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After 13 yrs on death row, Zainichi Korean ex-political prisoner savors democracy (Pt. 2)

Lee Cheol, left, is seen speaking with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in in the city of Osaka on June 27, 2019, in this image taken by Lee's acquaintance. (Photo courtesy of Lee Cheol)

The first half of this two-part series introduced Lee Cheol, an ethnic Zainichi Korean born in Japan, who survived a death sentence imposed on him based on a false spying charge by South Korean authorities. This was a politically motivated frame-up aimed to portray "a threat from North Korea." Lee has since been released amid a movement for political reform.


    OSAKA -- On Oct. 3, 1988, the South Korean government released on parole 52 prisoners convicted for the so-called crime of disturbing public safety, including two Zainichi political prisoners. A total of 1,026 prisoners were paroled that day. Among them was Lee Cheol. At nearly 40, he was free for the first time since he was 27. He stepped out of the Andong Correctional Institution in North Gyeongsang Province to rejoice with relatives.

    I found a Mainichi Shimbun news report on this event. "Lee Cheol's family in the town of Nishiki, Kuma County, Kumamoto Prefecture, received a call from him shortly past 10 a.m. on (Oct.) 3. His elder brother, Myeon, took the call and heard his brother say, 'I got out of prison at 10 a.m. I'm fine. I plan to go to Kumamoto to visit our parents' grave.'"

    This photo taken by Park Yeon-soo on Oct. 28, 1988, shows the wedding guests of Lee Cheol and Min Hyang-suk parading through the center of Seoul. At that time, people called it the "wedding and protest march." (Photo courtesy of the Korea Democracy Foundation)

    Lee married his fiancee of 13 years, Min Hyang-suk, then 38, at the Myeongdong cathedral located in central Seoul on Oct. 28 that year. Over 3,000 people attended, among whom were fellow members of the pro-democracy movement. They paraded down the streets with a banner at the lead heralding in Korean, "Conscience wins! Love wins!"

    The newlyweds returned to Japan on May 26, 1989. Harassment from the South Korean authorities followed. A marked man, Lee was denied a passport though he wished to re-enter his home country.

    The couple found a home in Osaka. Lee worked at his brother-in-law's electrical firm during the day and taught Korean at night for a living. In December 1990, he and his peers founded the Zainichi Kankoku Ryoshinshu Doyukai (association of ethnic Korean prisoners of conscience in Japan) and Lee became its representative. Members shared among themselves the anguish of their past. They also agreed to be united with the South Korean pro-democracy movement.

    But mental pressure and fear persisted. Lee felt he would not live long. Even today on a station platform, he stiffens his legs when a train slides in, to protect himself from the potential danger of being shoved under it.

    He still sees the same nightmare. He is unable to move, aligned with other inmates awaiting execution. A hangman pulls one end of a rope, the other end a noose around a neck. Another man kicks away a chair. One hanged, two hanged, three ... and next comes his turn. "There I awake. Soaked with sweat, heart pounding, I can no longer go back to sleep."

    A spate of tragedies that hit Japan in 1995 -- the Great Hanshin Earthquake in January and the AUM Shinrikyo cult's sarin nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subway system in March -- also influenced his psyche. "Who knows what could happen to my wife and me. We need to document for our young children the severe life we've gone through." Their daughter was 6 years old and their son 4 at the time. He wrote down his experience, little by little, on trains to work or during his lunch break. Seven notebooks were filled out in one year and three months. He felt relieved.

    Roh Moo-hyun, president of South Korea from 2003 to 2008, established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in December 2005. The committee started to reinvestigate the former Zainichi political prisoners' cases, such as Lee's. This opened the door to a chance for a retrial, but he was concerned. He had hoped for a comprehensive acquittal of all charges through a special law. "I was afraid of a retrial. It would be like reopening a healing wound by myself to see fresh blood," he said.

    However, encouraged by the defense counsel of the former prisoners, Lee applied for a retrial in October 2011. The Seoul Central District Court delivered a verdict of "not guilty" in February 2015, and the Seoul High Court followed suit in July. "The court offers its deepest apology for failing to be the last stronghold in protecting human rights," stated the presiding judge at the high court. On Nov. 26, the Supreme Court upheld the high court's judgment by rejecting the prosecutors' final appeal. Lee's innocence was confirmed.

    In our interview, Lee highlighted an event to be remembered forever -- for its bright side.

    On June 27, 2019, Lee and his wife, both formally dressed, attended a gathering at a hotel in Osaka. South Korea's President Moon Jae-in, visiting for the G-20 Summit, was the host and 400 compatriots were the guests.

    Moon said in a speech: "As the president and on behalf of my country, I acknowledge the sufferings of the victims, and their families, of the fabricated 'North Korea espionage case.' I offer my sincere apology to those who were traumatized by the violence of the dictatorial powers and their kin." This was the first time a president of South Korea had apologized for the past human rights violations of the Zainichi political prisoners.

    Lee approached Moon, who was seated at the same table, to extend his gratitude. Moon brought up the subject of his past as a lawyer. "I was on the legal team for the political prisoners' first retrial. Did you know that?"

    "Of course," Lee replied. The two shook hands. Lee was consoled. "At last, I can meet my parents in the other world." His father and mother had passed away without seeing his acquittal.

    The number of former Zainichi Korean political prisoners is said to be around 70. Most were arrested for espionage while studying at schools in South Korea or visiting the country on business. All were released by 1998, but not before spending up to 19 years in prison. Thirty-six of them proved their innocence in retrials. Some victims have hidden their past from even their closest family, and others have since passed away. A full picture is difficult to grasp.

    President Moon has organized a second Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The committee is shedding light on past political mistakes as the country treads its path toward democracy.

    The aforementioned association Zainichi Kankoku Ryoshinshu Doyukai is now searching for former prisoners or their bereaved families that have not yet applied for retrials, to support them until they win acquittal.

    "I would like to see a special law passed that confirms all former Zainichi political prisoners are innocent. This will truly liberate us of our suffering and vindicate our honor and dignity," Lee says.

    Voices claiming that democracy is decaying throughout the world can often be heard. But Lee emphasized the significance of democracy. Japan was in the midst of a House of Representatives election when I met Lee for this interview. "The freedom and democracy we are enjoying cannot be sustained unless we fight for it. Many peers have recognized our sacrifice, as political prisoners, cultivated South Korea's democratization process. I can feel the dynamism of democracy developing in South Korea. Japan is now holding a general election. I sincerely hope that Japan's democracy will grow and mature even more," he said.


    Lee, now 73, and his wife, 71, stroll together in a park every morning before dawn for about two hours. Rarely do they reflect on the past. They tie their hands together as if to recapture the time they could not spend together as young lovers. "The world has changed, hasn't it?" "Yes, it has." Such words are good enough for them both.

    (This is the second and final part of a two-part series. The Japanese original by Expert Writer Tomonari Takao was published on Oct. 23, 2021.)

    Lee Cheol, right, and his wife Min Hyang-suk take their daily walk in a park in the city of Osaka on Oct. 18, 2021. (Mainichi/Tomonari Takao)

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