Thursday, June 17, 2010

SK Solidarity Trip Day 2: More Than Mandelas

I have only been in South Korea for two days and I have already met dozens of political prisoners, some of whom were imprisoned for a matter of months, others for years. When I say political prisoner I don't mean someone arrested at a protest, but rather people who have been condemned and wrongfully incarcerated by the South Korean government. In fact, within the span of one day, I met three men who were political prisoners longer than Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa. I didn’t make this connection right away (this connection to Mandela), but it was something that was regularly reiterated throughout the day. I’ll return to this at the end of the post.

Most people on Guam or in the United States don’t know anything about South Korea, and certainly not about its government. But that is why nationalism and the imaginary cognitive mapping that it provides is so important when dealing with “the rest of the world.” Most people might know about the Korean War or know that South Korea has US bases there, and so the elixir of nationalism leads to the easy and “obvious” assumption that South Korea must be one of the good guys in the world. It must be a great democratic government, not like those dictators and communist countries we fight against, or the dictators and totalitarian regimes that America always only supports in the past.

I will admit that I, for a long time used my own critical imaginary map through which to see South Korea. I thought of it as a puppet state of the United State and a thuggish, corporate regime. Although I had read about base problems in South Korea from different activist or academic sources, I truly did not have a very good understanding about the government there.

As I said already, yesterday I was introduced to many political prisoners throughout the day, and I thought at first that this odd, since most of the discussion and meetings I was attending all dealt with reunification. But as time went on and I heard more and more stories about what were the charges against these prisoners, why they were locked up and what happened to them, the thread which bound almost all of them together was the division of the Koreas. All of these people were in some way or another snatched up by the government because of their work to break down that border (to reunify the Koreas) or that they refused to accept that border (they refused to accept South Korean rule over themselves or their ideology). The Government in each case, had used the argument of national security and that any discussion of reunifying the Koreas, weakened South Korea and strengthened the enemy and was therefore treason.

I had written a longer section in this post about Nelson Mandela and why he was elevated to the universal status of an icon of hope and humanity that he has become, but decided to save that for a separate post, so I won’t include it there. But returning to the discussion at hand, I came to realize that the constant references to Nelson Mandela were not an issue of competition or boasting, but they were a way of trying to subvert or break that happy friendly imaginary map through which most of the world see’s South Korea and its government. South Korea is thought of as an economic powerhouse, something to be modeled after, not condemned, and this is one of those problems which these activists struggle against in their own homes, cities and towns, but also feel at the international level as well. The comparison to Mandela is a polite way of reminding people, that we have political prisoners who were held longer than Mandela, and ours is not a regime which everyone loathes or condemns or boycotts, but instead one that people celebrate and write glowing things about in the Wall Street Journal. Such is the frustration and the nature of their struggle.

The man whom I met which had been imprisoned the longest, was held for 36 years immediately after the Korean War. I did not write his name down properly and so I would rather not put it than type it incorrectly. Pues bai hu sangani gui’ despensa yu’ na hu na’fulalanu hao guini gi este na tinige’-hu. I had dinner with him along with members of the Pan-Korean Alliance Reunification, South Korean Branch (PKAR).

During the Korean War, there were not two neatly divided sides to the conflict, but even within South Korea there were different parties fighting over the future of South Korea and for their vision of it. This man was a communist, but was not fighting for North Korea, but for a different version of communism in South Korea. Naturally, his side did not win, they lost and he was arrested. He was imprisoned and forced to renounce his belief in communism. He refused and so he was tortured for years in an effort to break his spirit and accept the new South Korea. Eventually, 36 years later he was released.

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