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.”