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.

In this effort, Kim Chi Ha is hardly alone. Some months earlier in Japan, after I had read an account of an earlier trial hearing which had been painstakingly put together from listeners’ notes, I asked Muro Kenji of the “Japan Committee to Support Kim Chi Ha and His Friends” whether he didn’t think it possible to sneak a tape recorder into the courtroom. “You misunderstand completely,” he told me. “Making the transcript of Kim Chi Ha’s trial is a movement. Many people attend the hearing and take notes, and then meet and have a discussion, like a study group, to decide what he said—or what he must have said. They are trying to create Kim Chi Ha the way Plato created Socrates. How can you think of going in there with some Japanese imperialist tape recorder?”

The account of what Kim Chi Ha said, based on the notes and discussions of supporters who risked much simply to compile them, has, I believe, a moving authenticity of its own. In an earlier hearing of the trial there was the following exchange.

Defense Attorney: What is the Christian position on the “bourgeoisie”?

Kim: “It is as difficult for the rich to enter heaven as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle”…. That explains the position.

Kim Chi Ha is one of those rare Christians who takes the teachings of the New Testament seriously. He reminds us that, understood simply, Christianity is a radical doctrine, and that to truly believe its teaching is to place one’s whole will and spirit against all those forces that produce class, privilege, oppression, poverty, and violence. The point, once stated, is so clear that it makes one wonder at the capacity of people possessing wealth and status, protected by the violence of police and soldiers, to call themselves Christians. But throughout history those who really lived by Christian teaching have been found not in fashionable churches but buried in dungeons.

The poet began his final statement at 6:45 and continued without notes until 9:50. His gravelly voice was sometimes quiet, and sometimes rose in anger as he gestured widely with terribly white hands. Occasionally he refilled his teacup from the aluminum pot on the floor in front of him. As he spoke, the judges’ faces increasingly turned into papier-mâché masks. All around me people were assiduously taking notes—two students in notebooks, an old man on a battered card, another old man inside the cover of an old book. Near the very end of his talk the women and the older men—including the oldest lawyer—began to cry. When he finished several people rushed forward to try to reach him, but after an ugly scuffle he was dragged out of the courtroom.

In piecing together what the poet had said from various accounts of listeners and notetakers, I was struck again by the strange quality of this trial, in which the defendant argues that he is innocent of violating the Anti-Communist Law by describing his philosophy of revolution and calling for an overthrow of the government. Sometimes with intense seriousness, and sometimes with wry humor, Kim insisted that all the concepts necessary for revolutionary theory could be found in Christianity.

I don’t accept the way the prosecutors are trying to make a Maoist out of me. They use the word “contradiction” as an example. That word must have been invented by God himself. Look at Genesis, Chapter 1: “He called the light day and the darkness night, and together they made up one day”…. The problem of solving contradictions is as old as the world, and if there is a dialectical materialism, there is also a dialectics of the spirit….

The government found the word “lumpenproletariat” in my prison notes, and they believe that this is communist terminology…. Don’t they know that Jesus was born in a stable? Don’t they know that Jesus chose those Galilean fishermen to be the pillars of his church? Don’t they know that Mary Magdalene was a whore?

After a detailed defense against the charges, Kim went on to diagnose his country’s troubles: “This society is deadly polarized…it is a very schizophrenic country…. I would say our country is sick, mentally sick….” The revolutionary therapy he called for is not, like the “revolutions” of so many Christian thinkers, limited to a change of spirit. Its immediate targets are material ones: the overthrow of dictatorial power, exploitive capitalism, and the neocolonialism to which the Park government is subordinated. But at the same time he insisted that a revolution is not a mechanical trick.

This unity can by no means be achieved by makeshift artifice or stratagems, nor by forcing things. What is called for is an entirely new spirit, and the emergence of a fundamentally new human being. It is for this that I am crying out like a madman in this courtroom.

He also argued that a revolution is not simply an explosion of resentment.

When the resentment of the people turns into blind violence, the result is a horror…. The resentment of the lower depths and the blood of Christ must be joined into one. For those who have suffered under the immorality of starvation and tyranny, this is the way to the restoration of humanity. And I believe that this is the true form of the revolutionary religion which seeks to put the teachings of Jesus Christ into practice in the modern world.

His analysis of the present Korean reality is daring but also carefully thought out, and his notion of a cure was to me perceptive. The problem is that the gap between the reality and the cure is so heartbreakingly wide. Nevertheless the poet showed no sign of pessimism. Instead he leaped into a passionate vision of Korean reunification that left the audience wavering between excitement at its beauty and fear for the man’s sanity. Comparing South Korea to Greece under the military dictatorship and North Korea to Czechoslovakia before the Prague Spring, he argued that reunification could only come about through a revolution in both.

I am no prophet, but I can say with confidence that the day will come soon when the dictatorial regime, which represses and exploits the people, will disintegrate into nothing; that freedom of speech, press, and assembly will be resurrected; that the Anti-Communist Law will be abolished; and that all the young people, the young flowers who have been held captive in prison, will be released.

The bright Spring of Athens is coming to call on the Republic of Korea. And when the Spring of Athens has visited the South, it will then urge change upon the North. Whether in the form of intra-party democracy, or whether through some other form of popular awakening, in any case, the Spring of Prague will come to the North as well.

In this way the Spring of Athens and the Spring of Prague will gradually envelop the entire Korean peninsula, and a single, great, overflowing spring will be achieved in our land…. More than anything, I believe it is the unsophisticated and uncorrupted youth who will be at the actual center of this meeting of two springs.

Alone in a freezing cell, what can a poet do but throw his dreams at the concrete walls? Kim seemed fully aware of the degree to which he had strayed from “common sense,” but he remained stubbornly optimistic.

Some might think that these are simply the ravings of a madman. However in my vision of unification, I am convinced that the signs of the approaching radiant spring on this peninsula can already be seen. In my confinement, deprived of all freedom in my narrow cell, this vision of unification brings me happiness. Although this is a happiness in the midst of suffering, it is more precious even than the happiness that can be bestowed by a woman. For the sake of this vision of unification I am prepared to struggle to the last, and undergo whatever ordeals may come.

Kim concluded with a Christmas blessing. When he came to bless his enemies, however, the image was no longer that of spring, and one could hear echoes of the angrier God of the Old Testament.

…and as for those most responsible for this regime, beginning with Mr. Park Chung Hee and including all high government officials, I pray that God’s blessing will pour down upon them like a great, white, silent snow, and cover them in its drifts.

On December 24 I went to the Ministry of Information and Culture and presented the petition I was carrying to a cold young man who demonstrated his mastery of English—obviously the result of an American college education—by reading it aloud with elaborate sarcasm. On the same day I met with a number of Kim’s supporters, and listened to their ideas and his. One young man puzzled me by his repeated insistence on the noncommunist, non-Marxist nature of Kim’s National Democratic Revolution. I asked him who would own and run the factories. “Oh, the workers,” he said with a wave of his hand. “The workers can do that through their unions.”

That evening, Christmas Eve, was one of the two nights of the year on which there is no curfew in South Korea, the other being New Year’s Eve. On any other night anyone walking in the street between midnight and 4:00 AM would be arrested, anyone running would be shot. By midnight the streets were overflowing with eager people savoring the pleasure of walking freely about their city. At 12:30 an American friend and I took a taxi to Westgate Prison; we had learned that the wives and supporters of the political prisoners were going to gather there at 1:00 AM to sing Christmas carols. There is a low but steep hill directly behind the prison from which you can look down into it. There the people gathered, and shouted songs through tiny megaphones made of rolled-up newspapers and magazines.

I flew out of Seoul on December 25. Before I left a number of people thanked me for coming. Perhaps my visit, like those of others before me, was useful in reminding the Park dictatorship and Kim Chi Ha’s own supporters that the world is watching. On the other hand it was an easy thing to do, and it felt wrong to be thanked.

On December 30 Kim Chi Ha was sentenced to seven years in prison, to be added to the life sentence he is already serving. What does this strange judgment mean? On the one hand, it is a victory for the worldwide efforts to save him from the death sentence. On the other hand it means that he has been found guilty. It means that his thoughts have been officially judged to be communist and illegal, so that now any Koreans who accept them or who support him are automatically guilty of violating the Anti-Communist Law. The Carter administration only disgraces itself when, on grounds of “security,” it turns its back on such people and says it will take no action against the inhumanity of the Park regime.

Readers concerned about Kim Chi Ha and other political prisoners in South Korea may wish to write to: Kim Chi Ha, Westgate Prison, Seoul, Korea; President Park Chung Hee, Blue House, Seoul, Korea; Don Frazer, US House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515. Contributions to the families and to legal defense may be sent to North American Coalition for Human Rights in Korea, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 1538, New York, New York 10027. More information can be obtained from Korea Comunique, Japan Emergency Chriostian Conference on Korean Problems, c/o NCC-Japan, No. 24, 2-3-18 Nishi Waseda, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160 ($7 a year); Korea Commentary, US-Korea Research and Action Committee, PO Box 24175, Oakland, California 94623 ($5 a year).

This Issue

April 28, 1977