One such individual was Kim Yong-koo, who died in Seoul, Aug. 19, after a long illness, and who few today outside of the press will remember.
Yet his influence on others and on the climate of inquiry and freedom during difficult periods of Korean repression was important. His was not a flamboyant role, nor one that caught the public's imagination. It was, nevertheless, significant and worthy of appreciation.
Kim touched both Korean and foreign audiences. Following his role as an interpreter between Korean and U.S. forces during the Korean War at the U.N. Military Headquarters, as a chaplain in the army, and participating in the Incheon landing, he was a reporter for The Korea Times beginning in 1954. This led to his appointment as the managing editor of the paper in 1958.
That in turn enabled him to become Korea's first Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 1962-63, a prestigious award dedicated to allowing recipients to experience the full range of Harvard's educational establishment.
Kim's international experience and contacts continued, through many grants and travel opportunities to represent Korea's media at international events.
Perhaps most important was his founding the Korea branch of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the international intellectual organization headquartered in Paris and to which many of the world's writers and thinkers were attached, and his work with the International Press Institute in Geneva that was devoted to worldwide press freedom and responsibility, and where he reported on the state of Korea's press.
He continued his journalistic career as an editorial writer for the Hankook Ilbo. In 1998, he was distinguished professor of journalism at Korea University.
His importance in Korean society was even more pronounced. His later writings for the Hankook Ilbo and a wide variety of newspapers and journals, and his lectures at numerous Korean universities as well as abroad, were devoted to the cause of freedom during periods of intense authoritarian rule in Korea.
His widespread readings in the classical Western tradition allowed him to advocate more freedom by couching the arguments in Western and also Asian literary allusions. He advocated reform by analogy, a subtle means which his audience recognized but of which the authorities were often oblivious.
He nevertheless suffered under the Chun Doo-hwan purges of the media; he was threatened and remained under the regime's surveillance, but he was able to continue writing both in Korea and in shorter residences in Japan and the United States. Following his retirement, he published Bushitdol, a small literary and philosophical journal.
Kim, in essence, was a quiet, principled, unassuming man and a champion of press freedom. A passionate book collector, and passionate in his liberal philosophical bent, his extensive classical library in Korean and foreign languages was donated to a university in Gongju so that others might share his pleasures.
His background as a student in the Methodist theological seminary gave him a penchant for philosophical ideas, translated into arguments for a more liberal Korean society.
Kim Yong-koo will not only be missed by his family and friends, but indirectly even by those who did not know him personally, because his ideas and efforts have contributed to the intellectual sophistication of Korea today and its numerous freedoms that are cherished.
David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor emeritus of Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. He was the Asia Foundation representative in Korea 1963-67 and 1994-97.