Courage to break the silence

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Courage to break the silence

Anybody who remembers the democracy movement of 1987 knows who Kwon In-sook is. The year before, as a hard-line student activist in her early 20s, Ms. Kwon was arrested by the police and subjected to sexual torture tactics. She differed from other women who suffered the same fate, though; she was brave enough to bring charges against the police and make the case public. Ms. Kwon thereby carved her name in the tumult of Korean modern history.

On a recent Saturday afternoon at Kyobo Book Center in downtown Seoul, Ms. Kwon, now 38, is being admired not as a tragic heroine but as an author of a book of essays on women's studies, "Seontaek" (Choice). Ms. Kwon came for the book-signing event from the United States, where she is an assistant professor of women's studies at the University of South Florida.

Earlier that Saturday morning, Ms. Kwon said, "I wonder how many will show up at this book-signing, hopefully more than three." But soon a long line of fans had formed, mostly young women. Ms. Kwon, happier now, inscribes her books with inspiring messages like "Be a powerful and imposing woman" and "Have faith in yourself." Kang Hwan-hee, a middle school student, came to the event with her teacher, Choi Jong-eun. Ms. Choi tells Ms. Kwon in a trembling voice, "You don't know how much I looked forward to your visit." Another fan, Lee Hyeon-ju, a 30-year-old office worker carrying three of Ms. Kwon's books, says, "This is the perfect Christmas gift for my girlfriends, who want to believe that there's still life after your 20s."

Ms. Kwon, after her traumatic 20s, found direction in life in her 30s. "In my 20s, my own self was overpowered and sacrificed by society because of all the political turmoil," she says.

But it was Ms. Kwon's own heroism that put her in the storm. Born in Wonju, Gangwon province as the youngest of four children, Ms. Kwon was a high-spirited child who gravitated to stories by feminist writers such as Gloria Steinem and Oriana Fallaci, which she found in her grandmother's magazines, like "Life of a Housewife."

In elementary school, her teacher once seated all the boys in the front and girls in the back. Ms. Kwon stood up and shouted, "Well then, I'm not gonna sit down anywhere, ma'am." The teacher, unable to get Ms. Kwon to obey, was reduced to tears.

"I was pretty persistent and self-assertive," Ms. Kwon says, "maybe because I was the youngest." Her parents, modern-minded and understanding, realized that their youngest daughter was headstrong and used to tell her to shun marriage and go her own way. And the girl was indeed ambitious to make a name for herself.

Eventually she decided that fashion design would be her path to fame. In 1984, she entered the elite Seoul National University, majoring in fashion. She thought she was all set to write the first chapter of her success story. But during her first summer vacation everything changed. College students often go to rural communities on their summer breaks to help out on farms. Ms. Kwon decided to try it herself, and went to Jinan, North Jeolla province, where she developed an affinity for the poor-off farming folks. "I used to be self-centered," she says. "But the week in the farming village awakened me that I had to do something." After another semester, she joined the student movement group at her university. Being a student activist at that time meant you were prepared to sacrifice everything, and Ms. Kwon threw herself into it. She missed most of her classes, not to mention exams, and was removed from the school register. Her first run-in with the police came when she was caught distributing anti-government fliers. That didn't deter her, though -- it compelled her to work harder. To experience life as a worker, she decided to get a job in a factory -- a common thing back then for activists. But she forged an identification card to do so, and was arrested for it. In early June 1986, she was in the custody of the Bucheon police.

It was 4:20 a.m. on June 6 in investigation room No. 5. Ms. Kwon was faced with a Bucheon police officer, Mun Gwi-dong. Mr. Mun kept asking Ms. Kwon to own up to the whereabouts of her fellow student activists; but Ms. Kwon honestly didn't have any of the information he wanted. As she kept saying "I don't know," Mr. Mun changed tactics.

"You know," he said, "every single girl who comes into this room confesses everything once she's stripped naked." He made her take off her jacket and top to leave her in a T-shirt and pants. Ms. Kwon knew that once you were in an investigation room torture was sure to come, so she expected to be dunked in a tub or get electric shock torture. But what Mr. Mun had in his mind was quite different. He drew her close to him, fondled her, unzipped his pants and started to yell out "Bitch, take off your clothes!" To get out of there, Ms. Kwon gave him information about her friends, all lies. The first session ended.

The next day she was thrown into a deeper hell. Around 8:30 p.m., Mr. Mun found out that what she had said was untrue. Entering her room, he flew into a rage. He had his subordinate bring handcuffs to put on Ms. Kwon. Then he unzipped her pants, stripped her to the waist and fondled her for two hours. At one point Mr. Mun said, "Even North Korean spies break down with this. You are the most spiteful woman I've ever seen."

Up until then, sexual torture was rumored to have happened but nobody was brave enough to give a personal account. For a woman, it would be tantamount to saying you were tainted. Ms. Kwon, however, could not forget what she had been through. She asked for lawyers and discussed ways to accuse Mr. Mun. Soon, with a group of labor lawyers led by Jo Young-rae, she filed suit. The suit, along with other incidents of torture, stirred up great commotion in society and heated up demonstrations. The details of Ms. Kwon's ordeal were well known among the public. The military regime tried to deflect the claims, saying that the pro-communists were using sex to achieve their goals. A pro-government lawmaker even accused Ms. Kwon of mental problems.

Still, Ms. Kwon and her lawyers succeeded in having Mr. Mun put into jail for five years. Ms. Kwon was also paid compensation, which she used to set up a hotline people could call with labor complaints. Suddenly she was the center of attention.

But she was not at all happy. "I was skeptical about whether this was what I really wanted to do from the bottom of my heart," she says. Everyone came to her for help, which was a huge burden. "It was like I was the manager of this public Ms. Kwon, the heroine of the sexual torture," she says. She managed to go back to school and graduate, but she knew the fashion industry was no longer for her. She stayed in activist circles, but was unsure whether she wanted to keep at it.

"One strange thing is," she says, "that the happiest time of my life as I recall today was when I was detained at the courthouse, waiting for my verdict. I was able to read the books I wanted and talk to fellow prisoners who were arrested for similar reasons. Back then, my mind was pure."

One of Ms. Kwon's lawyers, Park Won-soon, now 47, considered Ms. Kwon courage incarnated. "She was just an ordinary kid back in high school who mourned the death of Park Chung Hee," he says, referring to the leader of the military regime. "But once she opened her eyes to society after entering college, she had the courage to change the world. She taught us that one individual can change history."

After graduating, Ms. Kwon married Kim Sang-jun in 1989. She gave birth to a baby girl in 1991, then Mr. Kim left for New York City to study in 1993 and Ms. Kwon followed a year later. Happiness awaited her. She found what she really wanted to do -- women's studies. "The choice to pursue women's studies gave me great strength and courage," she says. "I found a reason to have faith in myself and felt I finally found grace in my life." But it was an adventure for Ms. Kwon to continue her studies, because she spoke little English. And she soon realized that her marriage was going sour. Ms. Kwon, her husband and their little daughter were living on money from her parents. In 1994, the couple divorced. Ms. Kwon got custody of their 3-year-old, Kim Gang, whose name in Chinese characters means "strong."

"It was the hardest time of my life," Ms. Kwon recalls without elaborating. Two things that she refuses to discuss now are the torture incident and her ex-husband.

As a single mother, Ms. Kwon became even more determined to succeed. She dug deeper into her studies, and earned a doctorate at Rutgers University. Her thesis, on women's role in a military government, won recognition. Now she has the teaching post at the the University of South Florida.

In person, Ms. Kwon is far from the typical activist and feminist. What she says and writes is surprisingly politically incorrect. Instead of being idealistic, she can be cynical. Asked what her maxim is, she says, "Do not do your best. I found out that there is nothing in this world that's worth your very best."

Another philosophy of hers is that she can forgive any man as long as he is fun to be with. In her free time she likes to watch soap operas, which she says helps her clear her mind and understand human relationships. She is proud of her daughter, whom she describes as a "nothing-bothers-me" and self-reliant type of girl. Ms. Kwon's attitudes come from the ease and grace she earned over years of hard times. "I learned that knowing how to appreciate leisure is an important part of life," she says.

Though Ms. Kwon describes her life to be "ill-fated," she counts herself lucky to have good friends such as Cynthia Enloe, her mentor and professor at Rutgers University, and the labor lawyer Jo Young-rae, who is a friend of the President-elect Roh Moo-hyun. In fact, Ms. Kwon was happy to hear of Mr. Roh's recent victory. "I see Korean society improving its status, to where diversity is respected more over group consciousness," she says.

Ms. Kwon says her daughter, now 11, will be just like she was, an "unyielding and stately human being" fighting against what is wrong.

"After all, it's not such a bad idea to live out your 20s as fervently as I did," she says.

In her 30s, she made her dream come true, through scholarly exploits. So what does she expect for her 40s? "Nobody knows," Ms. Kwon says, sipping her coffee. "People change. I'm no exception." But on this morning, Ms. Kwon's eyes are shining bright, showing that her will for righteousness is as strong as ever.

by Chun Su-jin

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