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Echoes of Terror on the Korean Peninsula
Shim Han-un has lived, by any measure, an extraordinarily difficult life. On July 8th, 2014, at the ripe age of 64, on a judgment from the Seoul Central Court, he finally got tiny, long delayed measure of peace, the fruit of half a century of struggle. His story is as follows:
In 1955, after the end of the Korean War, the young Shim went looking for his missing father, a soldier with the South Korean 8240 Army Division. His mother had just recently died while unsuccessfully trying to abort her fourth child, a child that she feared she could not support without the father present. The eldest son of the family, Shim, all of six years old, traversed the wreckage of the war-torn country, looking for his father with his aunt, and eventually tracked his whereabouts down to a military base (36 Jiku Regiment, 65th Company, Military Intelligence, in Kangwon province). When he arrived at the base, the base commander, told him his father was away on a mission. Under most circumstances, that would have been the end of the story.
What he did not know at the time, was that his father, a soldier, Shim Mun Kyu, had been sent to North Korea as an infiltration agent, leading a team of special forces troops, although hostilities had officially ceased. His mother had killed herself while attempting an abortion because she did not think she would see him again and could not imagine raising four children without support.
Then, according to Shim’s testimony to the presiding judge, “Unbelievable things happened to me”.
Instead of sending the young boy home, the base commander kept him at the base, telling him he would soon be reunited with his father and sent home together when his father came back. “I was starved, forced to eat live snakes to survive; dropped [by helicopter] into a lake, forced water survival techniques, made to shoot a carbine, trained with live grenades, trained in military [infiltration and wilderness] survival for a year and half”. He does not mention that he was also beaten and tortured; he does not have to.
To this day, the gentle, soft-spoken, salt-of-the-earth, 65 year old man trembles with fear and rage as he speaks.
According to Shim’s sworn testimony, the commanding officer, Colonel Wi Hak Song, along with Corporal Kim Ki Bung, took the preschool-age child and conscripted him to become a military spy, putting him through some of the toughest military training possible–infiltration training, that breaks, maims, and kills even the ultra-fit elite troops who are put through it–rangers, special forces, commandos–engineeered as it is to eliminate and strip out any human weakness, flaw, or need. Most forms of military training are intense, brutal, soul-destroying affairs, designed to turn ordinary human beings into unflinching instruments of war. They do, however, assume that the soldier will have some kind of logistical support even under the most brutal conditions; that rest, care, provisions, and human contact or camaraderie are or will be eventually available. Infiltration training, is another beast entirely: it is designed to create a class of combatant that can survive and function indefinitely and independently under any circumstances, without human contact or material support, deep within hostile enemy territory; a lone human predator, capable of living off the wilderness, evading capture and resisting torture, capable of surviving only on sheer cunning, determination, and ruthlessness while attaining lethal objectives. As a point of reference, selected elite US forces are put through 3 weeks of the roughly comparable SERE (Search, Evasion, Resistance. Escape) training. The six-year-old Shim, not yet in primary school, was put through a year and a half of this purgatory. To compound his suffering, during this period, his beloved younger sister died, and his younger brother was given up for adoption. Without father, mother, siblings, he became the only survivor of his family, “all alone under this wide sky”.
One day, at the crack of dawn, the younger Shim, was shaken awake, and was astonished to see his father, who asked him, “Is it true that you were being put through military training at the base?” He nodded.
The father then told him he was going to report back to the army base, only to disappear again. Two years, later, he recalls a brief meeting with him at a central army headquarters, then no news whatsoever, leaving the young Shim in complete limbo and sending him on a half-century quest to discover what happened to his father.
For the following 50 years , the only remaining child of the family, searched for traces of his father; not knowing if he was near or far, alive or dead, recalling only his father’s last words: “I’ll see you soon, son; work hard.”
Finally, in 2006, at the age of 64, after working very hard, he was able get information from the military revealing that his father had been executed a few years after that fateful morning. Apparently, his father, captured in North Korea, and hearing of what was being perpetrated on his own son, had come back to South Korea, this time as a North Korean agent, in an attempt to rescue his son. Ascertaining that his son was still alive, had not been sent out, he reported himself to the South Korean Authorities, explaining that he had pretended to be a spy so he could come back to South Korea.
That could also have been the end of the story. However, the South Korean government refused to believe him, interrogated and tortured him for 563 days for a confession of guilt and for information about other spies, but failed to extract intelligence or even prove their case in tribunal. They executed him anyway, as a double agent on May 25th, 1961. After his execution, they did not notify the next of kin—the young son–, most likely cremated his body, discarded the ashes; and covered up the story, refusing to release any information for the next half a century, leaving the young Shim suspended in loss, grieving, bewilderment and unknowing for the next half a century. In a culture that firmly believes that the souls of the deceased must be acknowledged, appeased, and cared for, lest they become wandering ghosts crying out for justice; after the travesty of killing the father for his care for his son, they failed to have the minimal decency to render the body or tell the son that the father’s departed soul needed to be mourned and attended to.
Becoming almost a wandering ghost himself, in 2009, Shim testified to a truth and reconciliation commission, urging investigation, and upon discovery, in 2011 petitioned in court to reverse his father’s conviction, and for restitution of his good name. On July 8, 2014, the 48th civil division of the Seoul Central Court, Hon. Kim Yeon-ha presiding, nullified his father’s conviction, and awarded the son 300 million won (US$294,320) in damages, for the egregious harms and injuries perpetrated against him and his father by the state.
“As a son, I did the only thing I could to reclaim my father’s name, after his unjust murder [by the state]. After 50 years, I can’t believe this day finally came.” said the son, weeping. “I’m only ashamed I couldn’t do more.”
“When I think of my father’s soul, unable to rest, to this day, I cannot sleep at night. I ask only one more thing, that the court help me recover his bones, so I can give them proper burial and put his troubled, lonely soul to a final rest.”
Shim Han-un, the son holding his executed father’s picture, 50 years after the fact.
On the surface, this story is a simple, epic, moving tale of a son’s yearning for his missing father, and his dogged, unrelenting struggle for the truth; and of justice (of sorts) belatedly, reluctantly rendered. Scratch the surface of this (and countless other stories), and this episode reveals itself as emblematic of the disease at the heart of modern South Korean history: the larger, darker tale of a fascist military dictatorship, with an umatched record of extreme violence and human rights abuse, accustomed to criminal impunity in its utter disregard of human life and dignity, as it served and accommodated its imperial master after “liberation” in 1945.
Sigmund Freud, in his striking essay, in 1919, The Canny and the Uncanny, called attention to the domain of terror and dread—the “uncanny”—that is striking and disturbing in deeply unsettling ways. He identified this creepy, gruesome terror as the sense of horror combined with familiarity or recognition: the feeling that what is horror-inducing is not something new, shocking, distant, or alien, but something very intimate, secret, and close by, in effect, something horrible occluded, repressed, disowned, and projected onto the other.
South Koreans are used to this sense of the uncanny when they hear about abuses or atrocities on the other side of the DMZ up North. The propaganda machine runs full tilt, 24 hrs a day, fed with defector testimony, eye witness accounts, reportage, books, stories, press conferences. Some of it is obviously concocted, other stories are poignant in their testimony, even as the stories are unverifiable. What is unmentioned and unmentionable, is that the majority of defectors, despite their stories, state that they would like to go back to the North. For the most part South Koreans ignore the hysterical rhetoric, even when highly prestigious institutions of propaganda (like the creative writing department of Stanford University) join the chorus.
They ignore it, not just because they know that every defector is interrogated and coached by the intelligence services for 180 days, 24 hrs a day, before seeing the public, but because with each disclosure about the North, a gruesome sense of the uncanny comes flooding back: when they hear about labor and re-education camps, starvation, arbitrary arrest, torture, and executions, the imprisonment of families and children by association, the enslavement of wives of dissidents into sex slaves, the total censorship of media, the mind-numbing surveillance and informing, the impunity and corruption of the police, military and the bureaucratic class; mass executions; the total and arbitrary control of a society by a crazed, brutal, totalitarian dictatorship: the Rhee, Park, Chun and Noh governments come to mind. They understand, deep in their hearts: that these stories—credible or not—are like distorted echoes, reflections, belated distress signals escaping out of the terror chambers of the South Korean Military government, tiny, uncanny packets of truth escaping the black hole of the original foundational terror of the South Korean State. Shim’s story is just one small episode, covered up for 50 years, belatedly corroborated and vindicated, a small cry in the darkness against the furious roar of terror that engulfed an entire nation; an uncanny tale, revealing and betraying its closeness to the heart of power, a totalitarian power that has not yet relinquished its grip on the nation. This is the thought that strikes an unholy terror into the hearts of thinking South Koreans everywhere: that waiting in the wings, this power is just waiting for the right opportunity to come back with its full force. This forces them to watch, resist, interpret, challenge, with anxious, bated, breath, the tiniest maneuverings and actions of the current government of gruesome military retreads, genetically, culturally, and dynastically linked to the dictatorships of yore. With the cooperation with resurgent rightwing in Japan, the accommodations to the Pacific Pivot and imperial power, and the remilitarization of the country and the escalation of tensions with the North, the signs are not promising.
K.J. Noh is a long time activist, writer, and member of Veterans for Peace. He is involved in the struggle to prevent the construction of a military base onJ eju Island, which will destabilize the entire pacific: savejejunow.org.
 Shim’s Statement to the Court (in Korean):