Learning to Live with Purpose

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.”


Reflections from the Farm

During the weekend of October 11-12th, 2014, members of the ISC’s KHEP (Korean History, Economics, and History Program) team traveled to Sangju in Gyeongsangbukdo for a weekend of volunteer farming work with 승곡농촌체험마을 (the Seunggok Farming Experience Village), an organic farming village. Throughout the weekend, members harvested pears, red peppers, perilla, and buckwheat, as well as conversed with members of the Korean Peasants League and the Korean Women Peasants Association. Below are their reflections on the weekend experience:

IMG_3550Although I had already experienced urban and rural farming in Korea, I really enjoyed our visit to the “Back to the Land” village in Sangju. Though a staunchly conservative region of the country, the Peasants League and Korean Women’s Peasant Association are active here and they were very open to sharing their struggles with the ISC team. We also did truly meaningful physical work – picking the well-known Sangju pears and threshing perilla and buckwheat, all while munching on persimmon and enjoying our lovely surroundings. We struck a good balance between work and in-depth conversation, especially as we shared our personal connections to food and farming over a round of drinks with the farmers. A great learning weekend. – Ana Traynin

IMG_3537I was invited to partake in some of the autumn 2014 harvesting activities at the Saebyeok Farm. I looked forward to a weekend away from the city surrounded by nature and some good healthy labor as a switch-up from lab work. Upon arrival, we were given a hearty welcome by Jo Won-Hee, an avid farmer and member of the Korean Peasants League. We immediately jumped into the works going on by gathering dozens of crates full of pears along with Lee Seok-Min, another farmer of the cooperative. We learned some of the science and methodology of family-style farming, along with some of the social issues facing small farmers in light of free trade. Additionally, we were exposed to the implications of insurgence of imported food to South Korea. We also met with the president of the Korean Peasant’s Woman Association to hear of some of the struggles for female farmers in Korea. Coming from a place where you really should wash everything before eating, it was almost like a Willy Wonka experience to be able to just pick a huge pear off of a tree and taste some of the freshest fruit ever experienced. It did not end there; we also sampled a fair share of persimmon. The next day we continued to harvest various peppers and buckwheat before making the trek back to Seoul. Throughout the weekend, we met some very kind people who made sure we felt as welcome as possible. My first farming experience was well had. – Matt D’Arcy

IMG_3602As someone who grew up not only in produce-rich California but a town known for agriculture, yet had never experienced farming, I arrived for the weekend excited yet not quite sure what to expect. Thanks to the kindness and consideration of our host Jo Won-Hee, his family, and the rest of the Seunggok Village community, my first experience with farming was both fun and fulfilling. There’s something deeply satisfying about being able to see the fruits of your labor (pun intended). It also wasn’t until leaving Seoul that I realized how much of a tangible effect urban living has; in the countryside the air felt cleaner, the food tasted better, and people seemed more at peace, making the return to the hustle and bustle of Seoul a jarring one.
At the same time, though, I felt very conscious of the fact that, while this was merely a fun educational weekend activity for us, for the farmers we worked with, this was their life’s work and livelihood. They spoke candidly about the negative impact the FTA and other neoliberal policies have had on them and how protesting them is essential not only to protecting their way of life but for food sovereignty of Korea. As anxious as I feel right now about earning a sufficient income on a month-to-month basis, I can hardly imagine staking a year’s work and income on crops; and after seeing the dedication and care that goes into family farming, ensuring their security seems like something that should be a given. Yet, despite these hardships, the image that has remained with me is not one of victimhood, but of inspiring protagonism, of people who prize their right to self-sufficiency and a relationship with the land despite the forces of capitalism and neoliberalism. – Stephanie Park

IMG_3553Having just arrived in Korea a little over a month ago, I’ve been immensely curious about life outside of Seoul, in particular rural and agrarian life. Both Koreans and foreigners had told me there isn’t much to see in the Korean countryside. They dismissed its importance, remarking how there is very little un-urbanized land and what remains isn’t picturesque or well groomed. However, after a short but transformative weekend in Sangju, it became clear that the rural landscape and the communities that reside there are an indispensible part of South Korea’s past, present and future.
In the village, the air was fresh and rejuvenating; the fresh fruit and vegetables were nourishing, and the people were charming and welcoming. But there was more to our experience than these pleasant breaks from dense city-life. The long and intimate conversations with farmers revealed struggle, vulnerability, and defeat alongside courage, activism and empowerment. At times, I felt hopeless for this group as they spoke of their struggles with the free trade agreements and massive GMO seed companies. And yet, much of the time I felt huge waves of empowerment overtake these thoughts when they would speak about KWPA, Sister’s Garden Plot, or the back to the land movement. I left Sangju feeling the importance of this under-appreciated group of people and their landscape. In this place, a rare continuity of time still exists. Layers of Korean history still occupy the rural landscape and the memories of those living there – whether it’s the political history still restraining them, or the ancient traditions of community and ancestor worship still being practiced or remembered. And while the farmers keep a very present mindset structured by the weather and seasons, they are continually building, fighting, and working for the future of small-scale farming in South Korea.
It is clear that there is much to be learned from this group, about Korean history, food sovereignty, activism and more. While I learned an immense amount about Korean history, political structure and social movements, my personal role in the scheme of things also became clearer. I realize that we all have a say in these issues in some way and our decisions, actions and votes at home or in Korea, may ultimately impact the people we meet in a tiny farming village in South Korea. – Lindsay Burnette

DSC_8908This past weekend the ISC traveled to Sangju, a ‘slow’ city in South Korea’s countryside to learn about farming. From the moment we stepped on to the farm we were welcomed with hospitality, smiles and fresh, delicious food. Each farmer we met was beaming as many told us of the move they had made from city life, to country living. We were given a taste of what food grown by a strong local community can look like. We spent the weekend discussing politics while picking pears, persimmons and peppers. Our work was rewarded with fruit juice, sweet potatoes and traditional home cooked meals. We saw how hard people work to grow and harvest food. It’s a simple, natural cycle that is often taken for granted. We live in a fast paced world where people hardly have time to chew, let alone cook. People are disconnected from their food, most never have a moment to slow down and appreciate where it comes from and how it’s grown. Food and farming have become increasingly complicated and political. Economic barriers and capitalism are destroying the balance humans have with nature. Instead of our food being directly in the hands of the people, it’s controlled by corporations. Over the course of the weekend, I came to the realization that this fight isn’t just about food- it’s much deeper. It’s about the different cultures and communities that surround the food. Local farming initiatives, like the one in Sangju, are not only growing food, they are helping to rebuild communities. They are dedicated to preserving a simple, healthy way of living. This weekend was literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air. I was fed some of the best food I’ve ever tasted, from some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. All the political and economic facts and figures from food related documentaries, articles and books I’ve been exposed to were given context. I am grateful to all the farmers who shared their stories, wisdom and their work with us. When it was time to go home I was refreshed and happy- I also felt a sense of urgency. Farms and communities like these are rare. If things don’t start to change soon they will no longer exist. Food is integral, not only to our survival, but to our happiness and quality of life. We need to slow down and reexamine our current relationship with food and help support local farmers who are taking the time to grow food we can feel good about eating. – Erica Sweett

May 18: Truth from within Solidarity

by Erica Sweett

The atrocities that ravage countries are pushed into the shadows of history by those who are threatened by the weight of its truth. In the late 1970s Korea was very different. The country was still under military dictatorship. Citizens fought tirelessly for their basic rights. The assassination of President Park Chung Hee on October 26th 1979 sparked unrest across the country. Army general Chun Doo Hwan quickly replaced Park. In an attempt to divide and weaken the unified voices of the people he executed martial law. In response, students and citizens rose up in protest.

Pro-democracy demonstrations spread across the country. The May 18th History Compilation Committee of Gwangju recounts that, “By that time Gwangju had already shown itself to be the center of the fiercest demonstrations…” [1]. The strength of the movement in Gwangju posed a serious threat to the Chun Doo Hwan regime. Operation Choongjung (True Heart) was created to control and ultimately to destroy the growing solidarity movement. Choongjung was made up of paratroopers who were specially trained to violently break up crowds. On May 18th 1980, what started as a peaceful protest for democracy quickly became a bloody ten day battle. The uprising ended with the loss of hundreds of innocent lives.

Lee Shin was fourteen during the Gwangju uprising. He has spent the past twenty five years fighting for reunification. He also gives lectures on the events of May 18th and is actively involved in the Gwanjgu community. He explained that as the movement grew it was matched with violence. “The first day they hit the people with batons. The second day they impaled them with bayonets. The third day they shot them. The fourth day they massacred them in the provincial building.”

During the height of the uprising, soldiers blocked off Gwangju from the rest of the country. On May 22nd, the fifth day, the army retreated to Gwangju’s outskirts. During this time the community came together: They shared food, water, blood. Despite open banks and weapons, there was no violence. On May 23rd people started to clean streets and restore order. Volunteers stayed and guarded the town all night long. Lee Shin described the time using the Korean word 정 Jeong: “In Gwangju people came together as one. This is Jeong, it is difficult to explain in English. It means emotional feeling, love. It’s a very Korean word.” The violence of the paratroopers was intended to suppress the very thing that emerged in their short absence from the city. Unity had formed out of the chaos.
The uprising did not end peacefully. On May 27th, Operation Choongjung carried out its final phase. The paratroopers murdered all in their path. “The troops kicked down doors and shot at anything that looked or sounded like a person” [2]. The Martial Law forces entered and took control of the city. At 7 am, the Provincial hall was handed over and the military had full control. Those who had survived were sent to military camps. Extreme violence was the only way the corrupt government could silence the community. “In less than 90 minutes the ten day Gwangju uprising had been brought to an end” [3].

The media and government painted the protesters as violent rebels and communists who posed a threat to the stability of the country. The government physically divided the community. They destroyed evidence of the massacre and manipulated the truth. While they were successful in suppressing the uprising, they did not destroy the spirit of the movement. During those dark times a deep connection in Gwangju was formed. The power of The Gwangju Uprising is found not in its brutal end but in the communities fight against injustice.

The Gwangju Uprising and other pro-democracy movements helped the country achieve its first direct presidential election in 1987. Korea’s rapid economic and social development has brought new challenges. Shin notes that, “Through industrialization, Korea had much development. It built large buildings and cars. Superficially, it seems like a lot of growth. But the community structure has collapsed.” Korea struggles to find unity amidst the growing pressures of capitalism. Shin explained that Korea, in the wake of another tragedy (the Sewol Ferry Tragedy), is again, trying to find the essence of the Jeong that was felt in Gwangju.

Dedicated people like Shin and groups like The May 18th Historical Compilation Committee of Gwangju are working towards rebuilding a stronger community. They are educating people about the past in order to revive the spirit of what was lost. Through their work they share new perspectives that challenge the current state of Korea. The Historical Committee concludes by reflecting on Gwangju’s significance:

The 21st century will be an era of unlimited competition. To prepare for it we must continue to improve our society. Through the realization of a community spirit of selfless assistance trust, the spirit of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising can continue to shine brightly into the future [4].

Lee Shin, The May 18th Historical Compilation Committee of Gwangju and other leaders are creating space for people to visualize a more unified future.

As a foreigner I have but a fragmented outsider perspective of Gwangju and Korea’s political situation. Despite this, the Gwangju Uprising resonates with me. There are many words that can’t be translated and feelings that I can’t articulate. In times of pain and suffering people show their strength and resilience. Like the word Jeong – the truth is beyond translation. It is found deep within communities; it is not linear and cannot be eradicated.
Dictator regimes and capitalist institutions are disconnected from the community. This disconnect allows institutions to be ruthless; acting out of self-interest and being accountable to no one. Yet this perceived power that allows them to divide and weaken societies will also be their downfall. The truth found within unity is strong. Korea has shown that people find strength in their struggle. While the May 18th uprising is unique to Korea, the movement’s powerful message of truth found within solidarity is universal.

1. May 18 History Compilation Committee of Gwangju; The May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising; 2013. 47
2. Ibid., 109.
3. Ibid.,110
4. Ibid., 119

A Reflection on Community Education

by Erica Sweett

Coming to Korea 1.5 years ago, I could never have imagined how much this country and its people could teach me. For me, education is about discovery. It is a shared knowledge that opens your mind to worlds beyond your own. Instead of passively learning about the culture and history of where we are living, we become active members of retelling and reshaping the future.
In March I was invited to see a play about three women who worked in the Korean garment factories during the 1970s. The women read their stories alongside actors who reenacted the scenes. Choking back tears, they spoke of the inhumane treatment, humiliation and violence they endured in the factories.

The Korea these women spoke of was not only of a different time, but of a completely different world. Their stories allowed me to see, from a personal perspective, the struggles many Koreans face.

The three women are political activists and organizers. Some are also mothers and grandmothers. They have taken on many roles during their lifetime have persevered and continue to fight for justice. I left the theatre inspired. These women could have easily buried their painful pasts; instead they had the strength to share their stories.

A couple of weeks later we met Shin Soon-Ae, one of the women from the play, in a Seoul cafe in Dongdaemun, located in the building that formerly housed the Cheonggye garment factories. After ordering some drinks, Shin told us more about the café’s past and that it hadn’t changed from the 1970’s. She took us on a small tour of the building and with her guidance, we were able to imagine a worker’s life here.

We also met with Lee Chung Gak and Choi Son Young, the other two women from the play. The three women told us about small church-based education programs and unions that led to their politicization. The programs allowed workers to become a part of a community where they were able to interact in small groups with their peers. These smaller interactions gave them a shared sense of pride and empowerment that inspired them to organize and take action.

This type of schooling was seen as a threat to the government and factory owners and was quickly shut down. A capitalist driven society does not value community education, but rather education that is driven by competition and individual needs. Small grassroots education programs posed a big threat to the oppressive leaders of the time. The action inspired by the educational programs proves that – while capitalism and dictator governments are powerful – so too are organized communities.

The ISC has given me the opportunities to engage in a way that wouldn’t have been possible on my own. They have introduced me to people and places that have challenged and broadened my understanding of the world. Through them I have started to connect more with Korea. I have become a part of a diverse community that is allowing me to reflect on my place, not only in Korea’s struggles, but the struggles of the global community.

These women have motivated me to infuse my life with more passion and to continuously question the knowledge I am acquiring. They identify as workers and have dedicated their lives to telling their stories. Learning in this way from our community is the first step towards becoming actively involved in a fight for change.