. Additionally, if the children need computer classes, I am preparing a space for these kinds of afterschool courses as well. We will also arrange to make basic medicines such as skin ointments, cold medicine, and other items available.

GN: While starting Band for Good, you chose Cambodia as the background. Is there a particular reason for that? Among all the countries, why did you choose Cambodia?
Seo: Band for Good had the original goal of operating sustainably in a fixed location, with a plan to build a mutual relationship and make the village more stable, brightening the children’s future through a sustainable relationship between Gwangju and the village. With that in mind, we went searching in a few places. We went to Laos in 2012 and visited the Modern Youth Center in Vang Vieng. After going to Vang Vieng, we went to Cambodia in 2014, before the opening of the Gwangju Clinic and prepared for its opening there, setting some things up. After going there, we wanted to go to Myanmar, but Myanmar had a complicated election situation at that time, so because of the safety problem, we went back to Cambodia. However, when you set out to do this kind of overseas volunteering, you need good accessibility, because if it’s too far you can’t go often. It has to be close, with easy flights, and not too expensive because people have to go back and forth. For a place like Nepal, it takes six-and-a-half hours and the flight costs at least 1.3 million won. In the case of Cambodia, the expense of flight tickets wasn’t a big problem. This is one of the practical reasons why I chose Cambodia. Cambodia is a country that suffered the most in their modern history with the Killing Fields. In making this type of overseas project, one of the most important components is setting up local partnerships. Now I have a trustworthy and excellent partner to work with. So, having taken into account this kind of partnership, the accessibility of Cambodia, as well as its historical points, Cambodia is now one of the places on the list that we help, growing little by little.

In a Vietnam Village

GN: Do you have a particular motivation for all the various work that you do, like helping people with their lives and assisting migrants?
Seo: Frankly speaking, I don’t think of it as “helping.” Although when I first started, I started from the idea that I must do something to help, at some point it turned into the idea that this is a solid investment in the future. As far as my work in Asia is concerned, by the year 2050, 50 percent of the world’s total output will be produced in the Asia region. One-third of the world’s youth population is living in Asia. Though these kinds of statistics certainly propel me further in my current endeavors, my original motivation for longtime student activism and longtime social activism comes from having tremendous pride in the Gwangju May 18 Uprising. Growing up, my mother was always the kind of person who gave to others. As I got older, I became a longtime student activist, for about ten years. I was on the wanted list for about four years, like the people everyone is talking about with the recent movie “1987” (a story about democratization in Korea in June 1987). Honestly, if I were to write about it, I would also have a lot of stories to tell. There’re stories from being on the wanted list for four years and coming out of prison. There was student activism, and now it’s about an altruistic life – that has filled me up a lot. Something like a sailor giving up the weight of wages and living a more public and social life. I learned how rewarding this life can be while undertaking these kinds of programs. I think that this is the most important thing that has made me who I am now. Democratization activism as a student, dictatorship activism. These kinds of processes.

GN: You mentioned your mother; were there any other individuals you can recall that particularly inspired you?
Seo: I also met one mentor named Seo Yu-jin or Eugene Soh, an elder Gwangju activist who talked about having emigrated early from Korea to the USA and taking up a one-man protest against the Yushin dictatorship [of Park Chung-Hee in the 1970s] in front of the White House. Anti-Yushin activism, followed by May 18 activism, then activism for uncovering the truth of the May 18 Uprising, and Chosun University activism for uncovering the truth about patriotic martyr Lee Cheol-Gyu. [Eugene Soh] continued in the USA to do activism related to modern Korean history as the secretary-general of a civic group called the Council for Unified Democracy. Pastor Moon Dong-hwan, the younger brother of Pastor Moon Ik-Heon, is now over ninety years old, but he used to be the chairman of that organization back in the USA. [Eugene Soh] was among that group of Koreans living abroad in the USA that focused on activism for Korean democratization and human rights, within that civic group there. He came back to Korea in 1993 and after returning, he met the current mayor of Gwangju, Yoon Jang-hyun. They both understood that, in reality, we weren’t getting what we wanted on an international, or even national, level. This was despite all the legislation, and despite the events of May 18, Kim Young-Sam becoming president in 1994, the application of the May 18 special law in 1995, and the taking to court of Chun Doo-Hwan and Roh Tae-Woo.

Seo with the writer (left) at a Syrian family’s home during the “Santa for Global Peace” Universal Culture Center (UCC)
Christmas 2017 program.

GN: That must have been frustrating. I assume that was what inspired Mr. Soh’s – and eventually your – focus abroad?
Seo: Exactly. Even with all that, May 18 was still considered to be just a bunch of rioters in Gwangju. No matter how many special laws you enact, it’s still like that, isn’t it? So, geez, how can something that isn’t even recognized on the national level be globalized? So we went over all this again when talking with Mayor Yoon and Eugene Soh. Instead of regurgitating the same thing, we said let’s go to other locations in Asia, places with military dictatorship, democratization or suppression of human rights, and find Gwangju there. Let’s go there and tell them about the Gwangju spirit. So, Eugene Soh went all over Asia. He went to places like Sri Lanka where reports of missing persons were popping up left and right. So, anyway, I met this person (Eugene Soh) in Cambodia, and he, me, and Mayor Yoon had an all-night talking session on the beach. We talked about Gwangju, Asia, human rights, and democracy. With these things in mind, I thought about making programs and tailoring them specifically to Asia. Programs that would take youth and ordinary citizens and systematically continue these kinds of history tours in Laos, Vietnam, and other similar nations. In each country there were seemingly endless possibilities.

Cambodia and Gwangju Partnership

GN: What sort of insights have you taken from your trips to other Asian countries?
Seo: During my trips to Mongolia and other Asian nations, I was able to see those countries’ cultures and histories. My trips helped me realize that soon the day will come when Asia will be the center of the world. So, in the case of international students coming here, they can speak at least three or four languages, including their native language and the language of the foreign country they are going to. They can all become leaders with their own opinions. So, they can become our good friends, and we can do a lot of work together in various ways, whether in business or other areas. So even though I started in the spirit of helping, I got to thinking about building solidarity between the pain experienced by Gwangju and others in Asia. Now in order to build that type of coexistence, I’m making opportunities for sending young people from Gwangju to other locales in Asia, the thing that I so often talked about before. Even while working on the Gwangju-wide youth project, I always talked to the young people about getting out and seeing Asia. Here, it’s too much of a zero-sum game.

But the idea of Asia is not about a wider market for spreading Hallyu [the “Korean wave”] and letting many more people know about those sorts of messages. In doing this work, even though in a place like Gwangju there aren’t as many non-Korean Asians, I’m trying to make it so that, more than in any other city, the other Asians in Gwangju can really get a sense of democracy and Gwangju being a city of human rights. Also, within the Asian countries that are facing difficulties, and for the children in the villages we work in, I want to plant new hopes and dreams. Building off the atmosphere of making a big fuss, and later, working through Gwangju City Hall, we can really coexist. Opening East and West talks, we are quickly making a symbiosis with Korea, living together, so that later we don’t fall behind.

GN: Doing all this different work, do you have a final goal, such as an international society in Gwangju or any other things that you hope to achieve?
Seo: First of all, I do this work so that I and my family are happy. I am not helping others for getting something that I want, but for leaving a good world and future for my children. A more just, more loving, solidarity-giving world for the children. This studio, Imagine’s, motto is “Eat, pray, love.” Making a world like that is the most basic priority. But many people are like this. I can’t do this work well if I am too smug about being committed to doing hard work for others. I have to enjoy it and feel rewarded. The first priority is making this kind of happiness for myself and my family. My second priority is… what I am always wearing? This…[pointing to the necklace he is wearing]… is a peace symbol. I am doing it for peace. So, my favorite saying is “Namaste.” As I understand it, “namaste” means that the god in me is asking after the god in you. Each person believes and trusts in themselves, so they can respect each person as they are, no matter their lifestyle or religion, they can understand and respect them. That makes peace. Otherwise, war breaks out. So, I’m doing this for my happiness and peace and that of my family. If I must say something, outside of that, there is nothing special. I don’t think there is any need for long explanations.

Postscript: Since this interview, Seo Il-Gweon has also organized a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Gwangju City Doctor’s Council and a number of key migrant rights support groups to help facilitate greater cooperation for issues relating to migrant medical treatment, particularly for those who are undocumented or humanitarian status holders (refugees that don’t have access to insurance or other services).

The Author
An international human rights attorney hailing from San Francisco California, Wilson Melbostad has returned to Gwangju to undertake his newest project: The Organization for Migrant Legal Aid (OMLA), which operates out of the Gwangju International Center.

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