- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

SEOUL — In appearance, Room 509 in the black building in central Seoul’s lively Namyeong district is an ordinary bathroom. In spirit, it is closer to the dungeons dug under European castles or the cellars where the Gestapo worked.

Here, 20 years ago, a student activist died after 10 hours of police torture. His death ignited people-power protests that would sweep the nation’s authoritarian governments from power.

The events of the struggle for democracy in the 1980s continue to color South Korea’s shaky relationship with the United States and its confrontational labor relations.

The National Police Agency’s Human Rights Protection Center is set behind a hotel between the sprawling U.S. Army base in Yongsan and the student entertainment quarter of Namyeong. In 1987, the building had no nameplate: It was the headquarters of the notorious National Security Bureau (NSB).

“It was feared and hated,” recalls Woo Sang-ho, spokesman of the ruling Uri Party, who was an activist at the time. “When student activists heard that their colleagues were transferred to Namyeong, they naturally thought they might die.”

A victim’s tale

Park Jong-chol was from a poor family but realized “the Korean dream,” gaining entry to Seoul National University, the country’s top educational institution. The 21-year-old had taken part in anti-American and anti-government demonstrations. On the night of Jan. 13, a secret police squad snatched him for questioning.

Mr. Park entered the NSB building through blue, electrically operated steel gates. He was dragged up the staircase to the fifth floor and led along an antiseptic white corridor lined with reinforced green metal doors, 16 in all. Inside Room 509 were opaque, vertical slits where windows should have been.

His cell held a battered desk with two chairs bolted to the floor and, incongruously, a complete bathroom unit with a false-marble tub, a sink and a toilet, as well as a prominent electrical socket on the wall.

Under the authoritarian government of Chun Do-hwan, security services routinely subdued anti-government activists by using the harsh National Security Law, enacted to counter North Korean espionage. Common interrogation techniques were electical shocks and “waterboarding” — putting a prisoner’s face under water to simulate the experience of drowning. The wooden paneling inside Mr. Park’s cell was soundproofed against screams.

On Jan. 14, Mr. Park was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead. The police report stated that officers had given Mr. Park water to drink, then questioned him. When an interrogator slammed his hand on the desk, Mr. Park died of shock, the report said.

The autopsy told a different tale: The young man had died from suffocation. The coroner, at enormous risk, leaked the information to news organizations. The public exploded.

“Everybody throughout the country sided with the dead student. It was not just in Seoul or people who knew Park; it was everybody,” said documentary filmmaker Kim Jung-eun, who joined the protests that flared nationwide. “The death of Park was the last straw.”

Hopes for democracy were dashed in 1980, when Gen. Chun Do-hwan seized power a year after the assassination of authoritarian President Park Chung-hee. Special forces troops put down protests in Gwangju, and 240 citizens died. Washington was suspected of colluding in the bloodshed.

National energies were focused on economic development, and unionists who raised their voices faced brutal repression.

After South Korea was granted the 1988 Summer Olympics, opposition politicians reasoned that the regime could not react with its accustomed force.

In January 1987, after Mr. Park’s death, furious white-collar workers joined protesting students. Violent demonstrations grabbed international headlines.

Gen. Chun bowed to pressure on June 29 and agreed to democratic elections in December.

The legacies remain. Many former activists are now in power. Another student demonstrator who was tortured in the NSB building with water, electrical shock and sleep deprivation is Kim Geun-taen, now head of the Uri Party. Roh Moo-hyun, a former lawyer who defended repressed workers, is president.

The Chun regime’s close identification with the United States explains the suspicions of many in power — activists of the 1980s.

“Many students thought the Chun Do-hwan regime was born on the back of the U.S., which did not take any action against the killings committed by the Chun regime,” said Lee Su-wan, a Reuters journalist who reported during the 1980s.

The strong arm of Chun’s junta, the police, has changed almost beyond recognition.

Although “chicken coop” buses are still common on Seoul streets, riot police tactics have been restrained. Tear gas has not been used on demonstrations since 1997, and reports note the injuries of police officers as well as protesters.

Motorists now feel at liberty to argue with civilian police officers who pull them over for traffic violations.

“The law used to be used to control people and to harass anybody who objected to the government,” said Hwang Ju-myung, a former judge and founder of Hwang Mok Park, a leading Seoul law firm. “The general public thinks the law was a means to control and punish innocent people, so have a lot of antagonism against it.”

New beginnings

In 2005, South Korea’s national chief of police suggested that the NSB building become the force’s Human Rights Protection Center.

“We announced a slogan, ‘New Police, New Start’ ” said Senior Inspector Jung Uk-han, 34, who looks more like a lawyer or an architect than the roughnecks of the past. “And we chose this place as a symbol to correct the wrongdoings of the police from within.”

Mr. Park’s cell has been preserved as it was on the day of his death. The police plan to turn the entire building into a human rights memorial by the end of this year.

“When we first came to this building, it was gloomy with the history,” said Inspector Yu Hye-kyeong, 30. “But now, our work is different from the past. I feel rewarded by what I do.”

Interrogators of the 1970s and ‘80s found themselves out of favor and left the force. The worst of them were hunted by their victims. Lee Keun-ahn, “The Torture Technician” who interrogated Uri Party leader Mr. Kim, went underground in 1989 and surrendered in 1999. Questions linger about whether senior officers colluded in his disappearance.

Imprisoned for human rights abuses, Lee told reporters that he regretted his actions and later met with Mr. Kim to request forgiveness.

For Park’s father, Park Jeong-gi, the scars of 1987 can never heal. He visited his son’s cell on Jan. 14.

“I have wished over and over that the incident had not occurred, but if not for my son, I would have lived without knowing about democracy, like a fool,” he told the Hankyoreh newspaper on the anniversary of his son’s death. “Because of the incident, I was able to realize the meaning of democracy, but I have heard that young people in South Korea are not much interested in such things these days.”

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