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 …

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