The son of an irreplaceableman manAug. 17, 1975, was a Sunday. It was on Sundays that Chang Jun-ha, a much-respected leader of South Korea’s pro-democracy movement and opponent of Park Chung Hee’s military regime, liked to go mountain climbing. On that particular Sunday, though, Mr. Chang planned to stay home, out of the hot, damp August weather.
But early in the morning, a few acquaintances called out of the blue and badgered Mr. Chang to go hiking with them. These weren’t close friends, but they seemed determined to get him to join them. So Mr. Chang reluctantly left for a suburban Seoul mountain in Pocheon, Gyeonggi province.
By dusk, he still hadn’t returned, and his eldest son, Chang Ho-kwon, saw the familiar faces of detectives and intelligence agents around the house (the family was used to government surveillance). He says now that he knew instinctively that something bad had happened.
A call came from a stranger, who wanted to arrange a meeting at a coffee shop. When he arrived, Chang Ho-kwon saw that the stranger was dressed in a mountain-climbing outfit. The man said, “Your father died today.”
Grabbing the man by the throat, Mr. Chang told him to take him to his father. When they arrived at the mountain, the rest of Mr. Chang’s family was already there. At the sight of the eldest son, his mother raised her shaking hand to point at a large, flat rock nearby, and said, “Over there.”
And there his father was, lying lifeless. The police said he’d died from an accidental fall.
Chang Ho-kwon didn’t believe it. He knew his father was a “safety first” climber. Under Japanese colonial rule, he’d undergone commando training for the independence army.
Then a man in a military uniform approached him and said, “Are you the eldest son? Follow me.” They went into the woods, where the man whispered, “It’s not true that your father died in an accident.”
Mr. Chang and his younger brother, Ho-sung, claimed their father’s body. It seemed remarkably intact, for the body of someone who’d fallen from a 15-meter (49-foot) cliff. There was no blood or visible trauma, at first glance.
Only when they’d gotten the body home did the brothers find what appeared to be a bullet hole behind an ear. Now Mr. Chang was sure that the Park Chung Hee regime had caught up with his father.
The funeral was very dramatic, with friends and comrades lamenting the loss of the hope of the democratization movement. Some lay on the ground in the way of the hearse, crying out, “Kill me first!”
Chang Ho-kwon remembers Cardinal Kim Su-hwan telling him, “When a person dies, there is supposed to a substitute who will fill the gap. For Chang Jun-ha, however, there seems to be no such replacement.” As he helped carry the coffin, “It’s not true that your father died in an accident” kept echoing in his mind.
Chang Jun-ha was a critical force in Korea’s pro-democracy movement, says Seo Joong-sik, head of the Institute for Korean Historical Studies. “Starting as an independence activist during the colonial period, Mr. Chang never stopped being a light for the Korean people as the democracy movement’s leader in the ensuing military regimes,” Mr. Seo says.
“The magazine that he founded and published against all odds, ‘Sasanggye,’ had a big effect on intellectuals of the time,” Mr. Seo says. “He was a true fighter for democracy.”
If his death was a blow to the democracy movement, it had an equally traumatic effect on the life of Chang Ho-kwon, who had been his father’s right-hand man, and who now found himself a target of the government.
“I was getting on the nerves of the regime, for I knew every contact of my father,” Mr. Chang, now 54, recalls. “Also, they feared my efforts to seek the truth behind my father’s suspicious death.”
The regime was on full alert. Mr. Chang could not get a job anywhere. His younger brother was expelled from his post as a reporter at a right-wing newspaper company. His two younger sisters, both bright Ewha Womans University graduates, married in haste rather than try to find jobs.
“My family was literally shattered,” Mr. Chang says, drying his tears.
After 28 years, Mr. Chang cannot talk about his father ― whose death remains officially unsolved, under the auspices of the Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths ― without getting red-eyed. Wiping tears away with a tissue, Mr. Chang says in a hoarse voice, “I’m not crying from pain. I’m crying out of anger.”
Back then, however, Mr. Chang had no time to mourn his fate. Harsh reality overwhelmed him. With no income and under close police surveillance, there was not much he could do in the country.
About eight months after his father’s death, as he was walking home, Mr. Chang was surrounded by a group of men, who posed a familiar question: “So, you are the eldest son of Chang Jun-ha?” Before he had a moment to answer, he was struck on the chin and lost consciousness. He awoke in a hospital, unable to move his mouth. The doctors told him his jaw had been broken into eight pieces.
“The gangsters were real technicians,” Mr. Chang recalls. “They did not leave any traumatic scars outside, but did the job perfectly, by smashing me inside. I could not eat anything, could not speak a single word.” After three months in the hospital, Mr. Chang, who stood 180 centimeters (5 feet, 11 inches), weighed just 38 kilograms (84 pounds).
He decided he had to leave Korea to survive. Having been blacklisted, he had to choose a country that didn’t require a visa. He had trouble getting his passport issued, but with the help of Kim Jae-gyu ― who was then a minister of the Park Chung Hee regime, and who in 1979 would become Mr. Park’s assassin ― Mr. Chang was able to get on a plane for Malaysia.
“Kim Jae-gyu did not kill Park Chung Hee on a whim, as is generally believed,” Mr. Chang says. “I know that. Mr. Kim, as a close contact of my father, had planned the action for years. He even advised me secretly to flee the country, offering to ease restrictions on the issue of my passport.”
Carrying only 20,000 won ($15) in cash when he arrived in Malaysia, Mr. Chang started life over at the bottom, working at a construction site. “Physical labor, like carrying bricks and cement buckets, was not tough at all,” Mr. Chang recalls. “At least I could survive.”
When news came of Park Chung Hee’s assassination in 1979, Mr. Chang began to think he could return to Korea. He did so in 1982, only to find that conditions had scarcely improved under the rule of Chun Doo Hwan. “I thought the world had changed, which was wrong,” Mr. Chang says.
Chun Doo Hwan was no less a suppressor of pro-democracy activists than Park Chung Hee had been. One afternoon, in broad daylight, a group of visitors arrived, saying, “Mr. Chang, you have to go with us.” They blindfolded him and drove him to a cellar ― he still doesn’t know where it was. What awaited him there was a beating so severe that by the end of it he couldn’t move the tips of his fingers.
The next thing Mr. Chang did was buy a one-way ticket to Singapore.
“I realized that I could not live in my country. I gave up,” Mr. Chang says, drying his eyes with another tissue.
Through connections he’d made in Malaysia, he was able to make some money in Singapore as a construction subcontractor. Once he’d settled there, his wife and children came to join him for their first settled family life in a long while.
In 1992, Mr. Chang heard the news that Kim Young-sam ― a fellow democratic activist alongside his father ― had taken power in South Korea. But he decided not to come home.
When Kim Dae-jung took office in 1996, however, Mr. Chang felt the urge to return. Kim Dae-jung had been a devoted follower of his father, so he felt a glimmer of hope.
“I waited and waited, but I could not find a single sign that President Kim was willing to acknowledge his old-time comrades, which disillusioned me a lot,” Mr. Chang says.
Only after Roh Moo-hyun’s election last year did Mr. Chang decide it was time to return. “At least President Roh did not have close connections to the old times,” Mr. Chang says. Last month, on Dec. 6, Mr. Chang landed at Incheon International Airport ― never to leave again, he says.
In an office in Jongno, central Seoul, Mr. Chang and his younger brother, Ho-sung, are immersed in plans to revive their father’s magazine, “Sasanggye” (Circle of Ideas).
The room has no decorations on the walls except a portrait of their father. When the brothers share memories of their father, they wear thin smiles.
“Remember when Father sent you to the Vietnam War?” says Ho-sung, 52. “You could have dodged the service through Father’s position in the politics, but Father had contempt for those who use their power for the sake of their family.” The elder brother answers, “How can I forget?”
After his military service, Mr. Chang had planned to go to college. But instead, he had to serve his father. As the eldest son, Mr. Chang was accustomed to this.
“When I was a kid, he always had me change ashtrays at the meetings. I wanted to go out to play with friends, but I had to sit through the meetings. Now I understand that was the education he gave me,” Mr. Chang recalls.
Accompanying his father day and night was not an easy calling. He had to give up going to school and making friends. Instead, he read the history books that his father had given him, telling him, “You have to know your country above all things.”
“I didn’t have any youth,” Mr. Chang says with a bitter smile. A friend of his father once called him a victim of the times.
“I used to hold grudges against my father,” Mr. Chang says, “I wondered, if he was to dedicate himself to his country, why he had to have a family.
“But now I begin to understand him. I know I cannot be a great person like him, but at least I’m trying to keep his ideas alive.” He is also still pursuing the truth about his father’s death, in cooperation with the Presidential Truth Commission.
Looking up at the portrait of his father, Mr. Chang says, “I will soon turn 58, the age my father was when he died. Before it’s too late, I am trying to do things he would be doing, if he were alive.”
by Chun Su-jin