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Korea: The Trial of a Revolutionary Prophet

To silence Kim Chi Ha is to rip out a million Korean tongues.

—Chung Kyungmo

Room 215 of the Seoul District Court is shabby and narrow, with green concrete walls, dirty windows, and six rows of hard wooden slat benches. On the morning of December 23 perhaps one hundred observers were sitting on the benches and some fifty more were standing in the rear or along the sides. Among them one could see the defendant’s wife and mother, the wives of other political prisoners including opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, Cardinal Stephen Kim, five or six nuns, two foreign missionaries, and eight or ten chunky men who were pointed out to me as probable Korean Central Intelligence Agents (KCIA). Suddenly a guard barked out the command to stand, and the three judges entered from behind the bench while the defendant, under guard, was brought in from a side door.

Kim Chi Ha has been in prison since March 1975. Since he is allowed no visitors, and since once he sits down in the courtroom he must face the front, it is only during the few precious moments it takes to walk from the entrance to his chair that he can see his family and friends. Those few seconds are electric, as his eyes dart through the crowd picking out familiar faces, to which he waves encouragement with a crooked, quizzical grin. He wears a thick quilted jacket and trousers that make him seem huge. He seems healthy and not under-weight, though his skin is pale.

I was asked by the “International Committee to Support Kim Chi Ha and His Friends” to go to Seoul and observe the final hearing of the poet’s trial. The committee has tried to send someone to every hearing, both to give moral support to the political prisoners and their supporters, and to remind President Park Chung Hee that he will not be able to dispose of his opposition in secret. I was also carrying a letter demanding the release of all South Korean political prisoners (signed by, among others, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Muriel Rukeyser, Arthur Miller, Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut, and US PEN Club President Henry Carlisle) and a personal letter to Kim Chi Ha from Jean-Paul Sartre.

Kim Chi Ha, thirty-six, is perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for South Korean resistance. He has been arrested five times by the Park government, beginning in 1964 when he participated in the student struggle against the Japan-Korea Normalization Treaty. In 1970 he was arrested for publishing The Five Bandits and in 1972 for Groundless Rumors. In 1974 he was again arrested, and this time charged with allegedly participating in a student-led plot to overthrow the government. He and fourteen others were sentenced to death. Later his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and on February 15, 1975, he was released, along with all others charged with violation of the Emergency Measures, with his sentence still intact. A few days later a newspaper published his “Asceticism 1974,” in which he revealed what he had learned in prison about how the defendants in another conspiracy case had been tortured into confessions, and how the party to which they allegedly belonged (the People’s Revolutionary Party or PRP) was entirely a government fabrication. He was arrested again on March 14, only twenty-seven days after his release.

This arrest was not unexpected. Two weeks before, on March 1, 1976, eighteen of the most distinguished citizens of Korea had gathered at the Seoul cathedral and appealed for a return to democracy in South Korea. They included both Yun Po Sun, the former president of Korea, and Kim Dae Jung, the opposition candidate who won 45 percent of the votes in the election of 1971, as well as prominent Christian leaders. They were all arrested, tried, and sentenced to prison terms of five to ten years. Some have been released but others are still in prison, including Kim Dae Jung, reportedly in poor health.

A few months after Kim Chi Ha’s arrest the government released a “confession” by him that he was a communist. But in August he managed to smuggle out another document, the “Declaration of Conscience,”* reportedly written with a toothbrush filed down on the prison floor, in which he said that the “confession” had been dictated to him after many days of torture. He has been in solitary confinement since his arrest. A high-intensity light burns day and night in his cell, and he is allowed no writing materials, no visitors, no heat, and no toilet paper. A TV monitor has been installed, and KCIA agents occupy the cells on either side of his.

One of the questions I asked people I met in Seoul was how much the ordinary South Korean knows about Kim Chi Ha. With slight variations the answer was that while most people know his name as a poet, and many know something of his political ideas, most people have no idea that he is on trial or even that he has been arrested. News about the trial is not published in the press, and it is illegal to print anything about it in any other form—pamphlet, leaflet, newsletter. The church manages to pass on some information in the form of announcements at prayer meetings or services, but for the most part information only passes from person to person. And even that is dangerous: telephones are tapped and people are followed. As a result news of the trial seems to have spread only to families, church groups, and part of the student community.

None of this should have been surprising: the totalitarian nature of the Park regime has been well known since it declared martial law in 1972 and enacted the Yushin (“October Revitalization”) Constitution. The series of emergency measures issued since then is grim: Emergency Measure 4 (later repealed) called for the death penalty for students who engaged in any political activity whatever, including refusal to attend classes. Emergency Measure 6 provides seven years’ imprisonment for anyone who strongly criticizes the government or the constitution to foreigners. Emergency Measure 9 outlaws all criticism of the government or the constitution, and all comment on the subject whatever and in any form, either in the press or television or by word of mouth. Laws like these, coupled with arrests, torture, hangings, mass firing of university professors, the drafting of all adult males into the Civil Defense Corps, and the omnipresence of the KCIA have terrorized or paralyzed most of the opposition into silence.

Yet seeing the actual consequences of this in South Korea is chilling. The regime’s direct use of violence, however horrible, is in a way comprehensible; but there is something uncanny and unimaginable about its thought control. To cut off the flow of information within a society is to cut its nerves. It is as if some mad political doctor had carried out a kind of lobotomy on the society itself, so that he could torture one part of it at a time without the other parts feeling the pain. It is frightening to think that more people know about Kim Chi Ha’s ideas outside Korea than inside.

The hearing lasted from 10:00 in the morning to 9:50 in the evening. During the morning and afternoon sessions the defendant’s five lawyers made their closing statements in turn. I don’t know Korean and only learned later what was actually said. But I have a clear recollection of the behavior of the three judges. During the entire proceeding the chief judge did no more than announce when a recess would take place and occasionally lean over to see that the tape recorder was working properly. The rest of the time he sat motionless staring at the ceiling, his face fixed in an expression of boredom with occasional traces of contempt—as when one of the lawyers was explaining the poet’s use of the expression “lumpenproletariat.”

The second judge stared down at the desk in front of him and occasionally nodded off to sleep. The third sometimes read some papers while sticking out his lower lip in an attempt to make his youthful face appear more dignified. The judges had nothing to do. When the chief judge checked the tape recorder, he was making it clear that the case was to be decided at higher levels of government. The judges were like movie extras hired to make the room look like a courtroom. The real ear of the government was the tape recorder.

Though I could not understand what the lawyers were saying, I could recognize certain words: bourgeois, proletariat, Pax Romana, capitalist, worker, peasant, lumpenproletariat, Fanon, etc. As they had done in earlier hearings of the trial, the lawyers were giving a detailed account of Kim Chi Ha’s ideas. One of the oddities of the trial is that Kim Chi Ha is not really being tried for things he said or wrote. Though Article 4 of the Anti-Communist Law prohibits action or writing that aids the enemy, North Korea, it is clear from how the trial had proceeded that what the government really wanted to establish was that his thoughts themselves are illegal.

The chief evidence offered by the prosecutor was Kim’s private notebooks written during his previous term in prison. The prosecutor did not argue that those notebooks—which contain random thoughts, notes, and outlines for plays and poems clearly intended to be read by no one but the writer—were illegal writings, but rather that they are evidence of illegal thoughts. As the defendant himself put it that day, “It seems I am to be sentenced for a poem I have not yet written…. It is my imagination that is to be sentenced.”

In this sense the trial represented the very essence of totalitarianism (the maximum penalty for second offenders is death), but in another sense it had an aspect of freedom. Perhaps because of domestic and worldwide protest, and because of South Korea’s weakening international position, the Park regime chose not to murder the poet in his cell or torture him into another confession, but instead to give him an open hearing in which he and his lawyers could say whatever they wished without interruption. So what began as totalitarianism produced the opposite effect: since it was his thoughts that were on trial, it was his thoughts that had to be given a hearing. If the law provides the death sentence for ideas, it is not surprising that people will conceive ideas worth dying for. Surrounded by armed guards, this crowded little room in downtown Seoul became an intensely active place in which Kim Chi Ha and his supporters tried to work out new ideas and principles for their movement.

A further oddity of the trial is that to prove his innocence under the Anti-Communist Law Kim has not argued that he is not a revolutionary, but only that he is not a Marxist revolutionary. This means that in defending himself he has been trying to construct a new revolutionary vision, one that would transcend what he considers to be the failings of both the North and the South, and thereby open the possibility for the reunification of Korea.

  1. *

    Asceticism 1974” and “Declaration of Conscience” are reprinted in AMPO—Japan-Asia Quarterly Review, vol. 7 no. 2 and vol. 7 no. 3 respectively (PO Box 5250, Tokyo International, Japan).

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