If I look to my left while working at the University Bridge here in Seattle, I can just glimpse a bit of the campus of the University of Washington. I love that place. A drive through campus makes me feel like I’ve entered Hogwarts, such is the castle-like architecture of many of the buildings. And the cherry blossoms blooming on the Quad are breathtaking harbingers of spring for me. I enjoy walking through Red Square, and gazing at the library, and fantasizing that I’m a student again. I wish I had gone to UW. If I had, I’d have made it to Seattle that much sooner. But…
…I recently discovered that I’m extremely glad that I was not on UW’s Red Square on October 30, 2008. That was the day that In Soo Chun chose to set himself on fire.
The fact that I may have walked right over the spot where he immolated himself gives me the chills. It also makes me very, very sad.
In Soo Chun’s life had been nearly as tragic as his death was. He had been a teacher in Korea, a very honorable position in that country, deserving of the highest respect. He came to America in 1977 and attended a few different universities. One article says he got a masters degree, but another says he never completed any of his studies. He became a US citizen in 1983, and divorced his wife that same decade. He was estranged from his only son.
He had already been struggling with mental health issues for many years. One doctor even went so far as to scan Chun’s brain to prove to him that there were no microchips in it. The test revealed no foreign objects at all, but Chun refused to believe it. He said the microchips traveled around his body, sometimes coming to the surface. He refused to seek psychological help.
He lived alone in the Miranda apartments, within walking distance of his job. I’ve driven past that dreary building hundreds of times, never knowing the despair that once engulfed one of its residents. It would be hard not to despair while living at the Miranda, in my opinion.
He also had a long history of ending jobs on a confrontational note. He had sued several employers, but he had not won any of the lawsuits. Chun never felt that his hostility was the problem, despite the fact that it was the common denominator.
Unfortunately, his angry confrontations with fellow custodians at UW caused his supervisor to attempt to assign him to a different building. Rather than accept that assignment, he took a vacation, never returned to work, and was subsequently fired. He attempted to file for Unemployment Compensation, but since he was let go for abandonment of his position, he was not eligible.
And so a very troubled Chun decided to set himself ablaze in Red Square.
A student tried to stop him when he was pouring the gasoline over himself, and he got soaked in the stuff as well, but fortunately was not burned. Chun definitely was, though. Students tried to beat out the flames with their jackets, as well as dousing him with water and using fire extinguishers, but it was too late. He died not long afterward.
He left a 128 page manifesto, alleging that the school was involved in a drug and prostitution business, that the CIA and Korean operatives had infiltrated the Custodial Services Department in order to spy on him, and that the government had planted microchips in his head. He also believed he was the Staff of God, and that the Bush and Clinton families had used him to become politically successful.
I can’t imagine how profoundly effected the witnesses to this tragedy must still be to this very day. A mentally ill Chun may have thought he was making a political statement, but what he did was snuff out his life while traumatizing many others. It’s a heartbreaking end to his story.
In Soo Chun was 61 years old.
If you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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