Will Fight a Thousand Times Over: The Power of a Mother

Making History: Minkahyup

by Dae-Han Song

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(from left to right) Kim, Hyun Joo; Kim, Jeong Sook; Jo, Soon Deok; Dae-Han Song; Stephanie Park; (camera-woman: Jeong Eun Hwang)

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[1], Stephanie Park[2], and Dae-Han Song[3] visited Minkahyup[4] to interview its current president Jo, Soon Deok[5]; former president Kim, Jeong Seok[6]; and administrative coordinator Kim, Hyun Joo[7].

“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.

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Minkahyup mothers and long term political prisoners stand on stage closing out the 1000th protest.

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).

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“I hope that like the balloons rising in the air, so will the burden on these mothers.”

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.

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Jo, Soon Deok (third from the left) holding a banner calling for the abolishment of the NSL in its 50th year on December 1st, 1998.

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.

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1000 protestors went on hunger strike in front of the National Assembly calling for the Abolition of the National Security Law (December 20, 2004)

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.

[1] Jeong Eun Hwang is the ISC Communications Coordinator.

[2] Stephanie Park is an ISC intern.

[3] Dae-Han Song is the ISC Policy and Research Coordinator.

[4] 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.

[5] Jo, Soon Deok has been Minkahyup[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

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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.”

Struggle and Camaraderie : Survival as a Korean Long-term Political Prisoner

By A.T.

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

Unbroken: Kwon Nak-gi, Long Term Political Prisoner of Conscience

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.

Prison Life
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.

Strength
“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.”