I am a 27-year-old American expat English teacher in Korea. My major challenges are: navigating a foreign culture and language, making good lessons, and balancing my life. At 25, Kwon Nak-gi and his family went to prison for violating the National Security Law with their pro-reunification activities. During his time in prison, 1972-1990, Kwon’s major challenges were enduring the beatings, torture, and solitary confinement that placed pressure on him to betray his political beliefs and comrades. Listening to Kwon’s account of his prison experience on a Sunday afternoon in June, I asked myself: “What do I stand for? Why do I exist?”
Korea’s prolonged division makes criminals of those who could help build it into a better society. Amidst widespread condemnation of North Korea and other regimes, a little-known fact about South Korea is overlooked: it boasts the world’s longest-serving political prisoners, some of whom have served over forty years. As Michael Breen explains in his 2011 Korea Times article “The Case of World’s Longest Serving Political Prisoners,” Park Chung Hee’s iron grip in the 1960s drove these men from the public consciousness. Many of these unconverted dissidents – who never renounced their beliefs – have died or been killed in prison, but others like Nak-ki survive to tell their stories to the younger generations.
One night, returning to his solitary cell, beaten and bloodied, thoughts of caving in and signing the release papers emerged in Nak-ki’s mind. He had a girlfriend and a good life: signing seemed like such an easy way out. It was seeing the faces of his older comrades that made him realize he could never betray them and his conscience. So he endured until 1990, when Korea’s burgeoning democratization saw the release of the first round of long-term prisoners under Roe Tae-woo.
The Saturday before meeting Kwon Nak-gi, Justice Party candidate and reunification activist Jeong Yeon-ook compared the divided Korean peninsula to a living cell or a person. Jeong said: “If you put together countries that were never meant to be together, they will split apart, but countries meant to be together will come together.” While the former Soviet republics are now proudly independent countries, Korea entered the UN in 1991 as a sadly divided nation. To this day, the governments of the US, DPRK and ROK have been unable to propel this living cell back together. How much longer will this division last?
In the 1940s climate of the Japanese occupation followed by US occupation, leftist anti-colonial movements flourished but were quickly crushed. The window of opportunity for a truly autonomous Korean nation seemed to close under the weight of continued oppression and a brutal 3-year war. Divisions between pro-Japanese collaborators and those staunchly against the occupation plagued society before the demarcation line was even drawn and they only deepened over time, leading to a military border that separates families and national history.
To someone like me who comes from outside this society, Kwon Nak-gi’s account offers immense insight not only into Korean history but human resilience. Yet I’m afraid that many of those in the younger generation here are too concerned with their status and career-building to take advantage of learning lessons from the past and acting in the present. While the June reunification weekend left me with more questions and doubts than answers, one thing is clear – I respect people who have given their lives for the cause of peace and reunification. I hope to learn from their struggles and emulate their level of commitment to a cause. Above all, I hope to one day see Korea reunite as one strong, independent country.
Based on interviews with Jeong Yeon-ook and Kwon Nak-gi, Seoul, June 14-15, 2014
Breen, Michael. (2011, February 20). The Case of World’s Longest Serving Political Prisoners. koreatimes.com