WORLD

Human rights aren’t in the contract

ROBERT LEWIS October 12 1981
WORLD

Human rights aren’t in the contract

ROBERT LEWIS October 12 1981

Human rights aren’t in the contract

South Korea

Magpies strutted across the spacious lawns and the chirping of crickets filled the air as Pierre Trudeau sat down inside the quiet splendor of South Korea’s Blue House for talks with President Chun Doo Hwan. In another part of Seoul, a woman broke off her critical analysis of Trudeau’s first visit, closing her eyes as the deafening roar of fighter jets rattled windows in her small living room. She is accustomed to struggling to make her voice heard in Chun’s stronghold: she is the wife of a political prisoner, jailed by the military on a trumped-up charge of sedition. His real crime was supporting a leading opponent of the regime.

The woman’s name cannot be used. She has close relatives in Seoul, her house is under regular surveillance and she believes her telephone is tapped. In a chance meeting during Trudeau’s stopover late last month, she was reluctant to be drawn out—and she vowed to

say nothing critical of Chun. But she and others like her do fret about the conditions under which their spouses live their solitary lives. After 18 months on a sparse diet of grains and water, they have lost weight. In the cold of the first winter without heat, they suffered frostbite of their ears and hands, and, always, there is the awful stench from the hole in the floor that serves as a toilet. Their only family contact comes once a month, in a 10-minute visit, when the couples talk on a two-way speaker box through the glass and bars—the authorities monitoring the meetings.

It is a bleak, dehumanizing existence. The women’s husbands were rounded up abruptly one night in May, 1980, when Gen. Chun was acting head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) and in charge of restoring calm after the assassination of President Park Chung Hee in October, 1979. Students were in the streets in support of their demands for democratic elections

vided Chun with another opportunity for image-burnishing. The state-controlled press gave lavish front-page treatment to the two-day stop. For their part, the Canadians came away with high hopes of selling Seoul more Candu nuclear reactors (one plant is scheduled to start next year), telephone equipment and coal. That was their central concern.

For many Koreans, however, such straightforward transactions represent a lost opportunity. Park Young Gil, for one, insists that Canada should make further sales of Candu reactors conditional on the release of South Korea’s political prisoners. Selling the reactors is not Canada helping Korea, she says. It is Canada helping Canada. She says that because her children are grown (a daughter lives in Toronto) she has nothing to fear from speaking on the record. Her imprisoned husband, Moon II Whan, a 63-year-old scholar who translated the Old Testament into

after 18 years of Park’s authoritarian rule. One of the leading presidential candidates was Kim Dae Jung, whom the military regarded as a destabilizing force in a land facing a rabid Communist regime across the war-prone nations’ dividing line—the 38th parallel. After Kim’s arrest and purges of the press and other establishments, Chun stepped out of uniform to take over the presidency—closing his grip on the job in a carefully managed election earlier this year. He was promptly embraced by the new administration of Ronald Reagan, which welcomed Chun as the second official visitor to Washington. Trudeau’s trip to Seoul, designed mainly to spur trade that promises to reach the $l-billion mark this year, pro-

Korean, was a key adviser to Kim.

Trudeau, who said before leaving Ottawa that he had no plans to raise the human rights issue, did have a general discussion with Chun on the matter— but only because the South Korean president initiated the chat. Chun contended that with 700,000 North Korean and Chinese troops along the demilitarized zone, it was crucial to maintain stability if the economic miracle that has transformed his nation into a newly industrialized country is to continue. No specific cases were discussed. Trudeau merely sought to reinforce the notion that a liberalization of Chun’s stance on political prisoners is essential for sound Canada-Korea links. Chun already has commuted Kim’s original death sen-

tence to life and reduced Moon’s 20-year term to 15 years.

A note of impatience creeps into the voices of Canadian officials who are pressed to explain why Trudeau does not take a tougher line. “If you want to change someone’s mind,” submits one senior adviser, “you don’t insult the guy when he invites you to dinner. It’s not a perfect government, none of them are. Diplomacy is not a boy scout game. There are worse records on human rights elsewhere in the world.” At a news conference in Seoul, Canadian Ambassador William Bauer said that one of his duties on the human rights question is to keep the Asian country’s abuses in perspective for the Canadian government. “After hundreds of years of being marched over by invaders,” he said, “the South Koreans haven’t had time to develop the roots of Westernstyle liberal democracy.” Officials accuse Canadian church groups of placing an unwarranted focus on the South Korean human rights record. Bauer expressed the wish that Canadians would loudly and consistently express opinions on North Korea’s record, about which he hears nothing.

Park Young Gil is not persuaded that this is the route to freedom for her husband and others being held in different prisons throughout the country. She laments the silence of most churches in her country on the matter. There is freedom of religion, she sighs, as long as you keep your eyes shut. She alleges that the authorities have attempted, without success, to prevent her church group from holding weekly prayer meetings. Members once got around the official ban by staging a wedding, but the troopers came anyway to send the faithful away. Her elderly parents fret about her outspokenness and fear for the health of her husband. Moon II Whan’s reaction, however, is that the family should worry about the country, not him.

The women are in surprisingly good spirits, interspersing their sad tales with chuckles and hearty laughter. “God looks after us,” says Park, 62, a Presbyterian. As for the husbands, she adds: “Their physical life has become less important. At the same time, their spiritual condition has improved.” Her husband, she chortles, feels that one stay in prison is worth many years in

university. From her faith, and her monthly visits—four in recent weeks to persuade her husband to give up a hunger fast—Park Young Gil is convinced that there is no place to go but out. It’s a matter of time: is it going to be soon, or later? The worry is, their health gets worse—and they are getting older. ROBERT LEWIS