At 9 AM on April 16, 2014, after making a sharp turn, the Sewol ferry, its decks overladen with cargo, began to capsize off the southwest coast of South Korea. Hasty news reports of a full rescue raised family’s hopes only to dash them against the reality that only 172 had been evacuated and rescued, and 304 – mostly high school students – remained trapped inside. As the government stalled and fumbled through its emergency response during the “golden moments” of rescue, and as minutes turned to hours, and days into months, hope of rescue faded and anger mounted exacerbated by reckless inaccurate media reports and the government’s attempts to cover-up its ineptitude and sluggish response. A perfect storm of corporate greed, lax regulation, corruption, and government incompetence turned a simple accident into Korea’s worst maritime disaster in 40 years and questioned the legitimacy of a government focused on economic growth but negligent of its people’s well-being.
Now, nearly a year later, 295 bodies have been recovered, but 9 remain missing. Countless demonstrations, six million signatures, an eight month occupation of Gwanghwamun Square, and hunger strikes by the victims’ families have been carried out demanding the full truth behind the tragedy and punishment of those responsible. The government remains unresponsive paralyzed by special interests and fearful of the full implications of the truth; with bodies still missing and the truth covered up, victims’ families are denied the closure necessary to move on.
To uncover the truth and prevent such senseless deaths in the future, the victims’ families have been demanding the creation of a committee with full investigative and prosecutorial authority. The government’s response has been a timid anemic committee that has still not launched a full investigation due to departmental budget disagreements. Furthermore, while the families of those still missing are demanding the recovery of the Sewol to recover the missing bodies and uncover the truth, the government is balking ostensibly due to the costs of such mission.
Punishment for those responsible has been slow. The chief executive officer and five other employees of Cheonghaejin Marine, which owned the Sewol, are being prosecuted for negligence in the conduct of business, professional negligence resulting in death, and violating the Ships Safety Act after re-operating a 20 year old retired ship, illegally restructuring it, and overloading its top decks with cargo for greater profits. However, the current legal system makes difficult prosecution of these companies or its executives.
As the one year mark approaches on April 16th, some say, “Enough, stop fighting and just commemorate the one-year memorial quietly.” Yet, how can we ensure such tragedy does not re-occur? How can we give closure to victims’ families when the truth is covered up, the culprits are not held responsible, and nine bodies remain missing?
We must struggle against time, against the government’s efforts to cover up the truth, against a government-dominated media, and against our own apathy, so that we do not forget, and so that we can create a society that values people’s well-being and safety over profits and where such tragedy cannot re-occur.
The International Strategy Center stands with the victims’ families and demands:
- A full investigation into the truth behind the Sewol ferry disaster
- Punishment of those responsible for the disaster
- Recovery of the Sewol ferry and the nine missing bodies
Please support our call and consider:
- Signing our petition demanding that the government carry out the victims’ families’ demands.
- Participating in our photo campaign by posting a photo on Facebook or Twitter holding a sign with where you are (city and country) along with the hashtag #thetruthmustnotsinkwithsewol, and sending us a copy of your picture to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Organizing others to join the campaign.
- If you are living in Korea, attend our Open Lecture event on April 11th with the families of the Sewol victims [further information and registration at http://bit.ly/1Ovc3yv.]
We will be displaying the photos in our April issue of the Monthly World Current Report and handing them along with the petition to the family members as a gesture of solidarity. Through this campaign, we hope to raise international awareness to the reality that the Sewol tragedy remains unresolved, and to place international pressure on the Korean government to bring relief to the families who have suffered long enough.
Thank you for your support!
By Erica Sweett
In October the ISC met with Korean farmers. We were welcomed into their homes, fed fresh food and given tours of rural and urban farmlands. They shared their stories and shared the struggles Korean farmers are facing. We experienced a side of Korea often shadowed by economic progress raising questions about what and who is valued within societies. Who is supported? Whose knowledge is valid?
Today, Korea is known globally for its multinational tech companies, like Samsung and LG, but not long ago it was a country that survived almost solely on farming. In 1970, fifty percent of the populations were farmers. It’s safe to assume that farming was a significant part of Korean identity and culture during that time.
The Korean War, US food aid, along with neoliberal policies and bilateral agreements led not only to a decline in agriculture but also to one in rural communities and indigenous traditions and cultures. In the 1970s, in response to US economic pressure, the Korean government implemented Green Revolution agricultural practices. The Green Revolution modernized farming in Korea and educated farmers on technological advances in farming. It also increased the use of fertilizers and introduced new seeds.
The Green Revolution proved to be unsustainable. This “revolution” stripped farmers of their right to land, seeds and farming methods. Farmers traded their traditions and small family farms to buy fertilizers and heavy machinery. The increased cost of these new technologies forced many farmers to switch from growing a diversity of crops for domestic consumption to growing cash crops. As a result Korea has become more reliant on global food corporations. Today over 60 percent of their food comes from imports. (Jeong Kim, 2013, p.1)
Near the end of the 1980s, the government was dedicated to manufacturing and neoliberal free trade policies. Many farming communities were further destroyed as the government focused its energy and resources on increasing production and maximizing profit. The Korean government discredited and devalued its farming communities and left them vulnerable to global markets where they stood no chance of competing. By 2010, farmers were only 7 percent of the population.
Life as a farmer is unpredictable. Weather, bugs, disease and seeds are some factors that affect harvests. Farmers have to be resourceful and resilient. Yet, the politico- economic forces they confront are more powerful than any natural disaster or pest. Korean farmers are working hard to preserve their local knowledge and wielding it against neoliberal driven policies.
Korean farmers are resisting the decline in local farming. The Korean Peasants’ League (KPL) and The Korean Women’s Peasant Association (KWPA) are fighting against neoliberal free trade agreements in solidarity with farmers around the world. They are initiating back to the land movements and are sharing their indigenous knowledge and traditions; they are reviving rural communities and creating a new collective conscience that emphasizes local self-sufficient agriculture within Korea; they are giving power and control back to the people. The results are tastier food and happier, healthier communities.
KWPA is helping empower women farmers; they are protecting indigenous seeds and building relationships with local consumers. Older women farmers are sharing their knowledge with the younger farming generation. The older generation is not educated in the way modern society appreciates. “Most of them are illiterate, but experts of indigenous agriculture” (Jeong Kim, 2013, p. 2). Their deep connection to the land is vital to the future of local, traditional farming methods. The KWPA is a progressive movement that recognizes the importance of the past. “The young generation makes it possible to reconsider the role and value of women peasants, who had been undervalued and excluded from the capitalized market economy system in the process of modernization” (Jeong Kim, 2013, p.3). The Korean government deemed the older generation of women farmers as obsolete and their knowledge as meaningless. The KWPA is building a space where the value of these women can be realized and their knowledge can be used to improve the future of local communities.
The KWPA’s Sister’s Garden Plot slogan is: “An honest producer and a caring consumer: Together we can solve the problem”. They are simplifying the process food goes through before reaching consumers’ tables. Their pamphlet states that, “As consumers increase, rather than increase the scale of production, it is better to create a larger community in which producers and consumers meet.” They focus on local, seasonal farming – which is cheaper – and better for the environment. The food they grow goes directly back to the community. They have the freedom to grow food more sustainably because they’re controlled by their local market not by the restraints of the global market.
Capitalism can foster innovation and can efficiently boost economies. But it’s important to be aware of its limitations. Capitalism is independent of culture and community and displaces and devalues local knowledge. Multinational companies are protected by conflicting laws and trade agreements that limit access to local food and discourage localized, sustainable farming. Under capitalism everything is disposable and replaceable. Economic competition disrupts the natural cycle of growing, harvesting and producing food. Korea started growing cash crops because it’s economically more efficient. They became more reliant on food exports not because it’s practical – but because of trade laws and barriers that dictate what governments deem important.
We already have the necessary tools to create sustainable food sources. We have the farmers and their knowledge; what we need is a structural shift within society that supports and encourages local farmers. The needs of the global market differ greatly from those of the local markets. Cooperative communities need to be valued over the profitability of capitalism. We need to stop allowing multinational corporations and the governments who support them decide what and who should be valued within societies.
The battle facing farmers in Korea isn’t just a localized issue- it’s a global one. It is a collective struggle that affects all of us. Korean farmers have many roles. They are teachers, activists and protectors of their land and culture. Farmers, more than anyone, are aware of the grave dangers facing our planet. Farmers are a vital part of societies and their voices need to not just be heard, but listened to and valued.
Hyo Jeong Kim. (2013, September 14-15) Women’s Indigenous Knowledge and Food Sovereignty: Experiences from KWPA’s Movement in South Korea. Paper presented at Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue, International Conference, Yale University (1-19).
“Before, no matter how hard they worked or how little they earned, farmers had always had at least the assurance that they were doing the necessary work of the world, and that before them others (most likely their own parents and grandparents) had done the same work, which still others (most likely their own children and grandchildren) would do when they were gone. In this enduring lineage had been a kind of dignity, the dignity of at least knowing that the work you are doing must be done and that it does not begin and end with yourself….The dignity of continuity had been taken away. Both past and future were disappearing from them…what they knew was passing from the world.”
- Wendell Berry Jayber Crow
American farmer, poet and novelist, Wendell Berry, wrote these lines to describe the plight of farmers in early 1960s rural Kentucky. In the post-war United States, economic growth and industrialization were rapidly leading to the decline of agricultural society. This model of development that devalues farmers would soon be exported and take root across the Pacific Ocean, in the much smaller land of South Korea. The results have been no less destructive.
After the Korean War, the country faced unprecedented levels of poverty. In 1970, the dawn of the second decade of his rule, president Park Chung-hee launched the Saemaeul (New Village) Movement and the Green Revolution to firmly kickstart Korea’s economic leap forward. The focus shifted sharply to exports of high-tech goods and imports of basic foodstuffs, effectively leaving Korean farmers – then still comprising half the population – in the dust.
Flash forward to 2014, Korean farmers – who now make up only 6% of the population – are facing one of the worst crises in their history. Over the summer, the government announced that this would be the last year of rice import quotas and 2015 would see the full opening of the Korean rice market. Competition with foreign rice growers is believed to lead to the collapse of Korean rice farming. 
Despite the dire situation that they face, politicized Korean farmers keep going because they “believe in the righteousness of their struggle.” The Korean Peasants’ League and the Korean Women’s Peasant Association are prepared to keep Korean farming alive by any means at their disposable. In October 2014, the ISC team worked alongside leaders of these two groups and heard their stories firsthand.
For me, it was a lucky time to participate in the ISC’s two farming-theme weekends. After a four-day school trip of following the footsteps of the 1894 Donghak Peasants’ Revolution in Jeollabukdo (link to the ISC’s coverage of this historical event), I felt well-equipped to connect history with the present-day struggles. Our first stop was Sangju, Gyeongsangbukdo. The Seunggok Farming Experience Village is a “Back to the Land” center, a place where city people can get back to agricultural roots. Here, we were put to useful work, picking the famous Sangju (pears), threshing 들게 (perilla) and clearing an entire red-tinged field of 메밀 (buckwheat).
The work itself was meaningful, but more so were the informal discussions we had with the farmers over drinks and out in the fields. Particularly telling was the relationship between our host Jo Won Hee, Sangju’s Korean Peasant League secretary, and his mother, a life-long farmer. While overtaking us in the perilla field on a peaceful Sunday morning, this strong, friendly, outgoing elderly lady warned us “not to go into farming.” After a Saturday night of lively beer-fuelled discussion about the vital importance of food sovereignty, it was a huge reality check – farming is hard work and most farmers would rather spare their kids of it. Go to the city, get educated, get a city job. That seems to be the mantra.
Jo Won Hee and his female counterpart of Sangju’s Korean Women’s Peasant Association were university student activists during the 1980s democratization movement. Against their families’ expectations, their paths brought them right back to the farms where they came from. Seeing the preservation of farmers’ dignity as a vital struggle in Korea, they made the choice to pour their activist spirit into building a strong, independent agricultural community. With the recent protests in Seoul against the opening of the rice market, Jo remembers the days of “holding a molotov cocktail in one hand and a pipe in the other” while confronting the police. He says he is too old for that now, but he dedicates his time to advocating for the rights of farmers to keep their independence from big companies and foreign governments.
In Korea today, as in many places around the world, raising up farmers is inextricably linked with raising up women. In fact, women’s cross-generational efforts seem to hold the key to keep farming a living force. Although women have always contributed the lion’s share of farm work and have taken responsibility for seed selection and preservation, patriarchal society has denied them property and social rights. In response to this state of agriculture, The Korean Women’s Peasant Association was founded in 1989. In 2012, they won international recognition as winners of La Via Campesina’s biodiversity award for their work to preserve Korean indigenous seeds. Feminist and women’s studies PhD student Kim Hyo Jong studies the intricate ways in which “KWPA activists are working together with hal-mo-ni (grandmothers) to develop the indigenous seed preservation movement as the food sovereignty movement.”
Young women farmers learning about seeds from their elders is just one way in which women are taking matters into their own hands. The KWPA’s version of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), 언니네텃밭 My Sister’s Garden Plot, has achieved success in empowering women to grow and sell their food directly to consumers. With fifteen plots now active in communities around Korea, this movement has the potential to sustain small farmers.
The aging population of farmers around the world and the unwillingness of many young people to go into the fields poses a severe challenge, but Korea’s peasant movement is devising innovative ways to move forward. The dignity of continuity is not yet a lost cause.
 Interview, Sangju Sister’s Garden Plot, Korean Women Peasants’ Association
By Taryn Assaf
“Korea is Samsung, and Samsung is Korea”. This phrase is commonly heard and almost religiously believed by much of South Korea’s urban population. Much of what outsiders know about South Korea is Samsung, and taken from a purely economic perspective, that’s not so hard to believe: the top 30 Korean corporations make up 82 percent of the country’s exports, with Samsung being the largest. Not so long ago, South Korea was a different world entirely. Rewind to the 1970s and you’d find a population of 50 percent farmers compared to just 6.2 percent today. You’d find an economy sustained by the agricultural, rather than the technology, sector. You’d find a country that was 80 percent food self-sufficient compared to fifty percent in 2012, (however, if we take away rice and grains, the self sufficiency rate drops to a staggering six percent)[i] the lowest among OECD nations. What this has meant for Korean farmers is a total loss of livelihood; what it means for Korean citizens is a near complete reliance on foreign foodstuffs, which, as evidenced by the 2007 global food crisis, can lead to shortages and price hikes, tightening the already stretched average household budget.
Farming in Korea began its decline in the 1980s when the United States began applying pressure on South Korea to dismantle trade barriers that had, until then, protected its domestic agricultural sector. With the threat of trade sanctions, Korea opened its markets to US beef, wine, tobacco and rice. Facing large deficits in trade, and realizing it no longer needed to use its food surpluses to strengthen Cold War alliances, the US argued that agriculture should be incorporated into trade negotiations. The World Trade Organization (WTO) began pressuring the world’s farming sectors to open their markets to global competition. In 1994, Korea entered the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA)[ii] with the WTO, welcoming the near demise of its agricultural sector. This forced the government to eliminate quotas and tariffs on agricultural imports from the US and European Union, which both subsidize their farmers and agribusinesses to the combined sum of $1 billion a day. After the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the International Monetary Fund imposed further liberalization policies on Korea’s agricultural sector, hurling Korean small farmers out of competition (and for many, out of business entirely). All of this has resulted in a four-fold debt increase – an average of approximately $30,000 USD – in farming households since 1995, which continues to rise. What only forty years ago was a thriving industry is no longer a viable way of life, and Koreans must fight to hold on to their right to farm and their right to food.
As a result of bad industry and agricultural policies, food is treated as a commodity rather than a human right. The right to
healthy and culturally appropriate food produced sustainably and according to a people’s own agricultural system – a concept otherwise known as food sovereignty – is continually undermined by structural barriers caused by market demands, corporations and complicit governments. Therefore, prioritizing the needs and livelihoods of food producers, distributors and consumers is central to a sovereign food system. Korea’s peasant farming population has been a world leader in reclaiming that system. In October 2012, the Korean Women Peasants Association (KWPA) was awarded the Food Sovereignty Prize (FSP) by the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance. The FSP was developed as an alternative to the more famously known World Food Prize.[iii] It celebrates small farmers and other food producers who use socially just, environmentally sustainable and economically viable production systems. The KWPA coordinates and carries out a number of activities throughout Korea designed to empower women through the process of sustainable farming.
One of KWPA’s main initiatives is empowering women peasants through indigenous seed preservation. Indigenous seed preservation was traditionally the responsibility of women as a consequence of the conventional division of labor on the farm. According to Hyo-Jeong Kim in her conference paper, “Food Sovereignty: A critical Diologue”, “the seed economy was a women’s economy”. During Korea’s Green Revolution in the 1970s, government policies that promoted and favored industrial farming led to the loss of women’s indigenous skill and knowledge. The practice of seed preservation became nearly extinct as industrial farming methods became the norm (buying seeds, fertilizer and soil; using heavy machinery, and increasing crop yields). Not only was this a loss of expertise, it was a loss of women’s empowerment. Native seeds and their crops embody the knowledge and skills of women peasant farmers, so to disregard that knowledge is to erase a large element of women’s agency on the farm. Despite the erasure of seed preservation from modern agriculture, many women held on to the practice. To sustain KWPA’s initiative, therefore, requires that that knowledge be passed down from the now elderly women peasant population to the younger farming generation, which is only familiar with industrial farming methods. Making seed preservation once more a priority in agriculture means making women’s knowledge and instinct a priority; it means transferring power from seed manufacturing companies back to women.
Sister’s Garden Plot (SGP), for instance, aims to connect consumers to women food producers who collectively grow and deliver weekly, biweekly and monthly packages of organic produce and other homemade products to consumers’ doorsteps. They also sell organic sesame oil and soy sauce, among other a-la-carte items, on their website. SGP currently operates 26 farm communities throughout Korea. The program aims to create a solution to the crises caused by neoliberalism and a globalized food production system. From their website, “SGP believes in sustainable, organic farming, in protecting and preserving biodiversity, in safeguarding native seeds, and in realizing peasants’ rights.” In doing so, they are reclaiming their right to a food production system that puts power back in the hands of producers and consumers. Also from their website, “As a result of their efforts, women peasants in these communities take pride as women peasants and have achieved greater social recognition in their homes and villages”.
KWPA is not the only, nor the first, organization in Korea leading the alternative agriculture movement. Hansalim began in 1986 as Korea’s first agricultural cooperative and is now the largest such cooperative in the world, boasting close to 400,000 household memberships and 2000 food producers. They believe in a healthy exchange between rural producers and urban consumers through the purchase of products and through tours, cooperation activities, education programs and campaigns. To build trust between consumers and producers, Hansalim offers an “Autonomous Check System” whereby consumers and producers can go through the production process together. This is meant to ensure transparency and quality, thus developing relationships with farmers and their products.
Hansalim offers a wide variety of products, ranging from living and household items to fresh produce to processed foods (seasonings, snacks, and side dishes). To protect food sovereignty, they support all domestic producers, not only those who use organic methods (some use low levels of pesticides, although priority is given to organic producers) and focuses solely on local items. Livestock producers, for instance, use domestically grown barley to feed their livestock, bypassing the need to rely on grain imports and securing 400 hectares of barley producing land. Additionally, each product comes with a label detailing the number of kilometers traveled and the amount of carbon emissions saved in comparison to a similar imported product. The focus on local allows members to experiment with seasonal products and re-acquaint themselves with the traditional food culture.
To make shopping easy and convenient for its busy, urban customers, Hansalim offers home delivery options in addition to its 154 stores across the country. They even offer an app for iPhone and Android, through which users can access seasonal food information and Hansalim news, among other features.
Re-building Korea into a food sovereign nation is, by no means, easy. Cooperatives like Hansalim and organizations like the Korean Women Peasants Association embody the true meaning of food sovereignty, where priority is given to local production for local markets, based on local knowledge and resources. Many CSAs have sprouted up in response to the success of others – Gachi CSA (formerly WWOOF CSA), for instance, targets English speakers in Korea. Movements like these re-prioritize the lost relationship between consumers and producers in ways that ensure a dignified income for the farmers whose livelihoods have been eaten into by free trade and neoliberalism. They stand up for marginalized groups and stand against the environmentally degrading practices of large-scale industrial farming. Peasant farmers in Korea are nurturing the crops of sustainable agriculture with love and care, and are reclaiming a food system they can truly call their own.
[i] Anders Riel Mueller, The Fight for Real Food in Korea, Korean Quarterly, Winter 2012
[ii] The AoA is “the economic engine for promoting industrial agriculture — replacing family farmers with agribusiness, family farms with corporate farms, and biodiversity with monocropping.” Anuradha Mittal, Losing the Farm: How Corporate Globalization Pushes Millions off Land and Into Desperation; The Multinational Monitor, July/August 2003, 24(7/8)
[iii] The World Food Prize celebrates increased agricultural production through the use of industrial agriculture. Its recipients have included Monsanto’s Executive Vice President, Robert Fraley, for work developing GMO crops used in the U.S. Critics of the WFP state that it champions pro-GMO corporate agribusiness and the corporate owned global food system.
Making History: Minkahyup
by Dae-Han Song
The interview was carried out by Dae-Han Song and Stephanie Park with interpretation by Jeong Eun Hwang.
On October 16th, Minkahyup had their thousandth Thursday protest against the National Security Law and for the release of all political prisoners. On October 22nd, Jeong-Eun Hwang, Stephanie Park, and Dae-Han Song visited Minkahyup to interview its current president Jo, Soon Deok; former president Kim, Jeong Seok; and administrative coordinator Kim, Hyun Joo.
“What was your reaction when you found out your sons were wanted by the police?” I start the interview. Jo, Soon Deok begins, “Mothers usually think, ‘The work [fighting for democracy] needs to be done, but why does it have to be my child?’ I felt the same.” A few months after becoming Student Council President, her son gave a five minute speech at a farmer’s rally in Yeoido Square and on the spot became a fugitive. “When a son or daughter becomes a fugitive the whole family becomes one too. The Gwanak police, the school police – they harass you at home, at work,” continues Jo, Soon Deok.
Both these women are of my mother’s generation. I wonder what my mother’s reaction would be given a similar situation. “You are both a little older than my mother. She is fairly conservative. Were the progressive politics always there or did they emerge from your work?”
Kim, Jeong Sook responds, “Your mother can’t but be conservative. She came from that time. Live as the government tells you to live; don’t do what they tell you not to do. Study hard; go work in a good company; make good money. Marry a good person; have children; live a good life. Those are the desires of a parent.” Her voice becomes tinged with emotion as she recalls the anxiety and distress of those times, “You don’t start coming out to the protests because you understand your child. You come because you are the parent, the mother. But as you come, as you listen to the stories and thoughts of others, you realize, ‘My son did right. How can we just live for ourselves? He is better than his parents: He wants to create a better world for everyone.’ When mothers realize this, they start to get even more active. It begins to matter less whether they ate or got roughed up by police that day.”
Their sons had both been incarcerated and/or been fugitives for a few years; yet Jo, Soon Deok’s Minkahyup activism spans nearly two decades and that of Kim, Jeong Sook’s over two decades. I ask what kept them committed. Kim, Jeong Sook responds, “At first people came out because their child was incarcerated. We came knowing nothing simply because the only people that could understand us and could comfort and console us were the veteran mothers who had experienced this. There was no other place. As we became the veteran mothers, we felt that same obligation towards mothers that were just starting.”
As Kim, Jeong Sook continues, it becomes clear that their work to free their sons became a gateway to a new understanding and engagement with the world. “At first, it was just about getting your child out of prison as soon as possible. And that was important, but we started to realize it was also about building a better world, about abolishing the National Security Law, and releasing the prisoners.”
Kim, Jeong Sook kept stealing glances at the clock. I find out she has to leave soon to pick up her grandson from school. Our interview focuses on her. As an activist, I ask the question I’ve posed to all the activists I’ve interviewed, “What was the hardest thing about the work? How did you overcome it?”
“Back then it was so repressive,” starts Kim, Jeong Sook. Her son became a fugitive in 1989. While the military dictatorship had technically ended with direct elections in 1987, the split in the opposition party allowed Roh Tae Woo, a military leader during the dictatorship, to win the election. “My son was a fugitive for just a year. During that time, he would show up at a press conference, make a statement, and then flee. So many cops were looking for him, that they used to say that if you didn’t have a picture of my son in your pocket, then you weren’t a cop.” Jo, Soon Deok chimes in, “Her son’s was a high profile case. He is the current deputy mayor of Seoul.” For Kim, Jeong Sook, not knowing when or how her son would be caught was her greatest anxiety. She recounts an instance when he fled by getting on a bus. When the bus stopped and the police rushed in, he jumped out the bus window and broke his leg. He was arrested on December 19, 1989 after someone tipped the police of his whereabouts.
She then pans out to the story of countless other mothers. “At that time, they would torture the prisoners. We worried our children were being tortured. When we went to see them, they would always say they weren’t being tortured.” She recounts the story of an overjoyed mother whose son told her he had not been tortured. Later during the trial, the mother fainted at hearing his testimony of torture. He had been tortured by electrocution, water drowning, and whisky bottle. Kim, Jeong Sook recounts the whisky bottle torture, “They would place the prisoner’s penis on the table and hit it with the whisky bottle yelling that he didn’t deserve to have children because he was a criminal. Then they would take turns drinking from the bottle. ” “Now, he’s an Assemblymember for the Democratic Party,” she adds. “I could spend days telling you all these stories.”
Our time is up; I ask her for any last words for readers abroad. “I would like to tell them to not forget what has happened in Korea. All the prisoners of conscience and their families that lived such difficult lives, I hope that they will not forget them and help support us and remember us,” she responds.
I pose the same question of difficult moments and overcoming them to Jo, Soon Deok. She mentions that the hardest time was not her personal experience but that of witnessing the distress of countless others as they ran around protesting in front of police stations and the Agency for National Security Planning (now the National Intelligence Service).
“In the beginning, we never thought we would have 1000 protests. But because political prisoners and social problems persist, we keep going. It would not have been possible to do the Thursday protests for 21 years without those around us – organizations and individuals – supporting us,” Jo Soon Deok responds.In reference to the previous week’s 1000th protest at Topgol Park, I asked how she felt about it. Many of the speakers that day had mentioned that while sad that the NSL and political prisoners had continued for so long, the protests were nonetheless a testament to the mothers who had persisted for so long.
The use of the National Security Law had peaked in 1996 with the Yonsei University Uprising. The Korean Confederation of Student Councils was labeled an enemy of the state, and many of its student activists became fugitives and were arrested under the NSL. When Kim Dae Jung came into office in 1998, the NSL persisted, but many of the accused were pardoned and the number of incarcerations under the NSL drastically dropped. Then in 2004, President Roh Moo Hyun stated he would put the NSL in a museum as it was outdated. This inspired massive mobilizations in civilWe move on to Minkahyup’s current demands. Kim, Hyun Joo the Administrative Coordinator answers, “Our demands are the release of all prisoners of conscience and the abolition of the National Security Law.” Minkahyup also engages in various struggles around democracy, prison conditions, and peace in the Korean Peninsula. All the issues are part of a struggle to build a better world. As one of the key organizations against the National Security Law, Kim, Hyun Joo gives us a brief overview of the National Security Law and the struggle against it. She recounts its origins from a Japanese Colonial law used to capture and oppress independence fighters. On December 1st, 1948, it became a Korean law under its current name. While we were talking, Jo, Soon Deok slipped out and came back with an old photo. Kim, Hyun Joo notices and mentions, “That’s a picture of our annual funeral for the National Security Law in December 1st, 1998.” Every December 1st, social movements gather to call for the abolition of the National Security Law, thus celebrating not its birth but future demise.
Currently, the NSL discussion has been put on the back burner since 2004 because there were so many other struggles like the Ssanyong Auto Workers Struggle, or the Yongsan Eviction Tragedy. The NSL struggle never reached the peak it did in 2004. Minkahyup, Alliance to Abolish the National Security Law, Human Rights Groups, or the Korea Alliance of Progressive Movements – we keep holding protests every December 1st calling for the abolishment of the NSL.society to get the NSL abolished. A thousand people fasted for its abolishment in Yeoido Park (near the National Assembly). Yet, the growing protests and mobilizations sparked a backlash from conservative groups. Kim, Hyun Joo recalls, “The conservative groups argued, ‘If the NSL is abolished, how are you going to lock up a person that goes out to Yeoido waving the North Korean flag and yelling long live Kim Il Sung?’ My response is: ‘So what?’ When Obama comes to Korea, aren’t there people outside waving US flags and saying long live Obama? How is that any different?” Ultimately, the NSL failed to be abolished or even reformed. Nonetheless, it was rarely used under Roh Moo Hyun. It was only after the conservatives came back into power with Lee Myung Bak’s election that the NSL began to be used to investigate, prosecute, and convict people. It continues to be so used under the conservative Park Geun Hye administration.
Currently, conservative groups are trying to introduce legislation that would confiscate property and mete out harsher punishment against those that join organizations deemed enemies of the state. While individuals can be arrested, the NSL cannot disband these groups. So, other people can still join the organizations. So, the Saenuri Party introduced these types of legislation where property would be confiscated or there would be harsher punishment if you joined such illegal organizations. We have managed to keep this legislation from being introduced in the National Assembly.
I wonder at the survival of such vestige from Japanese colonialism and the Cold War, “What would it take for the NSL to be abolished?” Kim, Hyun Joo explains that the NSL is linked to inter-Korean relations. She elaborates, “When inter-Korean relations are better, when we view each other as partners in reunification and cooperation, then the National Security Law loses significance. Back when hundreds a day would visit Mount Geumgang – when exchange was very active – all of those were infractions of the NSL; yet, so many people were doing it, that the NSL dissipated from the hearts of people. But now when inter-Korean relations are bad, and the government has a policy of pressuring North Korea. We start to think, ‘If I say anything nice about the North Korean government, will I be violating the National Security Law? And so they self-censor.’ Roh Moo Hyun’s statement about abolishing the NSL in 2004 had only been possible because there had been a policy of engagement and reunification since Kim Dae Jung’s presidency because the Mount Geumgang tours were happening, because the exchange was very active. So the struggles for improving inter-Korean relations and for abolishment of the NSL are interconnected.
As we wind down our interview, Jo, Seong Deok has the last word, “I hope that the NSL is abolished, that there will no longer be any political prisoners, and that we no longer have to have the Thursday protests.”
‘Till that day.
 Jeong Eun Hwang is the ISC Communications Coordinator.
 Stephanie Park is an ISC intern.
 Dae-Han Song is the ISC Policy and Research Coordinator.
 Minkahyup was established in 1985 by families of political prisoners. In protest of President Kim Yong Sam’s statement that “there are no political prisoners in Korea,” they held their first Thursday protest in September 23, 1994 at Topgol Park. Since then, regardless of the bitter cold, scorching heat, and pounding rains, they have held their weekly Thursday meetings. On October 16th, they held their thousandth Thursday protest.
 Jo, Soon Deok has been Minkahyup president since 2011. Previously, she served as president 2002-2005. She has been a member since 1996 when her son, a college student at the time, became a fugitive under the National Security Law. After two years as a fugitive, her son was pardoned when Kim, Dae Jung took office in 1998.
 Kim, Jeong Sook was Minkahyup president in 1992 and 1998. She has been a member since 1989 when her son, a college student at the time and now the deputy-Mayor of Seoul, became a fugitive under the National Security Law.
 Kim, Hyun Joo has been the Minkahyup administrative coordinator for 4 years. She joined the social movement as a university student upon witnessing students incarcerated for violating the National Security Law.
By Erica Sweett
A few months ago the ISC met in Seoul to learn about reunification. We met with reunification activist and former political prisoner, Kwon Nak Gi. At the age of 26, he was imprisoned for breaking the National Security Law in Korea. He spent 18 years of his life in jail, from 1972 to 1989. Trying to relate to a man whose world differed so much from my own was difficult. It raised important questions and forced me to reflect on how I have been living my life thus far.
I have always been interested in social issues. This led me to pursue a degree in political science at university. While I liked the idea of social justice, my understanding of politics at the time didn’t go much past the pages of the classroom textbooks. Yet the past two years I’ve spent in Korea have made me increasingly aware of the role politics plays in the life of everyday people. As I have become more familiar with the Korean social movement, activists and politicians, I have realized that awareness and change stem not from inconsistent ideals but from the lives of dedicated individuals. All of the people we have met have had at least one thing in common: they are all distinctly aware of their purpose. They have sacrificed comfortable, stable jobs and are devoting their lives to improving their community. The big question is, how? How did they discover and find the strength to live each day with purpose?
Kwon Nak Gi’s experiences in prison left him with nothing but his purpose. They took away his clothes, possessions, his home, family, country, and physical freedom. In the eyes of his oppressors, they had successfully dehumanized him. Solitary confinement was supposed to dissolve his beliefs, but it only strengthened them. After hearing his story, it was evident that the thing that makes us human is not superficial, but something that lies deep within us.
Kwon Nak Gi told us that he found strength in three basic ways; everyday resistance to his conditions, studying, and through comradery with his fellow prisoners. It was these basic intentions, along with his unwavering commitment and internal strength, that helped him endure life in prison. A simple confession could have given him the freedom to return to his family. Yet he firmly believed that a life without meaning would be much worse than a life behind bars. While most people reading this will hopefully never have to face what he did, his story is an important lesson on how to live an honest and meaningful life in spite of your conditions.
He started by telling us about how he was always actively struggling, whether he was physically resisting torture or internally resisting confession. Each time he was tortured, his reasons for resisting were reinforced. Each time he refused to denounce his beliefs, he further solidified his commitment to them. Struggle doesn’t always come in the form of organized protests. People make the struggle a part of their everyday lives. While in prison, Kwon and the other prisoners never forgot their reason for fighting.
Education and learning proved to be another important tool for resistance. Prisoners had limited resources and were not allowed to have books. Books were seen as a pleasurable distraction and were thus banned. Within the limits of their prison cells the prisoners, made up of political thinkers, students and professors, worked together to share their knowledge. Kwon told us this as he tapped his finger on the table. He explained that the prisoners transcribed books to one another using morose code. “If you didn’t do the studying and keep the spirit inside, you couldn’t last the whole prison term,” he reflected. Opening the mind and broadening one’s perspective is crucial. Learning and teaching in any form gives substance to life and in this case, made life in prison more tolerable. It gave space for the growth and change needed to continue participating in their struggle while imprisoned.
The third way that Kwon Nak Gi found strength was through comradeship with his fellow prisoners. Because of the bond between prisoners, he was never fighting alone. He told us that “animals can’t resist oppression, but human beings can fight oppression together, so in prison we struggled together.” The prisoners would find ways to help one another, however small, such as making sure to take care of the elderly and sick prisoners. The weight and power of oppression is too much for a single person to carry on their own, but with the help of a strong community, solidarity quickly forms.
Kwon Nak Gi has taught me that to fight for your beliefs is not enough. You have to become them, living each moment with intention. In unsettling times, when everything could be taken from you in an instant, the only thing that you have is not outside of yourself – it is within. Kwon Nak Gi was tortured for 25 years yet, he sat in front of us smiling as he recounted the years of his life spent he spent in prison. He was always free because from behind the bars of his cell he was committed to living each day with a purpose, moving forward and resisting. His time was never wasted because he utilized what he had – the struggle, his mind, and his compassion for his fellow prisoners – to separate himself from the oppression and fight against it.
On the surface, his story may evoke feelings of pity. He sacrificed years of his life struggling for the reunification of a country that remains divided. But after listening to him speak, I instead felt hopeful. If a single man can endure so much loss and sacrifice for 18 years of his life while still firmly holding on to his beliefs, then just imagine the implications that has for a nation.
Kwon Nak Gi’s words and experiences contain an important message. On a personal level, he helped me understand that it is not about finding your purpose. Rather, it is about striving to constantly remain aware of and live by your purpose, especially in the moments when it feels like there is nothing left for which to fight. As he poignantly stated near the end of our meeting, “people need to never forget their reason to exist.”