A Priest’s View of Human Rights in Korea

by Carol on May 9th, 2010

On May 18, 1980, the day after the declaration of martial law, a demonstration of 500 students was attacked by paratroopers who beat and bayoneted demonstrators. Over the next three days an ever-increasing number of shocked citizens joined the demonstrators, first in response to the violence of the troops and then in indignation at the government’s statement that the citizens were to blame for the violence. It became a popular uprising. The indiscriminate attacks continued until the citizens succeeded in capturing arms and vehicles belonging to the army and the police. The Black Berets were forced out of town by a counterattack led by infuriated taxi drivers. Although the citizens now had control, they were isolated. Two radio stations had been burned and some of the telephone service was cut. Regular army troops then surrounded the city and waited for the end of negotiations between the military and the newly-formed citizens’ council. In the meantime, the U.S. military had announced it had released the Korean troops under its control to put down the demonstration in Kwangju. When the citizens asked the U.S. government to help in the negotiations, it declined to do so. In the end, the army entered the city, more people were killed and thousands were imprisoned. Some sources estimated later that about 2,000 people were killed. Kim Dae-jung, the opposition leader from Kwangju, was tried for sedition, even though he was in prison at the time of the uprising. A few months after the Kwangju incident, Chun Doo-hwan was elected president by the electoral college with American backing.

In the fall of 1991 I interviewed an Irish Catholic priest on issues of human rights in Korea, which for him involved not just freedom of speech, association, and personal autonomy, but also the rights to an adequate standard of living, housing, health care and education, which for over forty years have been part of the language of international agreements on human rights. As a champion of the poor and silent, George finds fault with the Korean record, but it was clear that Korea had become his country and the Korean people his people. Here are his words.          

George’s story 

I came here from Ireland in 1971 as a newly ordained, twenty-five-year-old priest. The beginning was difficult. Even with two years of language school and pretty heavy immersion in a rather isolated area, you need five years to develop fluency in the language and to start feeling comfortable. People here have such different beliefs and different values that the newcomer has to make a lot of adjustments.

My first impression was one of a very repressed society. I was saddened by the terrible air of mistrust and the feeling of constant surveillance. The KCIA [Korean Central Intelligence Agency] was the big power, and its agents haunted every prayer meeting. According to an article in Time or Newsweek, out of every twelve Koreans gathered together at least one was a KCIA agent. A great deal of pain was caused by the division of North and South Korea and the people’s helplessness to do anything about it. For example, I knew a man who came from the North. He might know whether his mother was still alive. But where could he have gotten this information? If he had illegal connections with the North, he could be accused of being a spy and be thrown into prison. He had to keep quiet, even to his own children. You can imagine what damage that sort of strain did to families.

The communist threat was used for a long time as an excuse for taking political prisoners—and still is. Under the National Security Law innocent people were tagged as communist and slapped into jail. They were held incommunicado, evidence was concocted, and they were given a secret trial. Even if people didn’t believe someone was a communist, almost no one could survive being branded one. There were mysterious deaths of people involved in the human rights movement, but no one was held accountable. Now, it depends on where you get the figures, but it is generally accepted that there are at least as many political prisoners in Korea today as there have ever been. In the worst days of the Chun Doo-hwan government when there was an average of about 3.5 arrests a day of people we would consider political prisoners. Now it’s 4.5 arrests a day. The KCIA has changed its name, but that’s all.

Of course gradually people began to question the anticommunist propaganda they had been indoctrinated with. In the 1980s ordinary workers began to go abroad to work in places like the Middle East. They left believing that  all communists had red faces and carried guns under their arms, and when they got there they found out they couldn’t tell who was a communist and who wasn’t. And they began to see that in places like France and Italy the communist parties weren’t illegal and that there were socialist countries in Africa we did business with. Those who came back began to look at the Korean government and to talk with others. People began to question.

First they saw Mr. Kissinger’s trip to China. Suddenly the United States, our great ally, was flying over our heads to shake hands with communists in North Korea. Then there were these Korean business people running off to China and Moscow to make deals with real live commies, while their poor neighbor who was shouting about human rights was slapped into jail for ten years as a communist sympathizer. They said, “Hey, something’s wrong here.”

But to go back a bit, in 1972 the Yushin Constitution was proclaimed. [Park Chung-hee proclaimed himself “president for life.”] The whole international diplomatic corps called Korea “the last bastion of democracy” and praised “Korean-style democracy,” which turned out to be dictatorship. After Yushin and the various declarations of martial law and emergency measures, there was continuous pressure for constitutional revision. In 1974 Bishop Chi of Wonju began to speak out. Bishop Chi had been friendly with the popular dissident poet Kim Chi-ha, who had been jailed a few times and had once been condemned to death, but his sentence was commuted. So this friendship was used to smear the bishop by imply he was connected with communists. This time the attempt to slap a communist tag on someone didn’t work. There were many Protestant ministers who were also involved in human rights activities, and it didn’t work with them either. People thought too highly of them. The labeling strategy has an obvious problem anyway. If I happen to say something similar to what Kim Il-sung said, does that make me a communist or him a Christian?

I was living and working in Bishop Chi’s house in Wonju. I got involved, so there was an extra KCIA guard on me. There were prayer meetings organized all around the country, which gave the people an emotional release. In many cases they also provided a way to get the real story out about what was happening—the abuses of power, the people taken prisoner, the beatings and torture. In the atmosphere of fear and distrust, the churches provided an opportunity to awaken the people. It was the churches’ big contribution and certainly one I was proud to be involved with. I think it was Karl Marx who said, “Religion is the voice of the voiceless and the cry of the oppressed.” All religions have in some way been a liberating experience for people who were oppressed and voiceless. Later, when photocopiers became readily available, they were used to spread information.

In all this activity there were numerous incidents, but I remember one particularly. Two KCIA men came down from Seoul, overstepping the authority of the local guys. Since I was tipped off by a priest they had already seen, I had a little tape recorder waiting. The senior KCIA man told me that I had better watch myself or I would be thrown out of the country. They had already thrown out someone for “political activity,” so this was a real threat.

I said, “Excuse me, sir, I’d like to have on tape whatever you have to say to me.”

He wouldn’t talk then. He passed the responsibility over to his deputy. As soon as the deputy started talking, I said, “I’d like your name, please. Identify yourself.” I put his whole speech on tape.

In their view this sort of thing was not supposed to happen. So many sinister little moves were made—involving even torture and death—without anybody being willing to take responsibility for them. So the fact that I was taping this conversation put a whole new dynamic on the thing, even though who knows what I could have done with the tape afterwards. The deputy said that according to my visa I was here as a religious worker and I should stick to religion. I said, “Well, my bishop is in jail. If I pray for him that’s not a political act.” Then we had a discussion on the definition of religion.

In 1976 there were more attempts to frighten the priests who were the most vocal in the human rights movement. The local police and the KCIA would make little visits. I was working with the workers in Puchun, and the KCIA man would come around occasionally.  Then in 1981, shortly before I arrived at my new post in Pusan, the American Cultural Center in Pusan was firebombed. One person was killed. A number of people were arrested as suspects, including a priest from Wonju diocese. It was definitely a manufactured case. They were trying to blame a group of individuals—and put them on trial together for this crime—who didn’t even know one another. The case was tried in the newspapers for at least a month before it came to trial. The “ringleaders” were labeled as communists and communist sympathizers.

About the same time just outside Pusan, a policeman went berserk with drink and shot fifty-three people. He wandered around the village from eight at night until four in the morning shooting people. Now, it’s a real mystery to me how this can happen in a highly militarized country without a marksman from the riot police or the army picking him off. This incident made the newspaper for two days.

I hadn’t lived in Wonju for a number of years, and yet there was a KCIA man who came to see me every day to fish for information. He was always nice and friendly, but this was very clearly harassment. So I said to him, “Look, you’re annoying me. I’m in the middle of building this place here. If you’ve got questions to ask me, we’ll sit down and talk. But what I’d like to explain to me why there was a month-long trial by the press after an incident in which one person was killed, and when a policeman kills fifty-three people it’s in the paper for two days? Why are you coming around to see me? Where were the police when this man was shooting all these people?” He didn’t come around again.

 After my first encounter with the KCIA, I became more interested in human rights, which in Korea means poverty, housing, hospitalization, health services and education.  Today there are not as many poor people in Korea as there used to be because the military-business dictatorship made the “economic miracle” possible. But is it enough for every Korean house to have a television set? Is the quality of life any better than it was? I think most Koreans would say no. Some things have loosened up, but the basic rights to speak your mind, to choose a lifework, to move about freely, to own your own home, to have medical care, those rights have been denied a lot of people.

After I left Bishop Chi’s house in Wonju, I moved to a parish in Puchun, a port city between Seoul and Inchon, and began to get involved with ordinary factory workers. There were questions of workers’ rights, and the laws are still so bad that Korea can’t get into the International Labor Organization. Workers don’t have the right to organize or speak out against injustice. Korea has the highest rate of industrial accidents in the world. In the last few years it’s jumped from three workers being killed in a day to five. Not only is no attention being paid to this, safety precautions are even being cut back. Once their ten-year tax-free period is over, factories close overnight and companies just scamper. The workers are left high and dry. As soon as people try to organize or voice an opinion, they’re slapped into prison for violation of the National Security Law. A blacklist was organized by businesses and the KCIA and passed around among the factories so that any worker accused of speaking out can’t find a job anywhere.

Now, the one resource South Korea has to offer is a big, hard-working population. In 1972, when Park Chung-hee made himself president for life, he promised that by 1980 the country would be fully developed. Everyone would be going to Cheju-do [a resort island in the south] for the weekend, and everyone would have a car. Workers were told that in the meantime they would have to work hard and practice family planning. “Just do a little more, just put up with it, it’s for the good of the country and of the nation. When the country gets rich, we’ll all get rich together.” Economic progress was made, but it was the same old thing with a bigger gap between rich and poor. So when 1980 came and it wasn’t lovely, the workers became aware that some people were getting terribly rich while they were still being told to put up with it. At that point Park’s successors had a problem. If they admitted that the country was “developed”—which they had to do to have the Olympic Games here—then the workers would ask for their share. “What about our working conditions? What about our share of the wealth?” The government then changed the terminology by inventing a new category, “newly developing nations,” to put the workers off a little bit longer.

After the death of Park Chung-hee, Korea had an opportunity to move toward democracy and toward a society where people could learn how to express their feelings. But we didn’t. With Chun Doo-hwan we took the old way again. The politicians all come from a military background. A good soldier cannot help create democracy because democratic thinking is directly opposed to the thinking of a military mind. There is no concept of accountability in the Korean public mind.

The clearest example of this, of course, is the Kwangju Massacre. In 1979 the downfall of Park Chung-hee began with the disturbances caused by workers in the Pusan-Masan area. The government was in a quandary about how to handle the situation. By February, 1980 there were demonstrations among the coal miners in Kangwon-do, and the riot police were sent in. there were industrial strikes in several areas. In March the students came back to school. By April there were demonstrations all over the country. Everyone was moving.

Kwangju was by no means the noisiest place in the country. It was about the same as anyplace else. I think there were many more disturbances in Seoul—certainly in the Pusan area. But if you were to make an example of a place in order to quiet people down, and you really wanted to send in the heavy guns, the best place to do it was Kwangju. Traditionally the Cholla Provinces were supposed to be the places that always opposed the government and were always full of rebels. There’s a long-standing agreement that the intelligent, arty people come from Cholla, the singers and the poets. People from other places don’t trust them. This prejudice is very common. Park and his successors neglected Cholla and kept it out of the plans for economic development. It is still neglected.

Now, you see, with that kind of long-term, deep-seated prejudice against an area, you can do what you want. You can send in the army, and the rest of the country will have no sympathy at all. You couldn’t do that in Pusan or Taegu, let me tell you. It’s still not known how many were killed there. The government stopped all investigations. It was made to look as if the massacre had never happened. Word was put out that a lot of Kwangju people had made it up, and—this was in the most repressive period of Chun Doo-hwan’s rule—people accepted that. Then about 1985 a video was put together from pictures the German and Japanese media had taken right after the uprising. Copies began to waft into the country and people began saying, “Hey, wait a second. Something did happen in Kwangju.” Before that, their prejudice would not allow them to entertain that idea. Nowadays there are protests every year with exhibits of still photographs of corpses taken from the foreign video.

Government policy has been very harsh in many areas. A lot of farmers have been deliberately wiped out. Korea does not have very good farmland, but in the late 1970’s it was self-sufficient in rice and a few other crops. There was even some for export. In 1978 a man called Farmer Oh organized a farmer’s group which objected to government fraud with regard to farming. People tried to make a liar out of him. He disappeared for a few days on a KCIA trip. The incident caused the government and the KCIA to lose a lot of credibility and helped to bring about a change. Then came pressure from the outside to open up the farm markets. There was also a government policy which forced farmers off the land and into the cities, where they were needed as unskilled workers. In 1980 there were eleven million farmers, in 1988 seven million. That’s four million, a third of the farming population, who were forced off their grandfathers’ land and into the cities. The government actually favored this. Agricultural products from abroad were cheaper. Now, I’m not against farmers moving into town, but I don’t think it was of their own free will that they left their homes to come to a place where they would never have a home of their own, where they had no land to grow a few vegetables, and where they had no community support.

 Then there is the issue of housing.  In 1986 there was an editorial in the Korea Times, which had somehow got past the censor, about people’s houses [dwellings, usually apartments]. It said that one-third of the population lived in one-room homes, one third lived in two-room homes, and the rest had more space. It also said that in 1980, 87% of the householders were homeowners; the number of house-owners had dropped 5% between the years 1980 and 1985, and it was then around 53-58%. Now, 1980-85 were the most stable years in recent history. Chun Doo-hwan cracked down so hard that there was no obvious sign of discontent. The rate of economic growth was at ten or twelve percent, the highest in the world. Because Korea got the 1988 Olympics in 1981, there was a housing boom on. So why are there so few homeowners? Recently I saw in the paper that if a twenty-eight-year-old university graduate had his monthly salary as his only source of income, and if he worked only to pay for his expenses and save for a home, he would be able to buy it around the age of sixty-two or sixty-three. It would take him thirty-three years to work for a home so he could enjoy it in his retirement. If his wife worked with him, it would take them twenty-eight years.

 In the 1980’s, in response to the complaints of factory workers, the government brought out a new national health insurance plan. It looked great at the beginning, but then it became clear that the new scheme just enabled the hospitals to raise their prices. A lot people still can’t get hospital care. Suppose someone needs a treatment which will cost 500,000 won [$675]. That person has a card saying the government will pay 50% of the hospital bill, but he or she still has to come up with 250,000 won—and may not have the money. In that case the card isn’t worth anything. Often today people are worse off than they were before, because now they can’t even get into the hospital. There are also people who work in sweatshops which offer no hospitalization insurance at all, and they can’t get health benefits or any other benefits. So they die.

In education, people are taught by rote, and the authorities don’t want to deviate from that, even though it’s clear that this education system doesn’t work. I think a proper education is a basic human right, but of course it conflicts with the interests of authoritarian leaders. It used to be that you could take any object you had at home—a radio, a pair of shoes, a piece of clothing—which you had brought with you from abroad, you could take it down to a shop in any little village and the craftsperson there could copy it for you. That was fine in the early stages of industrialization, but those skills aren’t needed so much anymore. Now the people in power are beginning to see that they need workers with enough creativity to get into the high-tech stuff, but they still want to be able to control what they learn.

From my own experience living in various parts of Korea, I would not accept the statement that human rights have improved since I’ve been here. There have been areas of improvement, but it has come from the grassroots, from people demanding their rights. The newspapers give the impression that the wonderful progress has been made on the reunification issue is due to Mr. Roh’s initiative. The students aren’t buying that, and they shouldn’t. The workers and the students started working on reunification themselves and pushed the government to move on it—and further than the government wanted to go.

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