By Dae-han Song and Stephanie Park | December 23, 2014
Interpretation by Jeong Eun Hwang
On October 16th, Minkahyup had its thousandth Thursday protest against the National Security Law and for the release of all political prisoners. On October 22nd, Jeong-Eun Hwang, Stephanie Park, and Dae-Han Song of the International Strategy Center (ISC) visited Minkahyup to interview its current president Jo, Soon Deok; former president Kim, Jeong Sook; and Administrative Coordinator Kim, Hyun Joo.
Minkahyup was established in 1985 by families of political prisoners in order to secure their release and to abolish the National Security Law. They held their first Thursday protest on September 23, 1994 at Topgol Park in protest of President Kim Yong Sam’s statement that “there are no political prisoners in Korea.” Since then, regardless of the bitter cold, scorching heat, and pounding rains, they have held weekly Thursday protests. On October 16th, they held their thousandth Thursday protest.
[ISC] What was your reaction when you found out your sons were wanted by the police?
[Jo, Soon Deok] Mothers usually think, ‘The work [fighting for democracy] needs to be done, but why does it have to be my child?’ I felt the same. A few months after becoming Student Council President, my son gave a five minute speech at a farmer’s rally in Yeoido Square and on the spot became a fugitive. When a son or daughter becomes a fugitive the whole family becomes one too. The Gwanak police, the school police – they harass you at home, at work.
[ISC] I wonder what my mother’s reaction would be given a similar situation. You are both a little older than my mother. She is fairly conservative. Were the progressive politics always there or did they emerge from your work?
[Kim, Jeong Sook] Your mother can’t be but conservative. She came from that time. Live as the government tells you to live; don’t do what they tell you not to do. Study hard; go work in a good company; make good money. Marry a good person; have children; live a good life. Those are the desires of a parent. You don’t start coming out to the protests because you understand your child. You come because you are the parent, the mother. But as you come, as you listen to the stories and thoughts of others, you realize, ‘My son did right. How can we just live for ourselves? He is better than his parents. He wants to create a better world for everyone.’ When mothers realize this, they start to get even more active. It begins to matter less whether they ate or got roughed up by police that day.”
[ISC] Your sons have been incarcerated been on the run for a few years. Yet, Jo, Soon Deok, your Minkahyup activism spans nearly two decades and, Kim, Jeong Sook, your activism spans over two decades. What kept you both committed?
[Kim, Jeong Sook] At first, people came out because their children were incarcerated. We came out knowing nothing. The only people that could understand us and could comfort and console us were the veteran mothers who had experienced this. There was no help for us. As we became the veteran mothers, we felt that same obligation towards mothers who were just starting.
At first, it was just about getting your child out of prison as soon as possible. And that was important, but we started to realize it was also about building a better world, about abolishing the National Security Law, and releasing the prisoners.
[ISC] What was the hardest thing about the work? How did you overcome it?
[Kim Jeong Sook] Back then it was so repressive. While the military dictatorship had technically ended with direct elections in 1987, the split in the opposition party allowed Roh Tae Woo, a military leader during the dictatorship, to win the election. My son was a fugitive for just a year. During that time, he would show up at a press conference, make a statement, and then flee. So many cops were looking for him, that they used to say that if you didn’t have a picture of my son in your pocket, then you weren’t a cop.
[Jo, Soon Deok] Her son[Kim Jeong Sook]’s was a high profile case. He is the current deputy mayor of Seoul. [Really? Yes. The current Mayor of Seoul comes from Civil Society.]
[Kim, Jeong Sook] I did not know when or how my son would be caught. That was my greatest anxiety. Once he fled by getting on a bus. When the bus stopped and the police rushed in, he jumped out the bus window and broke his leg. He was arrested on December 19, 1989 after someone tipped the police of his whereabouts.
At that time, they would torture the prisoners. We worried our children were being tortured. When we went to see them, they would always say they weren’t being tortured. I recall one mother was overjoyed when her son told her he had not been tortured. Later during the trial, that mother fainted at hearing his testimony of torture. He had been tortured by electrocution, water drowning, and whisky bottle. They would place the prisoner’s penis on the table and hit it with the whisky bottle yelling that he didn’t deserve to have children because he was a criminal. Then they would take turns drinking from the bottle. Now, he’s an Assembly member for the Democratic Party. I could spend days telling you all these stories. [is he the deputy mayor of seoul or an assemblyman, or both? She is talking not about her son, but about the son of another mother. That other son is now an assemblymember.]
[ISC] I know that you (Kim, Jeong Sook) have to leave soon. Do you have any last words for readers abroad?
[Kim, Jeong Sook] I would like to tell them to not forget what has happened in Korea. All the prisoners of conscience and their families that lived such difficult lives, I hope that they will not forget them and help support us and remember us.
(Kim Jeong Sook leaves)
[ISC] What was the hardest part of your work and how did you overcome it?
[Jo, Soon Deok] The hardest time was not my personal experience but that of witnessing the distress of countless others as they ran around protesting in front of police stations and the Agency for National Security Planning (now the National Intelligence Service).
[ISC] Many of the speakers that day said that while it was said that the protests had to continue for so long, that their persistence were also a testament to the mothers who had persisted for so long. How do you feel about last week’s 1000th protest at Topgol Park?
[Jo, Soon Deok] In the beginning, we never thought we would have 1000 protests. But because political prisoners and social problems persist, we keep going. It would not have been possible to do the Thursday protests for 21 years without those around us – organizations and individuals – supporting us.
[ISC] What are Minkahyup’s current demands?
[Kim Hyun Joo] Our demands are the release of all prisoners of conscience and the abolition of the National Security Law. Minkahyup also engages in various struggles around democracy, prison conditions, and peace in the Korean Peninsula. All the issues are part of a struggle to build a better world.
[Kim Hyun Joo referring to an old photo presented by Jo Soon Deok] That’s a picture of our annual funeral for the National Security Law in December 1st, 1998. Every December 1st, social movements gather to call for the abolition of the National Security Law, thus celebrating not its birth but future demise.
As you know the National Security Law has its origins in a Japanese Colonial law used to capture and oppress independence fighters. On December 1st, 1948, it became a Korean law under its current name.
The use of the National Security Law peaked in 1996 with the Yonsei University Uprising. The Korean Confederation of Student Councils was labeled an enemy of the state, and many of its student activists became fugitives and were arrested under the NSL.
When Kim Dae Jung came into office in 1998, the NSL persisted, but many of the accused were pardoned and the number of incarcerations under the NSL drastically dropped. Then in 2004, President Roh Moo Hyun stated he would put the NSL in a museum as it was outdated. This inspired massive mobilizations in civil society to abolish the NSL. A thousand people fasted for its abolishment in Yeoido Park (near the National Assembly). Yet, the growing protests and mobilizations sparked a backlash from conservative groups.
The conservative groups argued, ‘If the NSL is abolished, how are you going to lock up a person that goes out to Yeoido Plaza waving the North Korean flag and yelling long live Kim Il Sung?’ My response is: ‘So what?’ When Obama comes to Korea, aren’t there people outside waving US flags and saying long live Obama? How is that any different?” Ultimately, the NSL was not abolished nor even reformed. Nonetheless, it was rarely used under Roh Moo Hyun. It was only after the conservatives came back into power with Lee Myung Bak’s election in 2008 that the NSL was again used to investigate, prosecute, and convict people. It continues to be so used under the conservative Park Geun Hye administration.
The NSL discussion has taken a backburner since 2004 because there were so many other struggles; for example the Ssanyong Auto Workers Struggle, or the Yongsan Eviction Tragedy. The NSL struggle never reached the peak it attained in 2004. Nevertheless, Minkahyup, Alliance to Abolish the National Security Law, Human Rights Groups, or the Korea Alliance of Progressive Movements – we keep holding protests every December 1st calling for the abolishment of the NSL.
Conservative groups are now trying to introduce legislation that would confiscate property and mete out harsher punishment against those that join organizations deemed enemies of the state. While individuals can be arrested, the NSL cannot disband these groups. [Why not? These groups don’t have a particular legal status, so then the government has no way of disbanding them. They can arrest the members, but the organization would still remain. They are not like 501c3 organizations that are founded upon the law and thus can get their status revoked. That’s the answer Hyun Joo gave me.] So, other people can still join the organizations. So, the Saenuri Party [the New Frontier Party] introduced legislation whereby property would be confiscated or there would be harsher punishment if you joined such illegal organizations. We have managed so far to keep this legislation from being introduced in the National Assembly.
[ISC] What would it take for the NSL to be abolished?
[Kim, Hyun Joo] The NSL is linked to inter-Korean relations. When inter-Korean relations are better, when we view each other as partners in reunification and cooperation, then the National Security Law loses significance. Back when hundreds a day would visit Mount Geumgang – when exchange was very active – all of those were infractions of the NSL. Yet, so many people were doing it, that the NSL dissipated from the hearts of people. But now when inter-Korean relations are bad, and the government has a policy of pressuring North Korea. We start to think, ‘If I say anything nice about the North Korean government, will I be violating the National Security Law? And so we self-censor. Roh Moo Hyun’s statement about abolishing the NSL in 2004 had only been possible because there had been a policy of engagement and reunification established by Kim Dae Jung’s presidency, because the Mount Geumgang tours were happening, because North-South exchange was very active. So the struggles for improving inter-Korean relations and for abolishment of the NSL are interconnected.
[Jo, Seong Deok] I hope that the NSL is abolished, that there will no longer be any political prisoners, and that we no longer have to have the Thursday protests.
Jo, Soon Deok has been Minkahyup president since 2011. Previously, she served as president 2002-2005. She has been a member since 1996 when her son, a college student at the time, became a fugitive under the National Security Law. After two years as a fugitive, her son was pardoned when Kim, Dae Jung took office in 1998.
Kim, Jeong Sook was Minkahyup president in 1992 and 1998. She has been a member since 1989 when her son, a college student at the time and now the deputy-Mayor of Seoul, became a fugitive under the National Security Law.
Kim, Hyun Joo has been the Minkahyup administrative coordinator for 4 years. She joined the social movement as a university student upon witnessing students incarcerated for violating the National Security Law.
 The Ssangyong Auto Workers struggle is an ongoing struggle by union workers against the company’s unjust layoffs that began in 2009 and continue today.
 The Yongsan Tragedy took place in January 19, 2009 when five protestors (against eviction due to redevelopment) occupying a building in protest and a police SWAT team member died in a fire.