The Smallest Room in The World, My Solitary Cell

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The Smallest Room in The World, My Solitary Cell

"Maybe, maybe not. Maybe I won't close my eyes when I die because the web of dreamed images are still there… And maybe I will become a disintegrated grave holding the divided mountains and rivers in my arms… Maybe tomorrow all of these maybes will be real. Maybe if so, the way we would be, we would not be cowards, not be fools. Death would be serene, would be smiling!"

The above is taken from 'Maybe,' a prose poem by Lee Jong, part of a collection of poems by communist prisoners in South Korea. The collection is entitled '0.75 pyong (2.5 square meters), the smallest room in the world, my room.'

Lee, 89, is one of the oldest unswerving communist prisoners in South Korea. How can the profound confrontation between life and death be better expressed than in his poem? His will not to snap his idealistic flagpole and his love for his divided fatherland are sincere and run deep.

Clever readers may have already comprehended the meaning of the title of the book '0.75 pyong (2.5 square meter), the smallest room in the world, my room.' The size of a solitary prison cell is 0.75 pyong, and a case can certainly made that such confinement represents the smallest room in the world. The book contains a poetic record of the unswerving communist prisoners who have spent 30 to 45 years of their lives in the smallest rooms in the world.

The seven authors of this book share one characteristic. They were unswerving communist prisoners. It is up to individual readers to make judgements on the ideological expressions and currents of the seven. When we observe these people in a human light, however, by removing our own ideological blinders, we might agree with renowned South Korean poet Ko Eun, who praised them as 'men of high principle, of classic and pure affection, existing on a lofty human plane.'

The book relates the seven's childhood histories, details of their captures, and their lives in prison. They have refused to renounce their ideology, despite persistent admonitions to do so, for one reason. They are compelled to 'protect the freedom of ideology.'

Hong Kyong-son, 75, who was dispatched to South Korea for a 1965 'reunification project' and was subsequently arrested and served more than 30 years, wrote, "Apostasy is selling your conscience at the same time you betray your comrades."

Hong found a surrogate daughter in university student Kim Song-hee through exchanges of letters from prison to the outside world. From a humanistic perspective, their platonic relationship is truly moving.

The story of Lee Jong-hwan, 78, imprisoned and alone and unable to even know if his wife and family are alive or dead, is acutely heart-rending. The book also conveys the tears and agonies of Shin In-yong, 71, who now wishes to go to North Korea together with his mother who is in her 90s. Another poignant tale is told by Kim Son-myong, 75, who is known as the 'bachelor grandfather.'

Times have changed. On September 2, 63 unswerving communist prisoners, including Lee Jong, will leave for North Korea, thanks to the agreement signed at the June inter-Korean summit. Their expression, 'fatherland of ideology,' might sound anachronistic in the post-cold war era. This painful account, however, will serve as an invaluable addition to the record of suffering endured as a result of the ideological war on the Korean Peninsula.

by Chong Jae-wal

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