Dr. Roh Kil-nam, popularly known among progressives in Los Angeles and throughout the U.S. as Ken Roh, died in Los Angeles on April 25 at 5:41 PM, after being admitted to the Intensive Care Unit with COVID-like symptoms. For the people of Korea and progressive people around the world who support the process of peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula, Ken Roh’s passing is a great loss.
For those who knew him, his kindness and strong confidence in the movement for Korean reunification, it is the sad loss of a great leader and a humble and loving friend of so many who were inspired by his lifetime of commitment to bring the truth about North Korea to people everywhere. From his home in Glendale, California, Ken Roh reached people everywhere, from Koreatown in Los Angeles all way to Korea itself.
Born in 1944 in Gangneung, Korea, the life of Ken Roh began under brutal colonial occupation by the Japanese Empire in the throes of World War II. But he was also born when Korea was one country. US military occupation replaced Japanese military occupation. And just as he turned 10 years old, he found himself on a divided peninsula, a citizen of the newly-carved “South Korea”–unable to travel north in his own land, but also unable to learn and speak about it.
All of Dr. Roh’s years growing up in Korea was under US-backed military dictatorship, ultimately under the gun of US military rule which punished, with severe violence and repression, any organizing. But that did not stop Roh Kil-nam. He became a student activist against the Park dictatorship, and was punished for publishing a report critical of the government in his school newspaper. He would go on, later in life, to be widely-known throughout the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for his journalism.
In 1973 he fled the South Korean regime for the United States and enrolled in school at the University of Texas. As he told Buzzfeed news in a 2016 profile, “At that time I thought that United States was number one democratic country, number one social justice–oriented country … [then] I started to know what is jingoism, what is the civil rights movement. I didn’t know before I came here. I started to open my consciousness, become critical.”
Roh’s critical mind led him to return to Korea in 1990 as an organizer with the historic Pan-National Rally For Unification, where 10,000 others gathered for the first opening of the border since the imposed partition. South Korean riot police violently attacked the delegation, arresting hundreds, before the Rally for Unification was allowed across—along with Ken Roh. In a chance encounter on this first visit of his in the North, he was selected to meet personally with the leader of Korea’s socialist and anti-colonial struggle, Kim Il-Sung.
It was after this meeting that Roh became more interested in the ideas of socialism, and put that passion into becoming the leader and driving force of the popular news website Mingjok Tongshin, where he not only brought forward the truth about the socialist society in North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), but also exposed the relentless policies of U.S imperialism which has used brutal sanctions, military actions, sabotage, and a reactionary non-stop campaign of lies as a means to try, unsuccessfully, to destroy and overturn the current workers government. The website is considered so subversive by the imperialists that it cannot legally be read from South Korean territory, and has made him an extremely popular figure in the DPRK. The central goal of U.S. imperialism is to encircle and destroy a regime that continues to stand strong and resist.
In a recent interview with NK news, he stated that Korea was, in fact, divided by the superpowers, such as the United States, for over 70 years. “In fact,” he said, “it’s divided not by us, but rather by the United States imperialists. We want to abolish that power’s influence. The United States, AP, the New York Times, CNN, they influence the global media. I talk with them, but they do not really know about the DPRK. Me, I have visited the DPRK 74 times. They say we are pro-DPRK, but really we are both Pro North and Pro South, it’s the same country! Brothers and sisters. Same thing, you know?”
For ANSWER activists in Los Angeles, Ken Roh’s circle of friends and volunteers have been a great source of support in all the struggles affecting poor and working people, both by militantly demonstrating against US aggression against the DPRK, but around other issues as well, organizing delegations and speaking at rallies in defense of Palestine, Venezuela, Cuba as well as supporting community struggles against police brutality and income inequality. His work embodied amazing displays of proletarian internationalism and solidarity with oppressed people. For every struggle against oppression and injustice, you could count on Ken to be there, smiling and fighting.
He wasn’t just a participant in these struggles, but a community organizer. Several times a year, Ken would hold large banquets for “Discussion between fellow countrymen in the U.S. on peace and unification,” which drew hundreds over the years. These included annual events where his outlet Minjok would present awards to people and organizations, including American activists, for their commitment to fighting for reunification.
It was at one of these banquets in November 2019 that most of us, and the LA movement will hold as their last memory of Ken Roh, and a fitting one. He was the center of attention, making everybody laugh, bringing deep political direction, highlighting grassroots struggle, as well as showcasing the beauty of Korean culture. This is how he lived, how he led, and why he was so deeply beloved by so many around him.
His reach went far beyond Los Angeles and was international in character, affecting deeply the movement in South Korea and elsewhere in the region. His life’s work and activism served as a bludgeon to the propaganda narrative against his divided homeland—he touched, and profoundly educated, so many in this noble effort.
In a statement, Brian Becker, National Director of the ANSWER Coalition, stated that “Ken Roh embodied the spirit of eternal optimism in the long road of struggle of the Korean people for freedom and reunification. His optimism was not premised on a cavalier understanding of the great obstacles on this path. On the contrary, Ken was profoundly aware that the struggle would be long and difficult. But his was a lived optimism. He used his energy and his skills to facilitate the freedom of his people. He believed in them and they in him. We will never forget him.”