Power of one

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 February, 2007, 12:00am

In appearance, Room 509 in the black building in central Seoul's lively Namyeong district looks identical to the fitted bathrooms found in innumerable flats across Asia. But in spirit, it is closer to the dungeons dug under European castles, or the cellars where the Nazi Gestapo did their grisly work.

In this room, 20 years ago, Park Jong-chol, a student activist, died after 10 hours of police torture. His death, which was remembered in South Korea last month, lit a fire that ignited the democracy movement that would sweep the nation's authoritarian government from power.

The plain black building, perhaps more than any other, symbolises Seoul's switch from authoritarian government to vibrant democracy. Set behind a hotel in a back street between the sprawling US Army base in Yongsan and the student entertainment quarter of Namyeong, with its bars, cafes and karaoke outlets, it today houses the National Police Agency's Human Rights Protection Centre.

In 1987, the building had no nameplate: it was the headquarters of the police's notorious National Security Bureau, or NSB.

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

Park, 21, was from a poor family, but had realised the 'Korean dream' - gaining entry to the country's top educational institution, Seoul National University. Like many of his peers, he had taken part in anti-American and anti-government demonstrations.

On the night of January 13, a gang of six men grabbed him as he walked home. They wanted to question him on the whereabouts of another activist.

The seriousness of his plight would have become apparent when he was taken to the NSB building. He would have entered through the blue, electrically operated steel gates. Gazing up at the black walls, he might have wondered why the fifth floor had no windows - only narrow, vertical slits.

After being dragged up the staircase to the fifth floor, and led along an antiseptic white corridor lined with reinforced green metal doors - 16 in all - he would have found out. Inside Room 509, the opaque slits let nobody from the outside world see in, nor those inside, out.

His cell's features were a bed with a shabby sponge mattress, a battered desk with two chairs bolted to the floor, and - incongruously - a fully fitted bathroom unit: a faux marble tub, a sink, a toilet. Perhaps Park also noted the prominent electric wall socket.

Under the authoritarian government of Chun Doo-hwan, security services routinely leveraged the harsh provisions of the National Security Law - designed to counter North Korean espionage - against anti-government activists. 'Waterboarding' - dangling prisoners upside down in water - and electric shock torture were common interrogation techniques. The wooden panelling inside Park's cell was soundproofed against screams.

On January 14, Park was taken to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead. The police summary of his death was less than convincing. The report stated the officers had given Park some water to drink, then questioned him. When an interrogator slammed his hand on the desk, the student cried out and died of shock.

A post-mortem examination found the young man died from suffocation. The case coroner, Hwang Juk-joon, taking an enormous risk, leaked the information to the mass circulation Dong-Ah Ilbo newspaper.

The public exploded.

'Everybody throughout the country was supportive. It was not just in Seoul, or people who knew Park - it was everybody,' said Kim Jung-eun, a documentary filmmaker who was, at the time, a white-collar worker who joined the demonstrations that flared nationwide. 'The death of Park was the straw that broke the camel's back.'

There had been many straws. In 1980, following the 1979 assassination of the dictatorial president Park Chung-hee, South Korea's hopes for democracy were dashed when another general, Chun Doo-hwan, seized power at gunpoint. Pro-democracy protests the same year in the city of Kwangju were put down by Special Forces troops; 240 citizens were killed.

The nation was cowed, and national energies were focused on economic development - though unionists who raised their voices faced brutal repression.

But by 1986, opposition politicians reasoned that with the country having been granted the 1988 Summer Olympics, the military regime could not react with its accustomed force.

Rallies and protests began nationwide. In January 1987, Park's death brought white-collar workers into the streets to join the students. South Korea was racked by violent demonstrations that grabbed international headlines. Finally, on June 29, Chun bowed to pressure and agreed to democratic elections in December.

From the beginning of this year, the events of 1987 have received widespread attention as the nation recalls and debates the 20th anniversary of democratisation. For any observer interested in South Korea's currently shaky relationship with the US, or in its notoriously adversarial industrial relations, the struggle for democracy is an essential study.

Many former activists are now in power. Another student demonstrator, Kim Geun-tae, who was tortured on the fifth floor of the NSB building with water, electric shock and sleep deprivation, is today the head of the ruling Uri Party. Roh Moo-hyun, a former labour lawyer who defended workers who faced repression in the 1980s, is today president.

The Chun regime's close identification of itself with the US explains the suspicion many in power - activists in the 1980s - now feel towards the US.

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

The strong arm of the Chun junta - the police that suppressed opposition politicians, student demonstrators and strikers - has changed almost beyond recognition. While the riot police's 'chicken coops' - buses with fencing over their windows to protect against missiles - are still a common sight on Seoul's streets, their erstwhile strong-arm tactics have been restrained. Since the liberal Kim Dae-jung administration came to power in 1997, tear gas - 'Seoul perfume' - has not been used on demonstrators. The media now highlight the injuries police, as well as demonstrators, suffer doing their duty.

The civil police don't get the respect of yore; it is commonplace to see motorists arguing or even shoving 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 supreme court judge and founding partner 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 they have a lot of antagonism against it.'

It was at the suggestion of South Korea's chief of police, in 2005, that the NSB building became the force's Human Rights Protection Centre.

'We announced a slogan, 'New Police, New Start',' said the centre's Senior Inspector Jung Uk-han, 34, a studious-looking young man who, with his fashionable glasses and smart suit looks more like a lawyer or architect than the roughnecks of the past. 'And we chose this place as a symbol to correct the wrongdoings of the police from within.'

Park's cell has been preserved as it was on the day of his death: it is now a shrine. The police plans 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 all the history,' said Inspector Yu Hye-kyeong, 30, a colleague of Inspector Jung at the centre, which researches, advises and trains police in human rights protection. 'But now, our work is different from the past; I feel rewarded by what I do.'

The Uri Party's Mr Woo said: 'Ironically, Namyeong has symbolic meaning as it solidifies the public will for democratisation. Because Namyeong's interrogation rooms are something we must get rid of if we want to make a world where there is no torture and where people can be respected as human beings.'

In the changed political climate, the force's interrogators found themselves out of work. 'The interrogators of the 1970s and '80s have left the force,' a police spokesman said.

The worst of them found themselves hunted by their former victims. The notorious Lee Keun-ahn, 'the Torture Technician' who interrogated Uri leader Mr Kim, went underground in 1989, but gave himself up in 1999. There are still questions over whether senior officers colluded in his disappearance. Imprisoned for human rights abuses, he told media he regretted his actions and later met one of his former victims, Mr Kim, to beg forgiveness.

For one man, however, the scars of 1987 can never heal.

'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,' said the dead activist's father, Park Jeong-gi, in an interview with the Hankyoreh newspaper on the anniversary of his son's death.

'Because of the incident, I was able to feel a kind of happiness, for I was able to realise the true meaning of democracy,' said Mr Park, who visited his son's cell on January 14 to leave flowers. 'But I have heard young people in South Korea these days are not much interested in such things.'