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After 13 yrs on death row, Zainichi Korean ex-political prisoner savors democracy (Pt.1)

Lee Cheol, left, and his wife Min Hyang-suk attend a Mass in Korean at a local Catholic church in the city of Osaka on Oct. 17, 2021. "Here, I feel calm and self-possessed," Lee said.(Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)=Click/tap photo for more images

OSAKA -- Lee Cheol and I entered a coffee shop near Tsuruhashi Station, at the heart of Osaka's Korea town. "It should be safe here," he said as he picked a seat with his back to the wall.

    Lee is a 73-year-old second generation "Zainichi," an ethnic Korean born in Japan, who now resides in this city. He was studying in South Korea in 1975 when he was falsely charged with spying for North Korea, tortured, and sentenced to death. In 1988, after 13 years on death row, he was released on parole. The scars on his back from the beatings he endured have disappeared, but his fear and wariness remain.

    In the 1970s and 1980s, while South Korea was ruled by a military dictatorship, many Zainichi students chose to study on home soil. Koreans in Japan had faced severe discrimination and their voyage to the Korean Peninsula was one of hope. But several of them were framed as spies. Then President Park Chung-hee took to suppressing demands for democracy and a reunified Korea. The students were targeted as political prisoners, or scapegoats, to portray "the threat from the North."

    The man in front of me was one of them.


    Lee was born in southwest Japan's Kumamoto Prefecture. After graduating from Tokyo's Chuo University, he began studying at Seoul National University's educational research institute for Koreans residing abroad in 1971. He advanced to Korea University's graduate school in March 1973. He was a 27-year-old student when the "incident" that changed his life occurred.

    There were signs that a sinister process was underway. Headlines announcing "Korean Central Intelligence Agency unmasks Zainichi Korean spy ring" hit newsstands on Nov. 22, 1975. Law enforcement had announced the arrests of 21 suspects as spies, of which 13 were Korean students from Japan. The public was led to believe that there was a "campus espionage ring." Members were reportedly still on the loose, and authorities were calling for them to surrender within a month.

    "I shivered with a sense of danger," Lee recalls. He worried that he, too, could be framed.

    About three weeks later, on Dec. 11, men barged into his home, upturned his desk, toppled bookshelves, and abducted him. In a car, he was blindfolded and forced to thrust his head between his knees. "Lee Cheol entered North Korea to be trained as an agent, and infiltrated South Korea," his accusers said. The allegations were completely fabricated.

    Lee was taken to the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) headquarters, where interrogators stripped him naked in an underground room. "I don't understand why I'm here," he protested. But they repeatedly beat him with a wooden stick. When he collapsed, they kicked him all over. "I'm going to be killed," he thought, and lost consciousness. He could not even make up a confession to ease his situation. In despair, he gave up hope of living. "I bit my tongue with all my might," he remembers. But he failed to kill himself.

    After 39 days of torture, he was coerced into making a false confession, dictated to him word for word.

    Lee was found guilty of violating the National Security Act, among other charges, and was handed a death sentence in May 1976. The verdict stood on an appeal hearing in November. In March 1977, the Supreme Court dismissed his final appeal and the sentence was confirmed.

    News of his fiancee being arrested in January 1976 added to the agony. At the time he was engaged to marry Min Hyang-suk in a few months. Authorities accused her of conspiracy, for failing to inform authorities that Lee was a spy, and judges sentenced her to 3 1/2 years in prison. Her sentence was finalized right after Lee's verdict was confirmed.

    "Your father has died! Do you know that?" A relative shouted to him as he was walked to court. His father, Jeong-hak, had passed away at 53 years of age in January 1976 after Lee's arrest.

    Four years later Lee's mother Pun-wi died at the age of 56. Lee's older sister visited him in prison to pass on the bad news. "Mom worried about you till her last breath," she said.

    Following Lee's internment in the KCIA cell he was transferred to a detention house in Seoul. He was forbidden from receiving anyone or anything from the outside, but after several months, an inmate tossed in a Bible through the observation slot in the door. He hid it under a comforter, then pulled it out and devoured the words while sitting with his back to the door so guards would not notice. He was engrossed in it.

    Reading about Jesus redeeming people reminded Lee of what he had wanted to do in South Korea -- to reunify the two Koreas and realize peace. The Bible rekindled his will to survive, though the torture had destroyed his inner self. He was baptized as Catholic after the first court hearing that sentenced him to death.

    On Aug. 15, 1979, Lee's death sentence was commuted to life in prison and he was uncuffed. Some 10 days later, he was reunited briefly with Min in a reception room separated by wire netting. She had just been released after serving out a sentence of 3 1/2 years.

    "With all the hardship I've forced on you, you must be bitter toward me," he ventured.

    "No, I've never regretted meeting you," she replied. They touched fingers.

    Lee Cheol, right, is seen meeting his future mother-in-law, Cho Man-jo, during his imprisonment in a special meeting in the South Korean city of Daejeon in 1981, in this image taken by a supporter. (Photo courtesy of Lee Cheol) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    As if to tighten her bond with Lee, Min dove into a campaign to free political prisoners. Min's mother and apple farmer Cho Man-jo joined in. She took part in gatherings of the prisoners' families and became a notable figure in bringing together the campaigners of South Korea and Japan. Cho passed away at the age of 84 in 2005.

    In 1981, Lee's life sentence was reduced to 20 years.

    Then President Chun Doo-hwan, who had seized power after a military coup in 1980, ordered in 1987 a halt to debate on constitutional changes that would have paved the way for direct presidential elections. Protesters demanding democracy hit the streets throughout the country. On June 29, 1987, the leader of the Democratic Justice Party and presidential hopeful Roh Tae-woo announced the "June 29 Declaration," a comprehensive democratization proposal. It had eight points that included constitutional amendment and freedom of the press. This was his attempt to rectify the situation. Roh was elected president the following year and political prisoners began to be released one by one.

    With South Korea on track to democracy, Lee's fate at last appeared to be making a turn for the better.

    (This is part one of a two-part series. The next part will be published on Dec. 6, 2021. The Japanese original of this article by Expert Writer Tomonari Takao was published on Oct. 23, 2021.)

    In Photos: Out of death row, Zainichi Korean ex-political prisoner savors democracy

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