What They Said is a regular series on the quotes Korea is talking about.
Lee O-young (1933–2022)
This week, we’ll take a break from the presidential election campaigns to commemorate Lee O-young, who died from cancer on February 26. A South Korean novelist and literary critic, who served as the country’s very first Minister of Culture under the Roh Tae-woo administration, Lee was an influential figure in the South Korean literary and cultural community. Many people mourned his death by paying visits to the funeral home, including President Moon Jae-in and government officials, as well as politicians, writers, poets, literary critics, and even actors and actresses. People also mourned Lee’s death online:
I mourn the death of Mr. Lee O-young with a heart full of sorrow.
Even the heavens today seem to mourn his absence. I offer my condolences to his grieving family, students, and all the people who remember him.
Mr. Lee O-young was a discoverer of our culture and a pioneer who grafted tradition to reality and brought it to life. He introduced gulleongsoe (hoop rolling), a children’s game, at the opening ceremony of the Seoul Olympics to demonstrate Korea’s idea of the beauty in the void and culture of ‘movement in stillness’ (jeongjungdong). Bojagi, the traditional Korean wrapping cloth, which was once a common item, was rediscovered as an icon of traditional culture that envelops and brings everything together. He has been instrumental in leading us to deepen our love of our culture. Last year, the government awarded him the Golden Order of Cultural Merit and honored him for all of his contributions. Mr. Lee has left us many things, and even though they take different shapes and forms, they are all about how to love Korea.
Thank you, sir. May you rest in peace.
— Moon Jae-in, president of South Korea, February 26, 2022.
Late Professor Lee O-young, the greatest intellect of our time, may you rest in peace
Professor Lee O-young, who generously shared his intelligence and wisdom with us throughout his life, passed away today. I mourn his death.
He was an intellectual who presented a unique perspective and alternatives in all aspects of our politics, economy, culture, and society. In particular, the desire to learn about the pain of our young people and the elderly, and to comfort them, resonated with many.
“I hope that we can rise beyond dictatorial thoughts and self-righteous ideas and now create an original and independent country.”
Everything he left behind is a great gift to our people. We will continue to gain enlightenment from that gift package he left us, and move forward to a better Korea and a better world.
I know that he did not lose his unique sense of conviviality and contemplation even during his long battle with cancer. That is how he will remain in the hearts of the many who respect him for years to come.
I console myself thinking, as he said, it is not death, but a return to the place where he came from.
I pray for the eternal rest of the late Mr. Lee O-young. May you rest now in a pain-free place.
— Lee Jae-myung, Democratic Party of Korea presidential candidate, February 26, 2022.
Professor Lee O-young, who served as the first Minister of Culture and was the greatest intellectual of our time, has passed away. I pray for his eternal repose and send my deepest condolences to his family.
I remember the gulleongsoe boy at the opening ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which he planned.
An eight-year-old boy in a white shirt and shorts appeared in the huge stadium and rolled his hoop, running diagonally across the sun-drenched green lawns.
In the eyes of the people, who watched with their hearts pounding in fear that he might fall, this was not an eight-year-old boy running through the silence but a Korean who always overcame adversity amidst a history of suffering. It was a great poem that made its mark on a green lawn.
Professor Lee O-young was a giant who opened up new horizons in Korean culture.
The great achievements of the deceased, such as nurturing students at universities and establishing the National Institute of the Korean Language and the Korea National University of Arts, were possible thanks to his insight.
There is no place in our lives that has not been touched by the insight and attention of the deceased. In keeping with the professor’s will, I will turn this country into one with a strong culture, a country that brings people happiness through culture.
Once again, may he rest in peace.
— Yoon Suk-yeol, People Power Party presidential candidate, February 26, 2022.
May the soul of the deceased rest in peace.
Mr. Lee O-young, who was Korea’s eternal intellectual, passed away today.
The deceased often said he lived for the fun of taking the first steps in the pure white snow, and likewise he always shared his wisdom with us through novel ideas and keen insight for reading the flow of the times.
Mr. Lee’s final philosophy was “life capitalism”. Fighting against death in the midst of his battle with cancer, he said that we must restore the value of life in the digital age.
By following the teachings of the beautiful humanist, Mr. Lee O-young, I will do my best to revive the values of welfare and life that have been pushed to the back burner in the age of industrialization, and to create a country where all living things can enjoy welfare equally.
I wish him eternal peace in heaven.
I extend my deepest condolences to the bereaved family who are grieving his death.
— Sim Sang-jung, Justice Party presidential candidate, February 26, 2022.
I pray that the late Mr. Lee O-young rests in peace. I extend my deepest condolences to the bereaved family.
Mr. Lee was a true intellectual who immersed himself in writing The Story of Koreans (한국인 이야기, Hangugin iyagi) until the very last moments of his life, having undergone two surgical procedures to treat cancer. As South Korea’s first Minister of Culture, established during the Roh Tae-woo administration, he laid out a vision and strategy for the rebirth of the Republic of Korea as a cultural nation.
Through numerous books and lectures, Mr. Lee left many gems. Among them, two passages come to my mind.
The first is the “2080 symbiosis” that he discussed in a TV lecture titled ‘8020 Lee O-young Academy’. He said that Korea would be a better country through a symbiotic relationship between the people in their 80s and their 20s. His words still remain vivid in my mind—”Don’t ask scholars about the future of Korea. It is written on the faces of the 2030 generation. We must find the cause of their despair and eliminate it.”
He regarded people in their 80s and 20s as the sympathetic generations. He was deeply aware of the despair of those in their 20s who were economically worse off than their parents’ generation. At the same time, he felt sorry for the elderly who had resolved the problem of absolute poverty in the Republic of Korea but were still living in poverty.
The second passage is about a nation deprived of ‘tomorrow’. Mr. Lee said, “The words we use for the day before yesterday (geuje), yesterday (eoje), and today (oneul) are all Korean, but the word for tomorrow (naeil, 來日) is Chinese. Our people have led a very difficult life, so at some point we have lost the pure Korean word for ‘tomorrow’.”
Then, toward the end of his life, he revised his theory, saying, “There are pure Korean words for the day after tomorrow (more), two days after tomorrow (geulpi), and (three days after tomorrow (geugeulpi).” His interpretation was that although Koreans may have forgotten about tomorrow because of their hardship, they were still thinking about the future beyond tomorrow.
“Koreans have always lived in crisis, but that sense of crisis has brought about a better future than today” was his ultimate conclusion.
I believe that the ideas of “2080 symbiosis” and “Koreans pursuing a better future than today” are the crystallization of the research achievements that he made throughout his life, and the spirit of the times in this presidential election.
Following in his footsteps, I will do my best to create a better future, where the young generation and the elderly can live happily together.
I hope that you rest in peace in heaven, worrying less about the youth, the elderly, and the Republic of Korea.
— Ahn Cheol-soo, People’s Party presidential candidate, February 26, 2022.
Mr. Lee O-young has passed away.
Mr. Lee O-young was a constant source of thoughts and knowledge. I am grateful that he asked me to meet him several times in the precious last few years of his life as he was fighting the disease, allowing me a very special experience to reflect on many things.
In these final days of a great intellectual, I also thought about the end of my life. How should a scholar face death? This is a question that Mr. Lee left for me.
I express my deepest condolences.
— Jeong Jaeseung, professor of Biomedical Engineering at KAIST, February 26, 2022.
The funeral for Lee O-young took place over five days, and the send-off ceremony, led by the current Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Hwang Hee, was held today at the National Library of Korea.