By Dae-Han Song
On June 14th, Kris Pak, an adoptee; Stephanie Park and Dae-Han Song, two Korean-Americans; Taryn Assaf, a Lebanese-Canadian; Anastasia Traynin, a Russian-American; and Erica Sweett, a Canadian meet with Kwon Nak-gi: trim, neatly dressed, nearing 70, set of black hair, hint of slouch, and tattooed eyebrows. He speaks with the earned conviction and justification of one who stayed true to his beliefs and comrades in the face of torture and 17 years of solitary confinement.
The National Security Law
Kwon, Nak-gi was arrested in 1972 (along with his father, mother, and younger brother) for violating the National Security Law in the incident of the Gyongsang Province Revolutionary Party for Reunification. The National Security Law had been created soon after liberation from Japan to repress the uprisings erupting from a divided South Korea: On one side stood the nationalists, communists, and socialists; on the other, the Japanese collaborators. Since that time the National Security Law has been used to censor, incarcerate, torture and kill dissenters. Those imprisoned are grouped between ones who renounced their beliefs under torture, and ones who did not. Separating those let free and those that persisted was a signed statement renouncing one’s beliefs. Those that persisted are referred to as prisoners of conscience. Kwon Nak-gi is a third generation long term political prisoner of conscience.
Four Generations of Political Prisoners
The first generation of political prisoners was arrested at the end of the Korean War: they had fought for the North but were trapped in the South when the war ended. Some were executed; others received life sentences eventually serving up to 40 years. The second generation was arrested upon returning to the South in the early 1960s to jumpstart the South’s reunification movement. The third generation was too young to fight in the war but old enough to participate in the South’s reunification movement in the early 70s. The fourth generation was arrested in the latter half of the 1970s, framed as spies to justify the continued existence of the National Security Law. They were later retried and found innocent, including those executed and those killed in prison.
Struggle and Freedom
As the struggle for democratization intensified, pressure to release the political prisoners mounted. Many, including Kwon Nakki, were released after the October 1987 uprising. Others were released under Kim Yong Sam, and finally one by one the remaining unconverted long term political prisoners were released under the Kim Dae Jung presidency. 63 of them were repatriated to North Korea as a humanitarian gesture under the June 15, 2000 agreement between Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il.
As we move from the background to his story, I ask, “What was prison life like?” Kwon Nak-gi describes the cells for political prisoners: Each prisoner was held in a 0.75 pyeong (2.5 square meters) cell: just large enough to sit against one wall and touch the other with your feet. To break them, the prison kept them under solitary confinement. “In our cells, we didn’t have any books. If you had books, you could escape. They wanted to keep the pressure on: They wanted us to feel sadness, misery, loneliness.”
As he relates his daily prison life, I glimmer moments of resistance, persistence, and dignity in the mundane: keeping mind and body busy, strict adherence to hygiene and exercise, and even discipline and resourcefulness in the use and reuse of a pail ration of water.
“One of our greatest sources of strength was study. Among the hundreds imprisoned, we had philosophers, professors: learned people. So, they created lessons on dialectical materialism, contradiction, the principles of an organizer, political science, economics.” While each of the political prisoners was kept in solitary confinement, they communicated through a secret system of taps, scratches, and knocks on the wall.
“We would sit alone in our room doing these studies. Our elders would tap out a sentence on the wall. Then I would recite and memorize it in rhyme.” As he demonstrates by tapping, scratching, and knocking in rapid succession, he murmurs off a string of sentences from memory. “It’s been so long, that I’m starting to forget them…It took me about a year to memorize it all.”
“After breakfast and the dishes, I would recite my lessons. It took exactly three hours. Without that, there was no way we could have held out for 10, 20, 30 years. A human being needs a purpose and a practice. That’s the only way to endure. We have to remind ourselves why we exist. For us, it was important to not while away the day. That’s why we studied everyday. It gave us a purpose.”
“The second source of strength was struggle. If they simply left us alone, we would have become bored, listless. But, they tortured us. All animals fight back when you mess with them. But, humans are special: We also fight back when someone messes with others. That is our strength. If they beat one of us, then the others would start a hunger strike. These struggles helped keep our humanity.”
“Study, struggle, and finally comradeship. I wonder if without comrades I could have kept my beliefs for so long.” Kwon Nak-gi relates how, in winter, younger prisoners would pad their underwear and in the exercise yard would exchange it with the worn-out ones of the older prisoners. Or of when someone had diarrhea, he would save his food and pass it on to hungry comrades despite punishment if caught.
His voice recalls a past moment, “One day after getting tortured, I returned to my cell. I was bloodied; my energy was drained. As the sun set and night fell upon me, my eyes welled up with tears. I wondered to myself, ‘Do I really need to keep getting beat up like this?’ My thoughts wandered off to a woman back in Busan. ‘Why did I listen to my father? Why don’t I just give up and live comfortably outside?’”
“The next morning, through the food slot, I saw a senior comrade in his 50s – his skin down to his bones – raising his fist motioning me to stay strong. At seeing that, there was no way I could sign the renunciation document. How could I leave behind all these elders and comrades to live comfortably outside? I stuck it out to the end not because I was smarter, or tougher, or better. It was these relationships. It was these moments, once, twice, thrice, ten times, one year, ten years, twenty, as time flowed…that is how I was made. No one is born good or bad. Our education, our actions – that is what make us.”
Releasing the Han
Anastasia asks, “What are your goals now?” The question stirs a reflection. Kwon Nak-gi pauses then responds, “When you say goal, there is that which forms in our rational self, from our knowledge, which we plan and then try to execute, and there is that which forms within our hearts and releases our unresolved feelings, our Han. The goal which resides in my rational self and in my heart, are one and the same: reunification.”
His “rational” reasons for reunification are many: an independent country; military spending used for social welfare instead; and the freedom to hear, read, learn what one wants and to choose freely. Then, a profundity permeates his voice, “Reunification is also an ardent wish that resides in my heart. We all make promises, like today, we made a promise to meet here. But, a promise between living people, can be changed, postponed, or even canceled if both acquiesce. A promise with those who’ve died cannot be canceled, postponed, or altered. That is the han that resides in the hearts of those that survived. I made a promise to my elders that I would struggle on until the reunification of our homeland. They died in prison. Even my juniors, who I loved and cared for, that were released but passed away, we promised to fight for reunification.”
Advice for the next generation
As our meeting comes to a close, Anastasia asks, “Do you have any advice for the next generation?” Kwon Nak-gi’s voice mingles with delight, expectation, and respect as he answers, “Dialectical materialism states that the new will replace the old, and that the new becomes old. Nothing remains fixed. I see myself as the old: I am 69. You are young; you are in your twenties, in your thirties. I can’t tell you how to live your lives. But, I can tell you that while I spent my twenties and thirties in prison, I never lived in shame. I didn’t accomplish anything great, but I never betrayed my beliefs. I did not live in fear; I did not live in shame. Because you are young, your dreams, your directions, they will all be varied. But, live your life free of fear and shame. To do that, you must preserve your confidence and maintain your self-respect.”