Unconverted long-term prisoners

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A demonstration calling for a second repatriation of unconverted long-term prisoners in south Korea. The sign reads "Call for repatriation of non-converted long-term prisoners" ("비전향장기수 송환 촉구").[1]

Unconverted long-term prisoners is a term which refers to political prisoners imprisoned in south Korea, generally on charges of "anti-state" activities or views in support of communism or DPRK.[2][3] The term commonly refers to people who were mostly arrested from the 1950s to 1980s and imprisoned and tortured for decades and who refused to sign a "conversion" statement renouncing communist or left-wing ideology, which had been a condition for their release.[4] In the 1990s, some of the prisoners began being released. Some chose to remain in south Korea while others sought to be repatriated to DPRK.[5]

Imprisonment and torture[edit | edit source]

The individuals arrested by the southern regime on charges of anti-state activities faced unfair trials,[2] torture,[2] and isolation,[6] with some of them being imprisoned for over 40 years.[6][7][8] While some of the prisoners were arrested for actual acts of espionage,[9] others have been described as prisoners of conscience, with organizations such as Amnesty International stating in a 1993 document that some of the prisoners were "held solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association" while also stating that prisoners "appear to have been tortured during interrogation" and were "convicted largely on the basis of these coerced confessions after an unfair trial" and raising concerns that they had been denied lawyers during their interrogations.[2]

In 2009, south Korean news outlet Hankyoreh reported that south Korea's Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a statement which concluded that the conversion tactics which had been used on left-wing prisoners during the Yushin era of the 1970s constituted state violence and that acts of brutality were used to convert left-wing prisoners.[8]

"Conversion" statements[edit | edit source]

Until 1998, the prisoners were pressured to sign statements of "conversion" renouncing communist ideology as a condition of being released. Many prisoners refused to sign, later becoming referred to as "unconverted" prisoners.[5] The requirement to sign a conversion statement was substituted in 1998 with a "Pledge to Obey the Law" which was eventually discontinued in 2003.[8]

Among those who did sign the "conversion" statement as a condition of release, there are accounts such as that of Park Hee-sung, who said that his so-called "conversion" was the result of physical torture, and that he meant none of it,[9] or the case of Kim Young-sik, who commented on his own experience with torture in the 2003 documentary Repatriation, "torturing you and forcing you to renounce your belief, can you really call that conversion?"[5] Kim Young-sik was also quoted in a 2018 article saying of this forced conversion via torture, "I'm still very angry [...] How could they torture me to force me to give up an ideology that I believe is correct?"[10]

Former prisoner Ahn Hak-sop recounted similar methods of pressure to try to get him to renounce his beliefs, including bribery and torture, in an interview with Liberation School: "First they tried to make theoretical arguments against the DPRK. But they couldn’t defend their beliefs to me. After that, they tried to bribe me with property. After that, there was torture."[11]

Torture[edit | edit source]

The methods of torture recounted by various victims include waterboarding,[10] being forced to eat off the floor with hands cuffed behind their backs,[10] being spun while hanging from the ceiling,[10] beatings,[6][12] prolonged solitary confinement,[6] water being thrown in the room in winter,[11] being doused with cold water in winter while being beaten,[13] convicts being beaten until unable to walk properly and then "made to crawl back to their prison cells, beaten with clubs and kicked on the way",[13] being force-fed salt water through a hose forced into their throat,[13] clothing and bedding being taken away,[11] starvation,[12] prisoners being "expected to wash themselves with their own urine",[12] confiscation of medications (resulting in death in some cases),[13] and denial of medical and dental care.[2] The 1993 Amnesty International document noted that the long-term prisoners were often kept in poor conditions and that some were suffering ill health due to their long term imprisonment and a reported lack of adequate medical care. The document also mentions that those who refused to sign the conversion statement generally suffered even worse treatment than the other prisoners.[2] An article from 1999 by the BBC states that "Life inside was almost entirely spent in dark and cold cells and medical attention was scarce. Torture sometimes took the form of being locked up with a particularly sadistic prisoner."[6]

In the memoirs of former prisoner Ri In Mo, the author writes that some prisoners committed suicide. He writes about a prisoner whose medications were confiscated, being told that he would get his medications back if he converted. The prisoner went on multiple hunger strikes, then hanged himself with a torn strip of blanket, having said he would rather kill himself than die of disease.[13]

According to a 1995 Prison Legal News article, unconverted prisoner Kim Sun Myung, who had been in captivity for over 43 years, had been beaten, starved, threatened with execution, watched his fellow prisoners die, was kept in solitary confinement for decades, and was denied medical care by prison doctors as he went blind from cataracts. Commenting with regard to the torture upon his release, Kim said: "They say that when you hammer steel, it only gets harder. Well, when you hit people, you just turn them into enemies, and they become stronger."[7]

Repatriation movement[edit | edit source]

Members of the preparatory group for the 20th anniversary of the repatriation of non-converted prisoners hold a press conference in front of the government complex in Seoul to urge the second repatriation (2020).[14]

Of the former prisoners who sought repatriation to DPRK, some were eventually able to be repatriated, notably 63 of them in the year 2000.[10] However, others remained in the south, being denied their requests for repatriation.[5][9] The 63 individuals who were repatriated in September of 2000 were celebrated in Pyongyang and awarded National Reunification Prizes.[3] At the time, the prisoners ranged in age from 66 to 90 years old.[15]

A Liberation School interview with a former prisoner, Ahn Hak-sop, reveals that many who participated in the repatriation in the year 2000 and many of those who remained in south Korea made their decisions based on their impression at the time that there was going to be more freedom of movement between ROK and DPRK thereafter. Ahn, who chose to remain in the south when the 2000 repatriation happened, said one of his reasons was that he "thought it was a temporary situation." Anh also notes regarding two prisoners released alongside him who were repatriated, that "[T]hose comrades went to the North because they thought that shortly there would be free movement between the two states. They went to the North to study and thought they would come back later." Regarding his own intention to stay in the south temporarily, Anh elaborated: "[T]here were young progressive people here in the South, and they asked me to stay. [...] We have to keep struggling here for the withdrawal of US army, the peace treaty, and peaceful reunification. I decided to stay here to fight for these goals. In 1952, I came here to liberate the southern half of the peninsula, and I need to stay here and continue that struggle."[11]

Those who oppose or criticize the repatriation of these former prisoners generally do so on grounds of demanding that DPRK repatriate people to the south as well.[9][15]

Persecution and surveillance[edit | edit source]

The unconverted long-term prisoners who were released have faced various difficulties while living in south Korea, ranging from ongoing health issues from their imprisonment, to not being given social security numbers, living in poverty, and being subjected to state surveillance. In some cases, their families have also suffered persecution during and after their relative's imprisonment.[5][10][12]

Giving examples of the forms of persecution and surveillance he faced, former prisoner Anh Hak-sop explained, "[T]here are security police who follow me. Whenever there is a problem with the North and South, they raid my house and stand guard outside my property. One time at a demonstration, conservative forces attacked me. The police did nothing to protect me. Every week or every other week, the police come to my house and ask about my activities, who has visited my house, and so on. Once every other month I need to report to them about what I did, who I met, and who visited me. Every two years I need to go to court."[11]

Kang Yong-ju, a citizen activist who had been involved in the 1980 Gwangju Uprising as a student, is an unconverted long-term prisoner who was arrested in 1985, on charges of connection to a "spy ring" which have been regarded as unfounded[16] and alleged to have been fabricated by the Chun Doo-hwan regime.[17] He refused to sign a statement renouncing his views, and was thus imprisoned by the south Korean regime for 14 years, being released in 1999.[18] In the years following his release, Kang was subjected to the Security Surveillance Act until a court decision in 2018 finally prohibited the extension of further surveillance on Kang.[17]

A column in Hankyoreh describes the surveillance program which Kang had been subjected to in the following manner:

Being subject to security surveillance means that you must report your every move, every three months. If you move to a new house, you have to report that, and if the police suddenly call you in the middle of the night, you have to pick up the phone. If you want to travel, you have to provide advance notice of the destination and length of your trip and your travel companions. The police can ban you not only from meeting or contacting other people but also from attending public gatherings and demonstrations. Not only your family and relatives but even your landlord, coworkers, church parishioners and apartment security staff can be asked to provide information about you or may be subject to surveillance themselves. Even though you have already finished your prison sentence, your life as a convict continues for the rest of your life.[19]

The column also notes that security surveillance must be renewed every two years, but if the Justice Minister believes that there is a risk of recidivism, "the state can continue to monitor an individual’s private life until the day they die."[19]

Media[edit | edit source]

Former prisoner Ri In Mo, who was repatriated to DPRK in 1993, wrote a memoir titled My Life and Faith (Korean title: 신념과 나의 한생) in which he recounted his life story. The book includes his youth during the anti-Japanese national liberation struggle as well as his 34 years of imprisonment in south Korea.[13]

A documentary about the unconverted long-term prisoners called Repatriation (Korean title: 송환) was released in 2003 by south Korean director Kim Dong Won. After several of the unconverted long-term prisoners had moved to his neighborhood after their release, the director developed a close relationship with them and began a film project that "spanned 12 years and 800 hours of videotaping".[20] Another film by the same director, titled The 2nd Repatriation (Korean title: 2차 송환),[21] was released in 2022 and follows the lives of the former prisoners, such as Kim Young-sik, who remained in south Korea but who have been urging for a second repatriation.[22][23]

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 장동욱 (Jang Dong-wook). “비전향장기수 2차 송환 촉구.” ("Call for second repatriation of non-converted long-term prisoners.") 사람일보. (Saram Ilbo.) 2006-09-02. Archived 2024-03-11.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 “South Korea: Unfair Trial and Torture: Long-Term Political Prisoners.” Amnesty International, September 30, 1993.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "National reunification prizes awarded to unconverted long-term prisoners", Korean Central News Agency, 2000-09-04. Archived 2019-11-19.
  4. Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 1999 - Korea, -, 1 January 1999. Archived 2024-03-11.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Kim Dong-won. Repatriation (2003). Documentary. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xu2mEvU29Q
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 "Solitary: Tough test of survival instinct." BBC News. February 25, 1999. Archived 2024-03-11.
  7. 7.0 7.1 "World’s Longest Held Political Prisoner Released." Prison Legal News, 1995-11-15. Archived 2023-10-01.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 “Truth Commission Confirms Yushin-Era Violations on Prisoners’ Freedom of Conscience.” Hankyoreh, 2009-11-19. Archived 2024-03-11.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Kang Jin-kyu (2016-08-07). "Spies who can't come in from the cold" Korea JoongAng Daily. Archived 2023-02-08.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 Kim, Hyung-jin. “Southern Exposure: The North Koreans Longing to Be Sent Home.” The Sydney Morning Herald. May 24, 2018. Archived 2024-03-11.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 Liberation School (Jul 27, 2022). "Still fighting for Korea’s liberation: An interview with Ahn Hak-sop" Liberation School. Archived from the original.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Kristof, Nicholas D. "Free in Seoul after 44 Years, and Still Defiant." The New York Times. Aug. 20, 1995. Archived 2024-03-11.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 Ri In Mo. "My Life and Faith." Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang, Korea. 1997.
  14. Photo by 김철수 (Kim Cheoulsu). 민중의소리 (Voice of the People). 인도적조치 비전향장기수 송환하라[포토] (Repatriate non-converted long-term prisoners for humanitarian measures [Photo]). 2020-09-08.
  15. 15.0 15.1 "Korean communists go home." BBC News, 2 September, 2000. Archived 2024-03-11.
  16. "Long-Term Prisoners Still Held under the National Security Law." Amnesty International. May 1, 1998. Archived 2023-03-16.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Bak Gwang-yeon. "Kang Yong-ju, Free from the Shackles of 'Security Surveillance'." The Kyunghyang Shinmun, 2018-02-22. Archived 2024-03-16.
  18. Kim Min-kyung. “Prosecutors Request Prison Time for Unconverted Political Prisoner.” Hankyoreh, 2017-12-25. Archived 2024-03-16.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Lee Myung-soo. “[Column] Kang Yong-Ju Must Not Be Treated like a Convict for the Rest of His Life.” Hankyoreh, 2017-04-25. Archived 2024-03-16.
  20. “Kim Dong Won’s Film on North Korean Prisoners Held in South Korea.” Asia Society. Archived 2022-07-25.
  21. "2차 송환." 독립영화 라이브러리, Indieground. Archived 2023-03-021.
  22. "The 2nd Repatriation."전주국제영화제. The 23rd JEONJU International Film Festival. Archived 2022-09-24.
  23. "【第十三屆台灣國際紀錄片影展】當代風景|第二次遣返 The 2nd Repatriation." YouTube.