Center aims to help torture victims

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Center aims to help torture victims

On Sept. 4, 1985, Kim Keun-tae, an activist fighting against the military Chun Doo Hwan regime, was taken by police officers to the infamous headquarters of the national police in Namyeong-dong, central Seoul.

During 22 days of detention by the Agency for National Security Planning, the predecessor of the National Intelligence Service, Kim suffered nearly 15 days of electric and water torture led by the infamous police superintendent Lee Geun-an, known as “The Torture Artist.”

His tormentors employed a variety of techniques, including water-boarding, shocking him through his feet while hanging him upside down and pouring red pepper powder into his nose and mouth.

“Their torture techniques were not impromptu, but very carefully and systematically designed,” wrote Kim in his memoir “Namyeong-dong,” titled after the place where the interrogation room was located.

Kim was arrested 26 times, put on house arrest frequently, spent 10 years on the wanted list, and was sent to jail twice for a total of five years and six months. After suffering from Parkinson’s disease for years, which his family said was the result of severe torture by the military regime, he was admitted to Seoul National University Hospital on Nov. 29, 2011 to receive treatment for cerebral venous thrombosis. He died of pneumonia on Dec. 30, 2011.

In remembrance of Kim’s efforts to bring democracy to a country once in the grip of the military, Korea’s first private recovery center exclusively dedicated to victims of state-orchestrated torture opened yesterday, one day before the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture today.

Located at the convent Little Servants of the Holy Family in Seongbuk District, northern Seoul, the center is named Kim Keun-tae Memorial Healing Center in recognition of Kim’s sacrifice to the democratization in Korea. The center, founded by the Institute for Medicine & Human Rights, will provide psychotherapy as well as physical therapy to those traumatized by past state-orchestrated torture.

The center also will conduct research on the amount of damage the state has caused its citizens through unlawful practices. The idea of establishing the healing center was first brought up at his funeral on Jan. 3, 2012.

During the mass dedicated to Kim at Myeongdong Cathedral, Father Ham Sei-ung sent an apology to the deceased Democratic activist.

“Kim Keun-tae suffered from physical and psychological trauma due to electrical torture. But we neglected his pain and merely pushed him to spearhead the struggle for democracy with unfaltering fervor,” the priest said.

Over the course of the following eight months, a committee was formed, including Father Ham and In Jae-keun, Kim’s widow and now a Democratic Party lawmaker, to officially start up the plan to establish the center.

At the opening ceremony of the center, around 50 torture victims and their families visited the center.

“My husband, Lee Jae-mun, died in prison in 1981 for prodemocracy activities such as distributing leaflets criticizing the military government,” said Kim Jae-won, an 80-year-old widow at the event. “After his arrest in 1979, I was forced to quit school and was followed by secret police officers everywhere I went.”

“Kim Keun-tae is not simply the name of one individual, but is now a proper noun representing all prodemocracy activists who rose up and were oppressed by the military government,” Father Ham told the Korea JoongAng Daily.

“Through the opening of the center, we will work to provide healing programs to other Kim Keun-taes in this country.” Father Ham is one of the five co-founders of the center.

Kim’s widow In, a co-recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award along with her husband in 1987, donated 10 million won ($8,610) to help lay the center’s foundation.

Donations amounting to 300 million won were collected from individual donors. The families of Song Ki-bok, whose 28 family members had been falsely accused of spying for North Korea from 1982 until 2008, with some members serving up to seven years in prison, when the Seoul High Court acquitted them of the charge, also donated 100 million won that they had received as government compensation.

The revered activist Kim, who once was branded a Pyongyang-sympathizer, later served as the welfare minister under the Roh Moo-hyun government and also ran in a Democratic Party primary for president, a telling sign of the dynamic and turbulent transformation of the country.

Chun Doo Hwan, who wielded unchecked powers for eight years in part by crushing down on democracy activists, including Kim, in the 1980s, was convicted in 1996 of corruption and a bloody crackdown in the southwestern city of Gwangju in 1980 that left about 200 people dead.


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