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Nineteen Years in South Korea’s Gulag

Unbroken SpiritsSuh Sung: Unbroken Spirits – Nineteen Years in South Korea’s Gulag
Rowman & Littlefield, 2001
Original Japanese version, (Gokuchû 19 Nen, Nineteen Years in Prison) 1994

We are all familiar with stories reporting the horrors of torture and starvation in North Korean prison camps. What we can forget is that over the past decades South Korea’s history of treatment of political prisoners has not been blemish-free. If North Korea’s system is a continuation and perversion of the Japanese system of detention and punishment, the South’s system too retained Japanese influences.

Suh Sung at his trial in 1972, bearing the scars of a failed suicide attempt
Suh Sung at his trial in 1972, bearing the scars of a failed suicide attempt

In a well-translated, informative and sometimes moving account, Suh Sung tells of his nineteen-year detention in South Korea’s prisons. His supposed crime was that of spying, a common charge at the time. Suh is one of Japan’s Korean population and therefore felt no particular allegiance to either North or South, but being a patriotic Korean wanted unification and was naturally left-leaning. He had also visited North Korea illegally in the 1960s. Suh says little of his political activities, though he acknowledges having passed funds to the Kim Dae-jung presidential campaign of 1971. But he was in prison for being a communist spy, and through 19 years was subjected to physical and moral pressure to “convert”. This conversion process (cheonyang in Korean, tenkô in Japanese) was one of the many remnants of the many hangovers from the Japanese colonial penal system. He resisted all such pressure, undergoing torture, beatings and hunger strikes. He was released in 1990 as Korea emerged from dictatorship to civilian-led democracy.

Access to news of the outside world was difficult to obtain inside, but nevertheless Suh’s account reflects the raised hopes and increased fears following various events: for example the North-South joint Communiqué of 4 July 1972, the assassination of Park Chung-hee and the fall of Chun Doo-hwan all increased optimism, while the Panjunjom axe incident, Park Chung-hee’s declaration of the Yushin system and Chun Doo-hwan’s coup were dark days. Prisoners were under no illusions: in the event of invasion from the North, the political prisoners could not expect any mercy from the South Korean guards.

Despite its grim subject, the book has a warm, human heart, reflecting the endurance of its author. Along the way we learn interesting facts about Japanese discrimination against their Korean population in the post-war years, and we learn that Oh Dae-su’s wall-punching exercises in Oldboy were not a perverse invention of Park Chan-wook: this is, or was, a fist-toughening practice widespread in Korea’s prisons.

Very readable and highly recommended.


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