41 Years Later, The Spy Who Came Out From The Cold

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Woo Yong Gak has firsthand knowledge of the dark side of South Korea's authoritarian past. Convicted of spying for North Korea in 1958, he spent the next four decades in a cell barely the size of a mattress, with little to do but think and imagine. He ate alone, catching only a glimpse of other prisoners on the way to daily exercise sessions. During the 1970s, Seoul took a leaf from North Korea's book and started a campaign to pressure imprisoned Northerners to denounce Pyongyang. Jailers would bind Woo's hands and feet, then beat him with sticks, a thick rope or their fists. Determined not to scream, he ground his teeth together so hard he damaged the enamel. Later most of his teeth became infected and had to be removed. Says Woo: If you looked like you couldn't take it, they beat you harder.Last week, the 69-year-old Woo was savoring the end of his long nightmare. Before his release on Feb. 25, he was among the world's longest-serving political prisoners. On his first outing as a free man, Woo went to a park in Seoul to meet some of the human rights activists who campaigned on his behalf. It was a simple affair: there were speeches, a singer serenaded Woo and some of the 16 other political prisoners unconditionally freed with him.

For South Korea, the moment marked an important symbolic break with an ugly tradition. For decades, authoritarian regimes in South Korea used the threat of North Korean subversion to clamp down on dissent at home. The treatment meted out to Woo was typical: torture was common and prison conditions notoriously bad. Woo was indeed a spy. But he morphed into a political prisoner over the years: human rights groups pointed out he was treated brutally and kept in solitary simply because he refused to renounce his politics.

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Today, the worst abuses are a thing of the past. Korean President Kim Dae Jung, a former dissident who was once a political prisoner himself, believes Korean democracy has won the ideological battle with the North. He has released many of South Korea's long-term political prisoners. Prison conditions have started to improve, although cement-floored cells are still unheated during Korea's icy winters.

Human rights groups give Kim good marks. But Amnesty International says 270 political prisoners remain behind bars. Even Kim's boosters say he has moved too slowly to amend the draconian National Security Law that he himself was imprisoned under. The vaguely worded legislation allows the government to arrest people simply for praising or benefitting North Korea. Almost 400 people were arrested under the law last year, including students, union leaders and even Internet surfers, according to Amnesty International. The number of arrests has remained at very high levels, including many people engaged in peaceful political and social activities, the group warned in a report last month.

Kim has promised to amend the law, but he says he's hamstrung by his conservative coalition partner, the United Liberal Democrats. The party and other right-wing groups don't want security laws softened. They also oppose the release of political prisoners unless they sign a pledge agreeing to abide by South Korean law. Woo probably isn't going to reassure them. Captured on a reconnaissance mission off the coast of South Korea, he was a fierce believer in communist North Korea. His convictions helped him to keep going over the years. Today, he's read about Pyongyang's repressive regime and seen the photos of starving children in the North. Nonetheless, he says a lack of democracy in South Korea is the biggest stumbling block to reunification of the peninsula. My perspective hasn't changed, Woo says. He'd love to see his family again: he left behind a wife and 4-year-old son. Yet he must leave that up to Seoul and Pyongyang. President Kim has floated the idea of an exchange: Woo and other released prisoners for the more than 200 South Koreans held by the North. A lot of hard bargaining lies ahead before that happens.

In the meantime Woo has plenty to catch up on. When he entered prison, lapels were narrow, Eisenhower was in the White House and South Korea was dirt-poor and lagging behind North Korea economically. Lapels are narrow again, but just about everything else has changed. Last week, on a first stroll through the neon lights and bustle of downtown Seoul, Woo said he's anxious to make up for lost time. Before his release, he drew a computer keyboard on a piece of paper and started practicing. Now he's trying to get the hang of touch-tone phones, but has trouble punching in the numbers fast enough. Next on the list: faxes and cell phones. Says Woo: I have a lot to learn.

Reported by Stella Kim/Seoul

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