UPDATE : Wednesday, December 12, 2018
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Activist farmer’s death certificate corrected 19 months later
  • By Marian Chu
  • Published 2017.06.19 15:48
  • Updated 2017.06.28 14:40
  • comments 0

On Nov. 14, 2015, police officers blasted water cannons at protesters in one of the largest demonstrations against the now-ousted President Park Geun-hye, resulting in the death of an activist farmer named Baek Nam-gi백남기.

The government deployed 679 buses, and 19 water cannon trucks to the protest rally held two years ago, using excessive police force against relatively peaceful protesters who called for price controls in the domestic rice market.

Baek Nam-gi lies unconscious after being struck by water cannon during an anti-government protest held in downtown Seoul on Nov. 14, 2015. Source: alamy

During the protest, police hit the activist farmer with water cannons, pummeled him to the ground, and drove him into a coma

An ambulance transferred him to Seoul National University Hospital (SNUH)서울대병원 where, almost a year later, on Sept. 25, 2016, he succumbed to his injuries and died of kidney failure.

Baek, 68, had devoted his life to fighting for the rights of poor farmers and had participated in many significant protests since the 1970s. He had led the demonstration against the late President Park Chung-hee for using military force to intimidate college students. He was expelled from Chung-Ang University in 1971 for his part in leading antigovernment rallies.

Baek’s death caused a national uproar when SNUH issued a virtually falsified death certificate that stated his death was due to “illness” from “acute renal failure” and “subdural hemorrhaging” rather than external causes – an apparent deviation from the Korea Medical Association guidelines for drafting medical certificates.

The doctor that assigned his death as a result of “illness,” Paek Sun-ha백선하, had refused to change the document despite significant protests from both Seoul National University Hospital and a joint investigative committee. He denied any allegations of having external, governmental pressure to declare the cause of death as such.

That prompted 102 Seoul University Medical School students and 365 Seoul University students to criticize the error and sign petitions to demand their school correct the death certificate, which was left unheard.

In response, his bereaved family filed a lawsuit against the hospital to fix his documents and to demand compensation, resulting in an audit by the National Assembly. However, Baek attested that he categorized the cause of death according to his “conscience” and restated that he had no external pressure in doing so.

Although SNUH dismissed Dr. Paek from the neurosurgery department for causing public controversy, the late activist’s death certificate had remained unchanged.

Now, after almost two years had passed since Baek was fatally hit, SNUH has suddenly announced the decision to revise Baek’s death certificate, changing the category of his death from “illness” to “external causes.”

SNUH announced the change at an emergency press conference held on Thursday, saying they changed the cause of death from “acute” subdural hemorrhage to “traumatic” subdural hemorrhage, emphasizing the fact he died from trauma.

The revision comes nine months after the original death certificate was issued, which has drawn suspicion from the bereaved family and civic groups. Experts believe the new administration played a crucial role in ushering the change.

At the press conference, the hospital explained that considerable time was needed to conduct internal discussions to “follow necessary procedures,” which included ethics committee meetings.

Kim Yon-su, vice chairman of SNUH, dismissed allegations that the sudden change is related to an upcoming audit the Board of Audit and Inspection.

"I was surprised to hear the accusations of the modification made due to the upcoming audit. Revising Baek’s certificate was one of the biggest issues we had, for which we had many discussions,” he said. “The audit and death certificate revision are entirely irrelevant."

The professor also stated that he met with Baek’s family to apologize. "I visited the family in the morning to explain the process and gave a sincere apology," he said.

Baek’s daughter, Baek Doraji, in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency, recalled the time when they could not hold a funeral for her father because of the incorrect death certificate.

“We now look forward to an official investigation since we have confirmed the actual cause of mortality in his certificate,” she said. “There needs to be a probing into the ones responsible for his death.”


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