South Koreans reject amnesty Incarcerated: Many of the nation's prisoners of conscience have balked at being granted freedom in exchange for answering a questionnaire they say violates their civil liberties.

Sun Journal

September 26, 1998|By Valerie Reitman | Valerie Reitman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SEOUL, South Korea -- "To My Dear Mother, who must be hanging her head down low not finding my name on the list on the prison wall, who must be lonelier now than at any time before not being able to touch my hand."

Cho Soon Sun, 73, chokes on her son's words as she recites them to the small crowd gathered in the park. The letter from Kang Yong Ju tried to explain why he had chosen to remain in his prison cell rather than answer the government's simple questions about how he would obey the law if freed.

His stand on principle came at a steep price: seven more years in prison, where he had been sent 13 years ago for handing a video to students who, the government says, were spies. Had Kang answered satisfactorily, he would have joined the 2,174 South Koreans -- imprisoned for everything from treason to petty crimes -- who walked free in the new government's sweeping amnesty program last month.

"I would be able to go out to meet you and end your agony, but I couldn't do it," Kang wrote. "I couldn't accept that I have to show my inner thoughts to the authorities and be judged. If I refuse to sign, I'll be freer in the court of conscience."

As Cho finishes reading the letter, the elderly woman raises her ++ fist. "Free all prisoners of conscience," she shouts. Two dozen women join the chorus: "Free all prisoners of conscience."

The prisoners -- most serving sentences for security violations such as affiliating with Communists or North Korean groups -- represent one of the most difficult political difficulties facing South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, a former dissident and prisoner himself.

Kim has vowed many times to put human rights on a par with economic development in South Korea. In a bid to appease right-wing opponents while liberating prisoners charged with National Security Law violations, Kim's administration devised a questionnaire that asked three simple questions: What are you in prison for? How will you support yourself? How will you obey the law and the Constitution if freed?

While the questions might not seem onerous, to these die-hard prisoners they violate their civil liberties, and are a sign that South Korea has a long way to go in becoming a full-fledged democracy.

"If our nation releases the prisoners of conscience without condition, that's the turning point of a country mature enough to tolerate other thoughts, other viewpoints, other values and opinions," Kang says in a prison interview. "I want our society to permit variety."

The amnesty has apparently backfired because so many prisoners balked at answering the questionnaire. Kim has been under fire from both the left and the right for his handling on the issue. Now Amnesty International has joined the attack.

The group's secretary-general, Pierre Sane, said after meeting with Kim, "His government's failure to stop abuse of the National Security Law, to release political prisoners and engage in meaningful dialogue with local human rights organizations, is fast eroding confidence and trust in this reform program."

International legal experts say the questionnaire is highly unusual in a democratic society, where such questions are asked only as a condition of being naturalized or taking public office.

"It's not surprising in light of what other nations have done, including Korea, but it's a little shocking to hear they are still doing that under Kim," says James Feinerman, chairman of Asian legal studies at Georgetown University's Law Center. "You punish someone when and if they violate the law, but you don't make it a condition of their release that you promise not to violate the law."

Although the prisoners of conscience were asked to submit statements to gain their release, the thousands of other prisoners nationwide, who were charged with various social and petty crimes, were released unconditionally.

On the day of the amnesty leader's meeting with Kim, the family members rally outside the historic Tapgol Park in central Seoul for the 242nd Thursday in a row -- nearly five years -- their purple kerchiefs embroidered in gold with the names of the imprisoned relatives. The rally is particularly bittersweet, coming on the heels of the government's amnesty initiative. For some, the program answers years of prayers: About 90 of the estimated 450 "prisoners of conscience" had won their freedom in return for answering the controversial questions.

Lee Myong Ja, the mother of a freed prisoner, is on hand to cheer on her comrades, as is her son, Kim Tae Wan. Imprisoned for more than a year for being an officer in Hanchongryon, a student group with ties to North Korean students, Kim Tae Wan answered the questions thus: "I have always been a law-abiding student: I kept the law, I am keeping the law, I will always keep the law."

Poet Park No He, who served eight years of a life sentence for organizing a socialist workers league, signed too, because he didn't want to detract from the greater good of Kim's reform efforts.

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