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Kim Ji-ha, poet and democracy activist, dies at 81

Renowned poet Kim Ji-ha, a dissident figure who spoke out against the military dictatorship of the 1960s and ‘70s, died Sunday at the age of 81.

Kim had been suffering from an unspecified illness for the past year before he passed away at his home in Wonju, Gangwon Province, according to the Toji Cultural Foundation. The foundation, which supports Korean writers and scholars, was named after the novel “Toji” written by the late Park Kyong-ni, who was also Kim’s mother-in-law.

Kim, who was born Kim Yeong-il in 1941, is best known for his poem, “With a Burning Thirst,” which depicts the narrator’s aspiration for democracy. He was imprisoned multiple times in the 1960s and ‘70s while fighting the authoritarian regime of then-President Park Chung-hee. 

Kim Ji-ha (Yonhap)
Kim Ji-ha (Yonhap)

He received a death sentence in 1974 in violation of the National Security Law, for supposedly instigating students to cooperate with North Korea in overthrowing the government. Kim was released 10 months later after international institutions rallied to alleviate his punishment.

A 2013 retrial by local court ruled that he was not guilty of the said charges, citing lack of evidence to prove the allegations.

Despite Kim’s outspoken calls for democracy, he remains a divisive figure.

He was embroiled in a nationwide controversy for a column he wrote in 1991 in which he condemned a spate of suicide deaths by young workers and students. The suicides were in protest of the violent police crackdown that resulted in a student’s death in 1987.

In 2012, the poet shocked the nation again when he announced his support for conservative presidential candidate Park Geun-hye -- the daughter of Park Chung-hee who eventually won the race -- while hitting out at rivals Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo.