중앙데일리

Militant moms mark 20 years of protests

Dec 11,2005

“Mothers with purple scarves,” members of the Association of Family Members of Democratization Activists, attending a concert on Saturday in celebration of their group’s 20th anniversary. By Kim Tae-seong

At 2 p.m. on Thursdays for the past 13 years, Pagoda Park in Jongno, central Seoul, has played host to a group of middle-aged women wearing purple head scarves and shouting in unison. Rain or shine, they appear, holding photographs of imprisoned activists and shouting, “Free prisoners of conscience!” Today, these “mothers of purple scarves,” members of the Association of Family Members of Democratization Activists, better known by the Korean abbreviation, Minkahyup, mark the 20th anniversary of their group’s foundation.
Korea’s modern history from the 1960s to the 1980s was an age of military regimes, led first by Park Chung Hee then by Chun Doo Hwan. Compared to the terrorists of today, the democratization activists ― mostly college students and intellectuals ― were mere nuisances. However, under the supervision of the then-powerful National Security Planning Agency, the state intelligence agency, such activists were blacklisted, detained and imprisoned, being defined as pro-communist, anti-state figures under the National Security Law. The regimes sometimes manipulated and fabricated incidents so as to crack down on the activists, as found recently by a “truth-finding” committee of the National Intelligence Service, today’s state intelligence agency. The military regimes tortured pro-North Korean activists to force them to recant their beliefs, many surviving activists witness today. Because they endured such torture and kept true to their “consciences,” such jailed activists were for decades called “prisoners of conscience.” Their main supporters on the outside were the “mothers of purple scarves.”
The history of Minkahyup dates back to 1974, when the Park Chung Hee regime detained and indicted about 180 student activists on charges of being involved in the Association of Young Students for Democracy, claiming they were a puppet organization of North Korea seeking to overthrow the South Korean regime. The family members of the detained students formed a group called the Council of Families of the Detained, which evolved into Minkahyup, launched in 1985. According to last week’s revelation by the state intelligence agency, the charges were fabricated by the Park regime.
The mothers’ tenacious, decades-long protests publicized the “prisoners of conscience” issue and earned public support. According to the group, as many as 1,400 prisoners of conscience were later released.
The Minkahyup mothers were not natural-born fighters against military regimes. Kim Dong-won, an independent movie director, says, “What’s indeed amazing about the ‘mothers’ is that they evolved into powerful, devoted activists themselves, from average people.” Mr. Kim, who presented a film honoring the group’s anniversary, titled “Purple Scarf,” adds, “We all owe a lot to the mothers for their efforts for democratization.”
Ham Ju-myeong, who was recently found innocent on charges of being a North Korean spy, said with tearful eyes, “When nobody paid attention to our pleas of innocence, the mothers of Minkahyup were the only ones who fought for us.” Mr. Ham falsely confessed he was a spy after undergoing torture under the military regime.
Jeong Sun-nyeo, 69, is one such purple-scarved mother. Ms. Jeong was a self-described “average mom,” before she learned in 1987 that her daughter, a prestigious Seoul National University student, had been arrested and detained as a student activist. “I could do nothing but cry, and was also taken to the police station,” Ms. Jeong said, at a concert to celebrate the 20th anniversary at Hanyang University on Saturday. “There was one police officer who told me to stay away from Minkahyup,” Ms. Jeong recalled, adding, “I wanted to find out what kind of organization Minkahyup was, to be feared by the police.” Ms. Jeong contacted the group, which helped her hire a lawyer for her daughter, although Ms. Jeong alone had been unable to find a lawyer willing to confront the military regime. Ms. Jeong subsequently joined other mothers on the street every Thursday, and has been an active member of Minkahyup for the past 18 years. (Her daughter was released in 1989.) During that period, Ms. Jeong was once hospitalized for five months, after being injured by a riot policeman at a street demonstration.
Times have changed and the nation saw the end of military regimes long ago. However, Ms. Jeong and other mothers refuse to stop their Thursday protests. “First of all, there is the National Security Law,” Ms. Jeong said. Minkahyup claims that about 100 activists still need to be cleared from wrongful charges as North Korean spies and that there are still about 50 prisoners of conscience in jail. Another major issue that the group supports is objection to military service on religious grounds. “There are so many things left to be done,” Ms. Jeong stressed.


by Chun Su-jin, Baek Il-hyun


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