This article was originally published in Counterpunch.

By K.J. Noh

The South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, has been a discreet if powerful mover in the recent détente and peace-building process between North and South Korea and the United States. If the momentum of the Panmunjom Declaration and the successful summit between North Korea and the United States are continued, then promising outcomes are possible: peace and denuclearization of the peninsula, economic reintegration, diplomatic normalization, possible future confederation, and fundamental geopolitical shift. What bodes well is that the people of South Korea have extraordinary confidence in President Moon Jae-in and his policies. This much loved and respected individual is someone who has spent a lifetime achieving extraordinary outcomes while struggling against impossible, unbelievable odds.

The following are some vignettes (in his own words, lightly annotated or edited for clarity) extracted from his modest, understated 2011 autobiography, “Destiny”, which gives us some insights into this extraordinary leader and human being.

 

Rich Tigers and Starving Dogs

In 1972, the South Korean military dictator Park Chung Hee—a former Japanese colonial collaborator—directed his secret police to rewrite South Korea’s authoritarian constitution. The result, known as the Yushin [“revitalizing reform”] constitution, was a totalitarian document cribbed in title, content, and spirit from the Imperial Meiji Constitution of the Japanese Empire. This constitution granted Park the South Korean presidency for life, along with powers comparable to the Japanese Showa Emperor.  

Seodaemun Prison was an infamous prison constructed by the Japanese in 1907 to imprison and torture Korean independence activists during their long colonization of Korea. After the Japanese left, the South Korean military dictatorship—created from whole cloth from former Japanese collaborators by a cold war U.S. caretaker government—used it to imprison many South Korean activists fighting for democratic reform–in continuity with the habits of their former colonial masters.  When popular protests broke out against this 1972 constitutional coup, Park Chung Hee imprisoned and tortured its key leaders. Moon Jae-in was one of the student activist leaders imprisoned in Seodaemun Prison for protesting the Yushin “reforms.” Here he describes his experiences in prison:

In the prison, there were two types of prisoners: “tiger fur” prisoners and “dog fur” prisoners.

Dogs and tigers had different prison lives. In no other place in the world does the power of wealth manifest itself so nakedly. In our cell, half of the prisoners were “tiger furs” and the others were “dog furs,” and so I inadvertently got some of the benefits of the tigers. For example, tiger cells and dog cells got different amounts of time to use the washing facilities in the morning.  

Everyone in my cell called me student and treated me well. I had been a 4th year law student when I was arrested, and I had passed the first level of the bar exam, so I helped cell mates write appeals or legal briefs. Word got out, and prisoners in other cells also asked me to help.

There is something I can’t forget from my life in prison. At the time, near the prison, there were many pigeons, and often they would settle in the yard. When I was bored, I would watch them from above. There were also inmates who would throw leftover food to the birds. In our cell, there were many tigers, and they would purchase “private meals.” They would also buy snacks between meals. Dry wheat crackers, which when mixed with margarine and egg yolk, making a sort of cream, was worth eating.  

So naturally, the [unappetizing] “government food” [i.e. prison food] would be left over. So I would collect it and toss it to the pigeons.

As that continued, the pigeons would start to gather near our cell at regular times. But whenever I threw out the food, the young boys being held in the children’s block would scurry towards the windows of their cells and watch the pigeons fight it out amongst themselves for food scraps.   First, I thought they were watching for the sheer spectacle of it. But I was wrong. They weren’t watching it for fun. I was told that they were pained and regretful at the food scraps that were being wasted on the pigeons, food that they would have liked to eat themselves. I was shocked, ashamed, and remorseful.

All the young boys were “dogs,” so all the food they got was “government food” and that was all, and so they were all starving. After that, I got the cooperation of my cellmates to always leave untouched a few of the “government meals,” and to send them whole over to the boys’ block.    

 

Theater of Cruelty

After serving time in prison for his anti-government activism, Moon was forcibly conscripted into the South Korean Military. After basic training, he was sent into the Special Forces Warfare Brigade (1st Paratroop Brigade) led by General Chun Doo Hwan. A close retainer of Park Chung Hee, Chun would later take power as a military dictator in a coup in December of 1979 after the assassination of Park and rule the county with an iron fist until 1987. Along the way, Chun would declare martial law, imprison tens of thousands off the street into “Triple Purification Re-education Camps,” and unleash tanks and helicopter gunships on citizen protesters in the city of Gwangju. Activists leading up to and after this period, even after they had finished their prison sentences, were often conscripted into the military for further long term re-education through brutal military training, a form of prolonged conversion torture. Special Forces divisions had casualty rates of 25%. Moon talks about the last days of basic training:

To uncover beatings, a supervising division inspector would come unannounced and inspect recruits’ behinds for bruises inflicted with (baseball) bats. Mindful of this, our trainers wouldn’t beat our behinds but beat us on the soles of our feet instead. Being beaten on the soles of the feet is many times more painful than being beaten on the behind. Because I had been designated a senior squad leader, every time any member of our platoon made a mistake, I was beaten. So I received the bastinado* a lot.

[*Bastinado, falanga, falaka, beating or flogging of the feet is a humiliating and excruciating form of punishment and is widely recognized as a form of torture. Often associated with the Third Reich and Middle Eastern dictatorships, it uses the exquisitely pressure-sensitive nerves of the foot that balance the body to inflict unremitting, excruciating, and crippling pain.]

As basic training evaluation time approached, our boot camp drill instructors threatened us: “If you write something [negative] on your “wish list” [evaluations], we will do an analysis of the handwriting, and we will find you and make your life unbearable.” With a couple of days before the end of our basic training, the upper division inspector came over to conduct a training evaluation. The inspector chased out all the drill assistants, handed out sheets of paper, and asked us write down everything that had been troubling, difficult, everything that could be improved, and to list all the incidents of beatings and other violations that we had suffered or observed. When everyone hesitated, the inspector said with convincing sincerity, “Your basic training has ended, but if there are things that should be fixed, please list them, so those who come behind you will not suffer the same difficulties and indignities, and our military will be able to develop into a better military.”

When the active service soldiers started to rubberneck around us, the inspector chased them out with loud, scolding words. “It will be all anonymous, so there will be no repercussions,” he said.  “Your trainers will have intimidated you, but they will never see any of the content, so no need to worry.” Reassured, most of the trainees started to write. Actually, to tell the truth, we could have written pages upon pages, and still not exhausted all the abuses.

But as soon as the inspectors left, the drill assistants rushed into the space, carrying the very papers we had just written. It was a complete set-up. The remainder of the time we underwent “energetic reunification.”* They stated that they would flush out those who had alleged serious abuses and created an atmosphere of terror. The next day, the “evaluators” came out again for the “wish list.” They repeated the same things, created the same reassuring atmosphere. These were the actual inspectors. But no one was going for it this time. No one wrote a word.  

[*”Kihap” or ”Energetic reunification” is an Orwellian South Korean euphemism for corporal punishment, derived from Japanese military training that uses physical mortification as a way of “rectifying disunified [martial] energy.” As South Korea’s government was run by former Japanese colonial collaborators and officers, its military culture was likewise derived from Japanese military training and ideologies].

 

Frozen

5 years later in 1979, after prison and military service, Moon finally returned to college. The dictator, Park Chung Hee, whose government had put him in prison, had been assassinated by his own chief of secret police (KCIA) in the prelude to a drunken orgy, as they argued over how violently to suppress civilian protests. Chun, the general who had led the special warfare brigade where Moon had been a conscript, had taken power in a military coup, and the county was awash with protest and demonstrations against yet another military dictatorship. When protests escalated, Martial Law was declared, and Moon was arrested again. He wrote:

I knew it in my bones. Even during martial law, some street protests had been allowed [as an escape valve], and the military had not entered university campuses, but this time, the military was going to go into the campuses and really lay down the law. I told my wife on the bus, “As soon as we get back home, I am going to have to go temporarily into hiding. If that happens, don’t be ashamed.” It was a naïve wish.

The moment we got off the bus to the entrance to the [family] farm, 5 or 6 burly toughs surrounded and pointed their guns at us. They shouted, “Freeze. Hands up. You’re Moon Jae-in, right?” They were detectives from the Chungnyangni police station and had been waiting to arrest me.

“Can I see your warrant?” I said.  
“F*** your warrant,” they said. “This is Martial Law,” they shouted and waved a paper stamped in red ink with the words “Martial Law Certificate.”  

They were intimating that under Martial Law, the warrant system is suspended and thus I should shut up and put up. In front of the members of my family-in-law, handcuffs were put on me, and I was put on a bus and taken into detention at the Chungnyangni police station in Seoul.  

At that time, I had been living in a boarding house inside Kyunghee University. The night before my apprehension, Martial Law troops had broken into the boarding house to look for me and torn apart the place, including the women’s quarters. When they didn’t find me, detectives had gone to my in-law’s home in the morning, broken in and kicked the place apart with their boots, and still not finding me, they had terrorized the only person there, my wife’s younger sister, a high school student into revealing that we had gone to the [in-law’s] farm on Gangwha Island. So there they were, at the entrance to the farm after having staked out the bus station the whole day, all the while snacking only on bread. In front of my mother and father-in-law, with guns pointed, they forced my hands up and cuffed me. It was a truly humiliating moment. As I was being taken away, looking out the back of the bus, I could see that they were stunned, frozen in place, wordless.  

 

Catalyst

In January 1987, seven years into the Chun dictatorship, a student activist by the name of Park Jong Chul was waterboarded to death. Ghosted away by the police in the middle of the night to one of South Korea’s many “Anti-Communist Interrogation Centers” (i.e. torture chambers) he had been waterboarded to death. Although not an uncommon event at the time—thousands had been tortured, some of them to death–police claimed he had died spontaneously from a heart attack, but a coroner with unusual integrity certified that he had died under torture.

Moon, in the meantime, had been re-released from prison, passed the bar exam, and finished training at the national law institute. Despite graduating second in his class, because of his activist background, he was denied any opportunities within the judiciary or government. Although receiving several offers from white shoe corporate law firms in Seoul, he turned them down to partner with one of the rare human rights and labor lawyers in the country, Roh Moo Hyun, who had made a name for himself fighting for the lost cause of tortured political prisoners.  

Roh Moo Hyun, Moon’s partner in crime and a self-taught lawyer with only a high school diploma, would later become president of South Korea in 2003 and invite Moon to be his chief of staff. Moon, as chief of staff, would continue the Sunshine policy of Roh’s predecessor Kim Dae-jung—the policy of rapprochement with North Korea, including the building of a collaborative business zone. Roh would later be hounded to suicide by conservative forces, and in the wake of his death, Moon would re-enter politics, later riding the candlelight revolution all the way to the presidency in 2017–a revolution in which sixteen million people took to the streets to oust the last corrupt, reactionary, dictatorial vestiges of Park Chung Hee and his daughter.

Moon wrote of the mass anti-government protests sparked by Park Jong Chul’s death in 1987 :

In January 1987, the torture-homicide scandal of Seoul National University student Park Jong Chul erupted. The police spokesman stated that when the interrogator slammed the table while asking questions, Park had made a sudden sound and then fallen down and died. The entire country erupted in fury. The southern city of Pusan was even more enraged as the victim was from there. His parents lived in Pusan. During his 49th Day Departure Rite [traditional Korean mourning customs believe that the spirit of the deceased remains on the earth for 49 days before departing for the spirit world; at this time, a final departure ceremony is held], public rage against the dictatorial oppression burned most fiercely in Pusan.

February 7th, “The National Committee for the Commemoration of Park Jong Chol” spearheaded a series of national events to remember Park Jong Chol. Counselor Roh and I were part of this preparation committee. The Pusan Region People’s Commemoration Event was put together by this committee.  

The commemoration venue was the Buddhist temple in the middle of the city, The Temple of Great Awakening–Dae Kak Sa. But the police had hermetically sealed off the temple and made it impossible to even approach the venue. Riot police had surrounded the temple in layered phalanxes, and citizens who were attempting entry were fired on with tear gas. A scrum of university students faced off against police and shouted “Bring Back Jong Chul,” but were unable to make any headway into the temple.

We couldn’t just give up and retreat. The Pusan People’s Collective held an emergency assembly, and at the end of it, decided to meet in the street in front of the Pusan Nampodong Theater and conduct a simplified ceremony. Discreetly, people left and regrouped in front of the theater.

At the agreed upon time, 2pm, 300 citizens and students gathered and held an abbreviated commemoration and rally. They sang the national anthem, protest songs, and gave speeches denouncing the dictatorship, and Counsellor Roh conducted the commemoration rituals. This was the first mass street rally held since the massive 1979 Busan-Masan Democracy Protests [that triggered the assassination of Park Chung Hee]. In a short time, a multitude of citizens had joined the fray, and the streets were packed full.

Belatedly realizing what had happened, the police encircled the area and then sent in the “white skull brigade” [martial arts-trained riot police specializing in violent protest suppression—snatching leaders and cracking skulls]. In order to protect the frightened citizens, the leaders of the Pusan Peoples’ Collective placed themselves as a barrier between the students and citizens and the police and sat down in a long non-violent chain on the ground. Counselor Roh and I joined them.  

The police started firing tear gas randomly at the seated protestors. There was no way to avoid it, so we quietly just took the shots.  

Then the riot police hurtled towards us, breaking up our lines, snatching us up, and dragging us into the “chicken wire” buses [buses used to detain and transport protestors, with chicken wire over the windows]. Because of the tear gas, even after we were in the buses, we couldn’t open our eyes for a long time. We were taken over to the Pusan region Anti-Communist Interrogation Center. That day, after we successfully held our abbreviated ceremony, even after we were apprehended, 10,000 people came out to protest, long into the evening. This was the beginning of the end, the catalyst for the June protests.

In June of 1987, millions of South Koreans took to the streets—the largest street protests in modern history—and brought down the military dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan.

 

K.J. Noh is a long time activist, writer and teacher.

 

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