Fires in Rows

Memorial service for the 27th anniversary of the death of Han Sang-geun at the National Democratic Martyrs' Cemetery in Moran Park, Maseok. The image shows a number of winter coat clad people stand around a shrine on a bright day. There are fruits, cookies and other delicious foods on the altar, vases full of pink and yellow flowers, and a clear box with a cat plushie inside.

by Tommy Craggs

By the time 19-year-old Park Sung-hee had poured paint thinner over her body and set herself on fire, the meanings of her death were assured. She had done her part in that, explaining her suicide in three letters that were by turns lyrical and consoling and exhortative.

"I am bravely leaving, hoping that my path implants anti-Americanism into every single one of my twenty thousand fellow students and [as a result they] strive together to overthrow the regime," she wrote in one (as translated by Cheon Jung-hwan, whose work was indispensable to the writing of this piece). "I hope my twenty thousand fellow students…would not simply go back to their original place of comfort and drink coffee or cola." To her parents, she wrote, "By burning my body, if the spark is planted in every corner of the southern part on this peninsula, I think that I would follow along this path with pride."

Even if she hadn't taken such pains to clarify herself, her suicide would've been readily legible to Koreans as an act of political communication. That's because a self-immolation in South Korea immediately enters into an infrastructure of meaningful death: a whole cultural repertoire, contested but still intact, whereby a protest suicide is moved from the particular to the general, joined to a legacy of dissent, and thus prevented from succumbing to the pious obscurantism that has characterized, for instance, the official response here in the States to Aaron Bushnell's political martyrdom

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