Spies who can’t come in from the cold
Park has lived in South Korea for 54 years, 26 of them in a jail cell. In 1962, he was arrested as he led a failed mission to infiltrate spies into the South. He was given a life sentence but was released in 1988 after he “converted,” as the government called it. He renounced North Korea and communism and pledged allegiance to the South.
Park says he meant none of it. His conversion was the result of physical torture, he says. Park considers himself a true patriot of North Korea and a believer in its ruling Kim dynasty.
“To this day, I vividly remember my euphoria as I looked at my newly issued Workers’ Party membership card under a barrage of artillery shells falling from the sky,” recall Park. He cites the date: May 24, 1951. He was in a battle in Gangwon, the frontline of the Korean War.
Park has a lifelong wish that many would find odd or just crazy: to return to a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world, where people regularly starve because of food shortages, and from which thousands of people risk their lives to escape every year - most of them trying to get to South Korea.
“My only wish now is to die embraced by the Workers’ Party,” Park says, “and have my last moments with my family there.”
Park is one of 15 people in South Korea being denied that wish. They are former “unconverted prisoners,” also known as “longterm, unswerving prisoners” - former spies for North Korea who were jailed for as long as 44 years for their refusal to disavow Pyongyang and vow allegiance to Seoul.
They were victims of the Cold War and South Korea’s far-right military dictatorships. Some converted after torture, others after witnessing the fall of the Communist bloc in the late 1980s. Some persevered with their faith and were sprung as South Korea went democratic and started coming to terms with its Cold War cruelties. The last unconverted prisoner walked free in 1999.
But Park and 14 other former ideological prisoners are stuck in South Korea, denied their pleas to be repatriated. They know North Korea would take them back, but Seoul refuses to arrange it because relations are poor. They are free from jail and able to enjoy all the freedoms South Korea offers - and North Korea does not - except the basic right to return to a home just a few miles away.
They are the last Cold War political prisoners: spies that can’t come in from the cold.
“I voluntarily joined the People’s Army because I wanted to protect my country. It was as simple as that,” he says. It was October 1950, four months after the Korean War broke out. Park was 15.
After the three-year war that left much of the peninsula in ruins, South Korea was wary of North Korean spies infiltrating into the country.
Park was one.
After the war, Park was called into party headquarters in Pyongyang to undergo a vetting process for the espionage bureau. His war record proved his allegiance to the country.
“I underwent special training in 1959 and, after several missions, was told to transport espionage agents on a boat from Haeju (in South Hwanghae Province) to Incheon,” Park recalls.
On Feb. 8, 1962, that mission was compromised when his boat was engaged by the South Korean Navy. In an exchange of fire, Park sustained an injury to his right arm and was arrested. He was sentenced to life in prison.
“I would never have guessed it would be my last moment with my family when I said goodbye to my wife and 18-month old son as I left home that day.”
At the time, if a spy was arrested and convicted, he served his term like any other criminal. But strongman Park Chung Hee would soon change the rules. In 1972, in the name of safeguarding the country from Communist threats, he enacted the Yushin Constitution, which allowed him to stay in power indefinitely.
In May 1975, he declared Emergency Measure 9 to tighten his grip on power. Two months later, on July 16, he enacted the draconian Social Security Act, which gave the government the power to round up former leftists who had served prison terms and throw them back in prison on ideological grounds.
The law was intended to “prevent former inmates from recommitting crimes by imposing custody upon them (following completion of their imprisonment),” the law reads, “who are deemed in need of education in order to be returned to society.”
In other words, you couldn’t be freed from jail if you continued to believe in North Korea or Communism. Under the law, prison terms were renewed every two years unless political prisoners converted.
On the flip side, convicts serving their terms could be freed if they converted - forswearing the North and embracing the South - even before their terms were complete. In their conversion manifestos, they were required to state what activities they had carried out to promote communism and why they were turning their backs on that ideology.
Park was supposed to be in for life, but he converted under torture, he says. He disavowed the Communist regime and pledged his faith in the South Korean government. Fellow prisoners died from the torture, he recalls. “It’s too painful to recall such times,” Park says.
In 1988, he walked out of prison for the first time in 26 years.
Lim Bang-kyu had a worse experience. Jailed in 1952 for guerilla attacks in North Jeolla, Lim served his 20-year term and was released in 1972. He got a job as a painter on a construction site. After the Social Security Act was passed in 1975, he was thrown back in prison in 1976. He left behind his pregnant wife.
“They put me in a prison with no end in sight,” Lim said in an interview with the online publication Pressian. “My prison term was renewed every two years, which led to 14 years in prison. I could not walk out of prison alive unless I converted. All I had to do was sign a paper denouncing socialism, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t a matter of ideology. I rejected conversion because I was a human being.”
In total, Lim spent 33 years in prison. He was released in 1989 when a newly democratic Korea abolished the Social Security Law.
But some of the political prisoners remained in jail even after the law was abolished to finish their original prison terms.
In a special report prepared in 1995 for the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Amnesty International reported: “Until the 1980s prisoners were tortured to force them to “convert” but today the pressure appears to be psychological. Those who refuse to convert are often denied rights accorded to other prisoners such as the right to send and receive regular correspondence, to have visitors other than family members, to meet other prisoners and to work. Prisoners who refuse to ‘convert’ are also not permitted to apply for release on parole.”
It described the case of Kim Sun-myung, a POW from the Korean War arrested in 1951, reporting he “only had some six visits in over 40 years of imprisonment.”
Kim was finally released on Aug. 15 in 1995 on a presidential pardon commemorating Liberation Day, just three months after Amnesty’s report came out, putting an end to a 44-year-imprisonment. He was the unconverted prisoner who spent the most time behind bars.
The final breakthrough came in December 1997, when Kim Dae-jung, a former political prisoner, was elected president.
Kim, who himself was sentenced to death in 1980 on trumped up treason charges, moved swiftly to free political prisoners in his first year in office. The last two unconverted prisoners walked out of jail on Dec. 31, 1999.
From 1989 to 1999, 102 long-term political prisoners were freed from prison without conversions.
In June 2000, Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il met in Pyongyang, the first summit between the two Koreas. To sustain the conciliatory inter-Korea mood, the Kim Dae-jung government decided to repatriate 63 former prisoners to North Korea. On Sept. 2, 2000, the men walked through the border village of Panmunjom.
The 63 gray-haired men were showered with praise in the North. Pyongyang issued a commemorative stamp honoring them.
Among the 63 repatriates was Kim Sun-myung, who married in his late 70s in Pyongyang. Kim died in 2011 at the age of 86.
The 63 men spent a total of 2,045 years in prison, an average of 32.5 years each. None of the 63 converted, which is why former prisoners like Park Hee-sung were not among them.
The repatriation was not without controversy. Critics pointed out the South should have demanded an exchange for South Korean POWs from the Korean War still stuck in the North.
The two dozen former prisoners left behind - including men who converted and some who did not - hoped that their turn would be next. But inter-Korea relations began to sour as a conservative government took power in 2008, which put an end to the previous two liberal governments’ Sunshine Policy of engagement with Pyongyang.
Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006 also didn’t help either.
In an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily, Yang said he started to believe in socialism as a result of his upbringing and influence from an older brother. He graduated from Korea University with a major in commerce. In 1961, at the age 27, he made a clandestine trip to Pyongyang.
“I stayed in the North for about four months,” recalls Yang. The North Korean government offered to send him to Communist Czechoslovakia to study.
“But sensing a tremendous change taking place in the South after the May 16 military coup, I insisted on going back, telling them I had a role to play.”
In 1963, Yang was busted in a case known as the Korea University Underground Party Incident. He was accused of leading a group of fellow students to undermine the government on behalf of Pyongyang. About 17 other students were also arrested.
Yang was sentenced to life. He says he was barred from corresponding with relatives until 1988. His prison cell was inhumanly tiny,
“To me North Korea is the bastion of my political faith, for which I devoted long years of my life,” Yang says. “I am still waiting for South Korea’s government to accept our plea to be repatriated to the North. Another former unconverted prisoner who had pleaded to return passed away just this morning. Time is running short for us.”
What kept him from denouncing North Korea to gain his freedom?
“I thought I should preserve my belief all the way to the end,” Yang says. “I also had a sense of helplessness inside the prison, assuming that I would be of no use in society even if released. I thought there would be no honor left for me if I converted to be released.”
Under the military governments from the 1960s through the 1980s, guilt by association was widely applied to family members of political prisoners. Yang’s wasn’t exception.
“A son of my cousin passed an examination to become a police officer,” he says. “But he couldn’t get a job after his family record was checked. I am still sorry for him to this day.”
Yang was released in 1999.
Yang dismisses the descriptions of nearly 30,000 North Korean defectors of Pyongyang’s brutal, totalitarian leadership. “90 percent of North Korean defectors were criminals,” he says, “who had to escape the North to avoid punishment.”
On critics who accuse Pyongyang of blatant human rights violations, he levels the same charge at South Korea, the country that jailed him for 36 years for his beliefs as much as his actions - and where praise of North Korea is still illegal.
“People in the South say they live in a free world. And yet, their freedom is strained by the National Security Law,” he says. “South Koreans living normal lives could wind up in a jail cell if they make remarks deemed pro-North.”
According to the Foundation for Prisoners of Conscience, 15 former unconverted prisoners wish to be sent to North Korea. The South Korean government has no plan for a second repatriation. It “sees the issue of the former unconverted long-term prisoners resolved” with the repatriations in 2000, according to the Unification Ministry.
A government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said a decision to repatriate former prisoners was “not a simple matter” as the two Koreas were at odds over every issue.
But former prisoners like Park and Yang cling to their hopes. They say inter-Korean relations could improve, especially if the liberal opposition wins the Blue House in the presidential election next year.
Park lives in the House of Greeting, a two-story house in a quiet neighborhood in Gwanak District, southern Seoul, run by the civic group Foundation for Prisoners of Conscience. The House of Greeting was once home to 16 former prisoners. After a series of deaths, that number is down to two: Park and a former unconverted prisoner named Kang Dam, also a Korean War veteran from the North Korean army.
Park made a living as a construction laborer after his release. He said his meager living did not allow him to remarry.
His faith in Pyongyang is undaunted by reports of the Pyongyang regime’s human rights violations, its miserable economy and the estimated 3 million people who starved to death in the mid-1990s.
“North Korean defectors often say North Koreans are badly malnourished. Have you ever watched a military parade in Pyongyang? Did those soldiers look starved to you?” asks Park.
Yang could have been repatriated to North Korea in 2000 with the other 63 because he never converted. He didn’t go because he had married earlier that year to a woman 31 years his junior. But 16 years later, Yang longs to live in the North, a nation he still considers “home of my faith.”
But if that chance ever materializes, Yang would have to persuade his 15 year-old daughter, an aspiring violinist.
“I asked my daughter one time if she would be willing to go with me. She asked if she could still keep playing violin there,” Yang says with a smile. “I said of course she could. She said she would think about it.”
BY KANG JIN-KYU [firstname.lastname@example.org]