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Ethnic Korean Who Fought Discrimination in Japan Dies

Posted March. 27, 2010 06:51,   


Gangster Kwon Hee-ro, who was repatriated to Korea after serving a life sentence in Japan for killing yakuza members, died at Bongseng Hospital in Busan yesterday. He was 82.

Yesterday was also the centennial anniversary of the death of Korean patriot Ahn Jung-geun. Kwon would say, “I`d like to visit the site at Harbin Station in China, where patriot Ahn assassinated Japan’s colonial governor of Korea, and to pay tribute with flowers.”

Kwon led a life as tumultuous as the gyration of Korea-Japan relations.

○ Killing yakuza members

A murder and hostage case made Kwon the longest-serving prisoner in Japanese history. The incident was a result from deep-rooted discrimination against ethnic Koreans in Japan.

Kim killed two Japanese gang members who were bullying him at the request of creditors at Club Minks in Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Feb. 20, 1968. He said he was infuriated when the gangs called him, “Josenjin (a Japanese word disparaging Koreans), dirty pigs!” He was 40 at the time.

With grenades and dynamite in his hands, Kwon went on the run with a vehicle. He went to a hot spring inn in Honkawane, Shizuoka Prefecture, and took 13 patrons at the inn as hostages for 88 hours before being arrested.

After undergoing lower and appellate court trials in 1972 and 1974, the Japanese Supreme Court upheld his life sentence in 1975.

While holding the hostages, Kwon condemned the racism of Japanese police against ethnic Koreans and demanded an apology from a police leader and the dismissal of the officers in question.

His mother, who died in 1998, told her son, “Commit suicide bravely rather than being caught by the Japanese and dying in humiliation,” renewing her own grave determination.

Kwon was born to Kwon Myeong-sul and Park Deuk-suk in Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, in November 1928. His father died when he was two, and his mother remarried when he was five. He changed his name to Kim Hee-ro after his stepfather’s last name.

Because of abuse from his stepfather, Kwon Hee-ro ran away from home at age 13. Because of continued discrimination from Japanese society, he was frequently behind bars as a youth.

He also failed in marriage and business. Money he borrowed from Japanese eventually proved to be the source of his ill fate as a prisoner serving a life sentence.

Kwon Hee-ro spent 31 years and six months in prison until he came to Korea in September 1999. The story of his tumultuous life was made into the movie “Kim’s War” in 1992, a film that caused a major stir in Korea.

A number of people, including the Buddhist monk Park Sam-jung and ethnic Korean businessman Cho Mahn-gil, began a campaign to secure Kwon’s release in the late 1980s.

Park submitted an appeal signed by 100,000 Koreans to the Japanese government. Thanks to these efforts, Kwon came to Korea for good on Sept. 7, 1999, under the condition that he never return to Japan.

Kwon recently told Park, who led the campaign for his release, “Thanks to you, I can now die comfortably in my fatherland, or I would`ve died in prison.”

He also left a will saying, “Cremate my body and scatter half of my remains at sea off Yeong Island in Busan, my father’s hometown, and the other half by my mother’s tomb in Shizuoka Prefecture.”

Kwon`s body will be cremated at Busan Yeongrak Park at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow. His remains will reportedly be disposed of according to his will.

A memorial alter has been set up at Bongseng Hospital in Busan`s Dongnae district.