A South Korean Prisoner of Conscience

by Carol on January 31st, 2012

In the spring of 1980, South Korea was in the hands of the military dictator Chun Doo-hwan, who had staged a coup a couple of months after the assassination of the previous military dictator, Park Chung-hee. It was a time of great social and labor upheaval, with disturbances caused by workers in various areas, demonstrations among the coal miners, industrial strikes and student demonstrations against Chun’s illegal seizure of power. Riot police were sent to squash all unrest. Chun disposed of his political rivals, dismissed the National Assembly, closed the universities and declared martial law. Then in May a peaceful demonstration on the campus of Chonnam University was attacked, not by the usual riot police with tear gas and night sticks, but by the Special Forces, paratroopers who had been deprived of sleep and food for three days then fed alcohol. In their mad frenzy they attacked people on and off campus with bayonets and created a bloodbath. The citizens came out in support of the students. Eventually the military was forced to withdraw. The townspeople elected a council which appealed to the U.S. as head of the United Command, but their request to intervene went unanswered. In the meantime, the military had sealed off the town, and they returned with overwhelming force. In the end an estimated two thousand people were massacred, many hauled away and buried rather than returned to their families.

The news about the Kwangju Incident was suppressed or distorted by the press by government order. This was in the most repressive period of Chun Doo-hwan’s rule. Given the reputation that the people of the Cholla Provinces had for being untrustworthy leftists and artists, much of the Korean population accepted the official rumor that Kwangju had made it up. But about five years later a video was put together from pictures the German and Japanese media had taken right after the massacre, and copies of it began circulating. Eventually, the news did come out. (For a fuller account, see “A Priest’s View of Human Rights in Korea” http://caroldussere.com/2010/05/09/a-priests-view-of-human-rights-in-korea. Also, Henry Scott-Stokes and Lee Jae Eui’s Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Account of Korea’s Tiananmen. (New York and London: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.)

Young-soo was in middle school when he heard about the event from his classmate. “When I heard about Kwangju, even though I didn’t know much about it, it was a very big thing for me. At first I couldn’t believe it.  Then another classmate said his brother was crippled. Then I knew. I rejected everything from school—every poem, every novel, every bit of history. I started over, and I saw the world with new eyes.”

Fast forward to 1996 when Young-soo was a university student deeply committed to social change. He was arrested after the riot police sealed off buildings on the Yonsei University campus where student organizations had assembled to discuss the reunification of the Korean peninsula and other issues. (For a description of the confrontation, see “5,715 Students Arrested After 9 Day Protest and Police Brutality” <http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/55a/204.html>

Young-soo’s story

Some people thought students protested against the government because they didn’t want to study. That wasn’t true in my case. I really wanted to study, but I was desperately trying to find a way to develop a social movement. There were lots of uncertainties and lots of confusion. I wanted to work for democracy and social welfare and human rights. But every day things were changing.

In 1996, the president of the country was Kim Young-sam. He was a civilian president following several years of military rule, which was symbolic, but he wasn’t exactly democratic. Many of his policies reflected those of the previous regimes, especially Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo. Kim had been an opposition leader, but he wanted to be president, so he joined Roh’s camp in a three-party merger. While many people regarded the government as a democracy, others were concerned about Kim’s so-called reform policies, especially regarding Korean reunification and education. There was also a scandal involving Roh Tae-woo’s huge, illegally obtained slush fund—hundreds of millions collected from Korean businesses—and whether a large amount of that money funded Kim’s election campaign.

In 1996 the students were criticizing the government on three main points: the corruption issue I mentioned, the education issue and the reunification issues. The education concerned a big increase in university tuition and a proposed change in university structure. The university was not open. A student couldn’t enroll in the university and then decide on a major. Acceptance came for a particular major within that department. Both academics and the student hierarchical structure were based on the departmental system. All of a sudden, without any preparation, the Ministry of Education wanted to change it. There were no advantages to be gained, and the professors weren’t prepared for the changes. The students saw it as an attempt to dismantle the student movement by destroying its structure and the close relationships among students of the same department. Then there was the reunification issue. At the beginning of his presidency, Kim Young-sam had allowed a prisoner to return to North Korea, and he took other progressive actions. But then after the death of Kim Il-sung he canceled the North-South summit talks. In 1994 he returned to the old, repressive policies.

In early 1996, the students were demanding an investigation into the corruption issue. Whenever they demonstrated for reunification, they were severely suppressed on the streets by the riot police, which hadn’t happened in 1995. There was a very confrontational atmosphere. In March, when the students at Yonsei University demonstrated, there was a suspicious death which the students attributed to the riot police clubbing someone to death. A series of events in April, May and June caused the confrontations to escalate.


August 15 was National Liberation Day, the anniversary of freedom from Japanese colonial rule. Traditionally, students, dissidents, anti-government groups and democratization movement groups celebrated and held rallies for reunification and other democratization issues. The Korean Federation of University Student Councils [Hanchongnyon, which the authorities considered an “enemy-benefitting organization”] announced the event for August 13 to 15, but the government declared it illegal. There was conflict. Finally, the government shut off all access to Yonsei University. Nevertheless, a total of about 4,000 students got in. The riot police attacked. [With massive use of combat-grade pepper gas and liquefied pepper gas, fire and beatings even after the students surrendered.] Over the following days, the severity of the crackdown did not lessen although many prominent people outside the campus asked the government to let the students go home. The electricity and water were shut off and the radio and the news channels. No food was allowed inside. We almost starved. Some women’s organization tried to donate menstrual pads to the female students, but the police wouldn’t let the pads in. Students had been injured in the struggle with the police, but medical supplies were also not allowed in. We resisted until maybe the twenty-first or the twenty-second, then decided to escape. I was arrested on the way out. About 3,000 or 4,000 students were arrested by the police. A hundred—I don’t know—students spent one or two years in prison. I only got information after I was released. There was a very small human rights investigation. [See above link.] Some of my friends who had already done their military service said they had heard military guns shooting, like inside the building at a barricade. They said it was like another Kwangju. I don’t know exactly how many students were injured.

Before I was moved to the prison I stayed in a jail cell at the police office. Every day for about three weeks I was taken to the Hongjae office of the organization that was once the notorious Korean Central Intelligence Agency. I couldn’t see outside when I brought there. At that time the facilities were similar to when Park Chong-chol was tortured to death there in 1987. [Park Chong-chol, the head of the linguistics department student council at Seoul National University, was detained during an investigation into student activities. Park refused to confess the whereabouts of one of his fellow activists. During the interrogation, authorities used waterboarding techniques which eventually led to his death. Later in 1987 Chun Doo-hwan was overthrown, largely because of student protests.]

A lot of my problem came from being a leader. [In Confucian cultures, those at the top of the hierarchy always bear far more responsibility than those in the middle or at the bottom.] The two interrogating officers tried to terrify me. They forced me to stand and look at the wall for hours. They said, “You know this room and what happened here?” It was a room with a small bed, a urinal, a desk and a chair. They told me all of the student leaders were put in this room and not let out until they told exactly what they did. I was interrogated until midnight or one o’clock in the morning. They wanted names. I’d worked with someone high in the national alliance of student organizations. They kept asking me where he was. Every day they pressured me to write down everything I was thinking, especially anything about North Korea. “What do you think about Kim Jong-il? What do you think about the north Korean system?” They were looking for evidence that I had violated the National Security Law. In that law, especially under article 7, any criticism of the South Korean government was praise for North Korea. For two weeks I was told to write about North Korea. They were never very much concerned about the demonstration at Yonsei or what we were doing there. They wanted to know, “Who picked you for your position in the student organization?” “Oh, I was elected.” “But who picked you to become a candidate?” “What kind of books do you read?” I told them. “Didn’t you read Marxist things?” [Under the National Security Law, this was anti-state material.] They didn’t know much about Marxism or North Korea, but they had been instructed to ask or make me write about it. Funny—one day after the interrogation at Hongjae, a lower ranking official, drove me to the Seodaemun police office for more questioning. He was really eager to be promoted to interrogator, so he thought by getting information out of me he could further his career.

I spent a total of 18 months in prison. For the first six months I was at Yongdungpo, in a very small room, smaller than a twin bed. It was like a coffin. I’m short, but even so when I was lying down I couldn’t stretch out my arms because of the walls on both sides. There was no heat, and there was only a wooden floor with big holes in it. Inmates slept on the floor. Inmates were given two blankets and were allowed to buy a sleeping bag for the winter, which most of the prisoners did—except for the very poor—because otherwise it was hard to bear the cold temperature and wind. I’ve heard that the floors of the new jail are heated some. Wearing a lot of clothes didn’t help, although I didn’t have enough warm clothes. While I was lying there I could feel the rats. I stayed there the whole first winter, with ice on my body, my toes and fingers and ears. There was swelling and lots of blood. The skin got red and cracked and bled. My circulation was bad. I had regrets with regard to my colleagues and the younger students and my family, and that made the physical conditions harder to bear.

The food was bad. It was cooked by the other prisoners with ingredients that weren’t too good, and there wasn’t enough of it. We had three meals a day—a bowl of rice mixed with barley, a soup and two side dishes. Meat was available only three times a week. My family could buy kimchi and sausages and gochujang [hot pepper sauce] for me at the prison, and that made it bearable. Actually, the political prisoners were treated relatively well. My cell was a little bit modernized because I had a squat toilet instead of just a hole. I had a water tap so I could wash my face. In the other rooms water was carried in early in the morning so prisoners could wash themselves and their cutlery in their rooms.

I had thirty minutes exercise from Monday through Friday. For the whole eighteen months I was in a single cell eating alone, sleeping alone, then exercising alone—walking or running. There was no exercise equipment and no grounds outside the building. There was just a very small yard, a kind of garden.

Of the six months in Yongdungpo, the first three were really hectic, since I was called to the prosecutor’s office for investigation and the trial. I was there all day. I was so tired I couldn’t think. When I adjusted, I did yoga with some meditation as a way of overcoming my claustrophobia in that very small space. I needed escape from the darkness. There was a dim light, but it was still dark with no sunshine. I needed to overcome my fear. I felt if I could meditate and do yoga to increase blood circulation, it would also help me mentally. Through the window in the door, the prison guard saw me. He was a very experienced in Tanhak, a kind of Korean style meditation, so from time to time he came to my room and taught me. He told me, “Please lessen your rage.” His point was that if you didn’t deal with your rage, it would damage you.

I was convicted of violating the NSL, the prohibition against assembly and demonstrations, and then violence, which was a kind of collective charge. There were a lot of clashes between the students and the riot police. They had no evidence that I threw rocks or reacted in a violent way. They just lumped all the students together. After my conviction I was moved a remote area. It was the policy of the Justice Department to imprison convicted students as far away as possible from their hometowns or their families.

My second cell was two and a half times the size of the previous one. It was a little bit larger because the prison authorities were careful of all political prisoners, who were known to object to the conditions of their imprisonment. It was a kind of a tradition. They knew the political prisoners wouldn’t hesitate to go on a hunger strike or something like that. I think during the first six months I was allowed to see my family once a week for ten minutes. Later it was once a month.

In prison I was felt really disappointed and I had a sense of loss. At first I was always thinking about how to escape. But after the final conviction I needed to do something. I couldn’t think of anything, so I read books and other things. Six months before my release I read an article in the  monthly magazine Mal, which was very progressive and very critical of the government and U.S. interference. While staying in the U.S., the reporter wrote about why the U.S. empire had not collapsed and why it continued to prosper. At the end he asked what our young generation should do to prepare for the future. One of the things was to improve their English in order to work with other progressive groups and other countries on other continents. At that time my language skills were poor. Sometimes the prison guard had asked me to translate something about prison procedure for an inmate, like the English teacher who wrecked a car when he was driving drunk. I couldn’t do it very well, even something like “tomorrow we have to get up and get on the bus at 9:00.” The guard’s English was actually better than mine. I’d also been undecided about whether to finish my degree in engineering. At that time an increasing number of people were associated with human rights groups, but they were humanitarian rather than part of a social movement. After reading the article, I decided I wanted to be a bridge across borders. I felt if I could resolve the language problem maybe I could make a contribution. So I had a very clear objective.

That period is still a part of my daily life. From time to time I have dreams of being caught and thrown into prison. I don’t know whether or not it was a necessary channel to become the person I am now.

Another link: “SOUTH KOREA: Increasing Numbers of Prisoners of Conscience”