South Korea: Republic of Torture, Republic of Terror

A Confederation of Falsehoods


General Park Jung Hee, with his associates, during the US CIA-coordinated military coup in 1961


In the beautiful, gilded, Staatstheater in Nuremberg, not far from the Palace of Justice where the historic Nuremberg trials were held, the last searing, soaring notes of the opera “Die Witwe des Schmetterlings (The Butterfly Widow)” ring out, seemingly suspended for an eternity.

The audience rises to its feet and explodes in applause, giving a seemingly unending number of curtain calls.   There are 31 curtain calls this opening night of Feb 23rd, 1968. The conductor comes out and bows repeatedly, but the composer does not join him.

He is shivering alone in a frigid cell in a prison in South Korea, where he has been imprisoned for over a year.  He has been tortured—hung from a pole, beaten with sticks, electrocuted, waterboarded—within desperate inches of his life.

In 1967, a Korean student in Berlin “confesses” to having had contact with the North Korean government to the South Korean authorities.  South Korea, was, at that time, one of the poorest countries in the world—its economy cobbled together from military prostitution, remittances from soldiers fighting for the US in Vietnam, and the export of human hair for wigs.

The few South Koreans lucky enough to be studying abroad, for the most part, were heartbreakingly impoverished.

North Korea, before the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc and crippling sanctions, was richer, more prosperous, more robust than its counterpart, and its economic production and consumption was multiples that of the south.

As an act of political largesse–a mix of propaganda, insular camaraderie, avuncular goodwill—the North Korean embassy, had treated these students well. They were allowed to crash parties at the embassy, as starving students will, for the food; they sometimes received color brochures (an inconceivable luxury in South Korea) touting the development of North Korea.  Some were given small stipends or bursaries to help them study, and a few eventually traveled to the North to meet family or long lost friends. 

This contact with North Koreans and the embassy—an act of political infidelity with a wealthier, sexier, more attractive partner– were considered seditious by the South Korean government, and action was rapidly taken.

A hit list was made of suspects, and in the tightly knit community, these quickly denounced and implicated others under torture, and soon a full-blown web of two hundred brainwashed “spies” was “uncovered” both in Europe and in Korea.

Never mind that the suspects were an unlikely mix of students, scholars, scientists, poets, artists, and musicians.

Never mind that the composer, Isang Yun, was a musical prodigy who had invented a brilliant technique of musical composition, the “hauptton”, that organically combined East Asian idioms with twelve tone serialism, and Taoist and Buddhist spirituality.

Never mind that Yun’s visit to study frescoes in North Korea was legitimate research for one of his musical compositions.

Never mind that the allegations of brainwashing were absurd on their face.  None of this seemed to matter to the Korean government, that these were unlikely backgrounds and qualifications for a brood of active spies in the pay of the North Korean government.



Isang Yun was kidnapped in Berlin, along with three dozen others, from under the nose of the German government, rendered back to Seoul, and tortured until he admitted to being a spy and subversive for North Korea.  He was found guilty of planning to undermine and violently overthrow the government.  He was sentenced to death.

This sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment; his wife was sentenced to two years as an accomplice.  He recanted first before the judge, claiming he had been tortured into confessing, to no avail; then in his own cell, procliaming his innocence in blood onto the prison walls.

At the end of his rope by then, he would attempt to take his own life. Four decades later, in 2006, the entire East Berlin Spy incident was finally declared by the Korean Government a fabrication of the intelligence services.

Here is the dirty secret of torture, ticking time bomb fantasies notwithstanding: the only truth that it is capable of revealing is that human beings are fragile and frail creatures, that they suffer on the rack, and under that pain, they will bend truth to say whatever is demanded, will confess to absurdities, will denounce kith and kin, to arrest the horror, stop the torment, end the nightmare.

Here is the other secret of torture: it does not simply damn the tortured, but it damns the torturer and the system that produces it.   A country that tortures loses not only its soul, but loses touch with reality, for the simple reason that torture bears the same relationship to truth that rape bears to intimacy.

It assumes what it demands, and cynically, violently, as the Neocons so triumphally proclaimed, it creates its own reality—a tautological, hermetically sealed reality of stupidity, brutality, and paranoid terror.

Republic of Terror

That paranoid reality echoed and presaged other “seditious” events, each conforming to its own brutal internal logic.

The “discovery” of the East Berlin Incident in June 1967 by the South Korean Intelligence Services (the KCIA), coincided with the massive eruption of demonstrations against the Park Chung Hee government regarding allegations of vote-rigging in the national assembly elections on June 8th.

The Park government, threadbare in accomplishment and naked in legitimacy, had been fighting for its political survival and for the continuation of its regime.  The recent presidential and general elections had largely been considered fraudulent.

The sudden eruption of the East Berlin incident, in which subversives were seen everywhere, shifted the political landscape, put progressives on the back foot, shut down dissent, and solidified the tenuous Park presidency.

In 1964, massive opposition erupted to the Japan-Korea Normalization Treaty, whereby President Park, a former Japanese military officer and colonial collaborator, sold out the country’s reparation rights–35 years of colonization, 1 Million conscripted into slave labor, hundreds of thousands of sex slaves– for a pottage: a few grants and loan guarantees.


Park Jung Hee was a former Japanese military officer and colonial collaborator


Individual reparations for those exploited, maimed, killed, during this period would be appropriated by the regime for “development”, scraps would be tossed to the legitimate claimants.  Later that year, as protest reached critical mass, 41 students and reporters would be arrested, tortured, and admit to being members of the “People’s Revolutionary Party”, “an organization attempting to overthrow the Republic of Korea according to North Korean Programs”.

Criticism of the treaty vanished. In 1972, the Yushin Constitutional Reforms were enacted that transformed an authoritarian South Korea into a totalitarian dictatorship, and which rendered Park Chung Hee effectively dictator for life.

Massive opposition started to mobilize, and as protest started to crescendo, on April 3rd, 1974,  another  “People’s Revolutionary Party”: “an anti-government communist group….steeped in communist ideology”  was uncovered.

Over a thousand students were arrested and tortured, and their “leaders” were sentenced to death, after confessing to being members of a second People’s Revolutionary Party, under the direct control of North Korea, and plotting to overthrow the government.  Their executions took place 18 hrs after their conviction.

In 1980, as General Chun, Park’s designated successor, took power in a coup, massive protest erupted across the country. In 1980, in the City of Kwangju, hundreds, if not thousands of citizens were raped, bludgeoned, bayoneted, burned, and shot to death for protesting the Chun Regime and demanding democratic reforms.

They were tarred as a “colossal rebellion instigated by the North Korean Government”.  The presidential candidate, Kim Dae Jung, later to win the Nobel Peace Prize, would be charged as the mastermind of “impure elements and fixed spies” that had instigated the uprising.

Concurrently, some 37,000 citizens would also be rounded up and kidnapped off the streets all over the country, placed in “re-education” camps, where they were routinely starved, tortured, beaten, and worked to death. At least 5000 were known to have died in these camps.

Even such small fry as book clubs were targeted: a year later, a group of 22 students and workers in a social science reading club were arrested for reading,  among other books, E.H. Carr’s “What is History?”,  a collection of lectures on historiography by a middle-of-the-road Cambridge Don.

All of them were tortured for months—beaten, waterboarded, hung from poles, electrocuted; they confessed to being members of an anti-state organization. Drunken meetings in bars, New Year’s Eve parties, a business launching, all of these were classified as subversive gatherings plotting to overthrow the government.

Decades later, lives and livelihoods destroyed, various official investigatory committees and courts determined that the defendants were innocent of all charges in the above incidents.  Evidentiary review shows that these cases were fabricated out of whole cloth by the South Korean intelligence agencies.

In particular, in 2007 a court found the 1974 People’s Revolutionary Party defendants innocent, and ordered $63M of reparations to the aggrieved parties.

Here is the pattern, as predictable as it is brutal: when dissent rises, “discover” an anti-state North Korean conspiracy.

Apply torture, character assassination, and trial by state media until punishment ensues. Rinse off blood, and Repeat.

These and countless other incidents, contrived by the Intelligence Services, using the draconian National Security Laws, were a dramatic, politically expedient theater of terror that was effective in tamping down rising tides of dissent.

The proverb, “Kill a few chickens to scare the monkeys”, is applicable here; to this end, the country was turned into a noisy, busy, steaming slaughterhouse.

This is the ultimate utility of torture: it is the imprinting, broadcasting and branding of state terror into the sinew and marrow of human bodies and human relationships.

In the nightfall of torture, as whispers seep out of the closed chambers, the miasma of fear suffuses the streets: voices grow hushed, eyes avert or grow dull, dissent vanishes.  Fascists prowl, parade, preen, bombast, consume with aplomb.  Only the ghosts of the dead keep speaking.


At center, the imprisoned former UPP law maker, Lee Seok-Ki, with his UPP colleagues and supporters


Confederation of Falsehoods

This pattern of history is important to keep in mind as we view the recent disbanding of the United Progressive Party (UPP) and the arrest of its lawmakers.  It’s been established that the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS), interfered in the 2012 Presidential elections, using its psychological/cyber warfare division to propagandize for the current incumbent, and to denounce the opposition.

Documentation shows that thousands of carefully crafted messages were spread over key electronic message boards by teams of agents, then reproduced millions of times using automated software.  When all was said and done, the electronic landscape had shifted to the right, and the daughter of the dictator Park Chung Hee was firmly ensconced in power, in what critics charged amounted to South Korea’s first electronic coup.

When the UPP, a progressive coalition of opposition parties, took up the mantle of challenging the legitimacy of the election and the cyber interference, organizing mass demonstrations and calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor, retribution was not long in coming.

The UPP law maker, Lee Seok-Ki, a former student radical and vocal critic, was suddenly arrested on charges of sedition.  A transcript appeared suddenly from a paid informant who had been illegally surveilling the party for the NIS, alleging that Lee and others had plotted a rebellion to violently overthrow the government, through a clandestine group manipulated by North Korea, called the “Revolutionary Organization (RO)”.

Never mind that the UPP were for the most part ex-student radicals and democracy activists, with strong views beholden to no one, least of all North Korea.

Never mind that the rebellion was seemingly concocted single handedly from the testimony of the bribed informant–mostly unsupported supposition and confabulations; and that the evidentiary transcript was significantly doctored—words never spoken or heard were attributed and leaked to the media.

Never mind that the RO, allegedly a quisling organization of North Korea, seems to have been a figment of the imagination of the NIS, a lazy, hazy rebranding of the fabricated “People’s Revolutionary party” from 1964 & 1974.

Lee Seok Ki was tried and found guilty of sedition—first for “organizing” to overthrow the government; then later for “incitement” to revolution.  The others were also found guilty.

With fresh blood in the water, the authorities then went after the party, arguing that the UPP presented a threat to society, was attempting to impose a North Korean socialist regime on South Korea, through stealth and organized violence.

The UPP’s platform for “peace and reunification”,  “a people-centered world…for the working class”,  where people can  “live together with human dignity”, its resistance against austerity, neoliberal policies, and for labor rights were twisted into the charge that the UPP was “against the basic order of democracy”,  “secretly trying to achieve North Korean style socialism”, and that the “progressive democracy they pursue is the same or very similar to the North’s revolutionary strategy”.

Following rapidly on the heels of Lee Seok-Ki’s arrest, the South Korean constitutional court ordered the disbanding of the UPP.  Its assets have been seized, its members have been stripped of seats in the National assembly and local councils.

Its 100,000 members are also at risk of prosecution for association with the UPP for violating national security laws. The ministry of justice has also stated its intention of also going after other “anti-state groups”: labor movements, anti-base movements, peace movements, environmental activists, and to prevent the creation of any political party with a progressive platform similar to the UPP.

The UPP defense lawyer stated, “Today is the day democracy is murdered.  History will rule on this verdict”.  UPP chairwoman, Lee Jung-Hee stated, “The door to totalitarianism has been opened.  Independence, democracy, unification and peace, representation for the people has been banned.  Dark times…lie ahead.”

* * *



The composer Isang Yun finally returned to Berlin, after 2 years of global mobilization.  World-wide denunciation, boycotts, mass demonstrations, diplomatic expulsions and embargoes, and a celebrity letter-writing campaign, finally secured his release. He dove back into his work, but remained at heart, wounded, broken, shattered.

Despite subsequent artistic success— awards, medals, professorships, acclaimed compositions, including the majestic “Exemplum in Memoriam Gwangju”–the libel of traitor stuck, and he lived out the rest of his life in pain, exile, and isolation: unable to travel to South Korea for fear of further arrest and torture; unable to connect with fellow Koreans for risk of “contaminating” them.

“ a shadow, which passes by”, he said, towards the end of his life, “One day I’d like to go back to my Korea ….[and] listen to the music in my mind, without writing it down, and find myself in the great silence. And there I would also want to be buried, in the warmth of my native earth.”

In1994, a quarter century after his exile, he petitioned the South Korean government for a short visit to his hometown[Tong Young], but was told he would have to submit a written confession of “repentance”.  He refused and was buried in Berlin, a year later, with a handful of earth from his hometown his only consolation.


Yun’s hometown in South Korea, TongYoung, Korea


In the great forgetting that is known as corporate media, Isang Yun’s story has vanished to the margins of history, his kidnapping and torture footnotes for musicologists and historians.

What endures of Yun Isang is a technical method of composition known as hauptton (“maintone”).  It is a singular style of composition.  It bases itself, not on a musical cell, motif, or theme, with melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic elaboration, but on a single note—a single assertion, if you will—that is ornamented until it returns and recovers the original tone and timbre.

Scholars have compared it to calligraphy or brush painting, where the integrity of the single line and the energies of its motion—the dance of ink molecules on paper–give the image its visual appeal.

It has also been compared—from Taoist and Buddhist influences– to the myriad worldly energies obscuring, then revealing, an original cosmic vibration; the dialectic of freedom and constancy in creation; or the unperturbed Buddha-nature that remains unsullied as it returns, ostinado, into its original clear being.


And of course, in certain compositions, it’s clear that it bears a striking analogy to Yun’s own story—strings stressed, pulled, interrogated, tortured, like sinews of a human body, almost to the breaking point, before re-intoning a full-throated assertion of innocence.

But we could also argue that it represents, as Yun’s life itself attests to, to the deepest, profoundest yearnings of the soul—the desire for solace, justice, peace; compassion and love for the downtrodden; the heart’s deepest desire for reconnection, reconciliation, reunification.

Tormented, stressed, vexed, challenged through friction, slippage, distortion, distraction, the hauptton always returns to its original keening, its original, single-minded  desire,  its original yearning undefiled, unblemished, undiminished by suffering, pain, time, or distance.

Even as the curtain falls for South Korean democracy, as it returns seemingly to the dark ages of paranoia, conspiracy, terror; it is this single, trembling, whimpering, searingly, pure note that will not be silenced or denied.


K.J. Noh is a long time activist, writer and teacher.  He can be reached at

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