The vital role played by the Gwangju Trauma Centre in healing victims of state oppression

LIKE MANY COUNTRIES IN ASIA, South Korea suffered during a military dictatorship which dismantled the fundamental principles of civil liberty for a prolonged period. In particular, quite a number of political prisoners were suppressed and imprisoned during the Korean Peninsula conflict between Communist North and non-Communist South. The truth that most of the cases were fabricated under torture, coercion and forced confession has recently been discovered by a fact-finding committee and competent court for a retrial. In 2012, Gwangju Trauma Centre (GTC) was built for the purpose of healing wounds caused by government abuse including the May 18 Democratisation Movement.

Dr. Kang Yong-ju, was elected as the first director of GTC. He himself a victim of state violence, he works as a physician to heal the wounds of other victims as well as to protect human dignity and civil liberties as a human rights activist. He was a citizen participant of the May 18 Uprising, a torture survivor of the “foreign student spy ring” case and the youngest unconverted long-term prisoner against “ideological conversion system” and “law-abiding oath”. He is currently moving forward into the future through GTC and the Truth Foundation — taking the initiative in healing people hurt by state oppression.

Dr. Kang Yong-ju was interviewed recently by Jiwon Shin.


Jiwon Shin (JS): In 2012, the first healing trauma rehabilitation centre of South Korea was established in Gwangju. What does this mean to South Korea?

Kang Yong-ju (KY): In the cases of the Republic of South Africa, Chile and Argentina where they passed through a transitional period of democratisation like South Korea, there were trauma centres built for victims and their families who suffered from government abuse under authoritarian regimes. In Korea, sadly, there has been no healing centre until now, despite 10 years of democratic government. This lacks victim perspective. We took the first step towards confronting the past and reconciliation focused on victims by establishing the GTC, which was built under the collaboration of the Ministry of Health and Welfare and Gwangju. It signifies that the duty of the state to rehabilitate victims and their families damaged by government abuses is being practiced.

JS: How did you feel in the first place when you were offered the position as director? It must have another meaning for you to be involved in the May 18 Uprising again, despite your work with The Truth Foundation, supporting victims of torture in fabricated spying cases and their families.

KY: “I cannot hide from it any longer,” I thought.

In May 1980, I participated in the Gwangju Uprising by chance when I was in high school. After surviving from the May 18 Uprising, I was beset with survivor guilt. This didn’t change as the years passed. I wanted to stay as far away as possible from Gwangju and avoid facing the May Uprising.

But when the position was offered, I felt that this is where I am supposed to be. I even think that Korea’s first meeting for torture survivors by the Truth Foundation was a sort of preparation for the GTC. If I cannot avoid it, then I want to make a go of it. I wish to make this first trauma centre of South Korea an exemplary healing centre.

With the Uprising, it was part of the struggle for Korean democracy by the collective community. It was something accomplished by ordinary people, not just one or two heroic individuals. One by one they may be imperfect, but at the time of the Uprising, they came together as a group.

The May 18 uprising sent an inspiring message about democracy, not just to me but to everyone of the same age. Countless people have since walked the path of determination, devotion and sacrifice. Many Asian countries also seem to find the hope for future and inspiration in how the Koreans achieved democracy.

JS: 5 years later, you were arrested on a trumped-up charge which as a part of a ‘Foreign students spy ring’ case and suffered torture for 35 days in custody. May I ask you about your memory of those days?

Volum_4_number_5&6_interview_Kang_Yong-ju_2KY: When martial law forces occupied the provincial government building, I threw my gun to the ground and ran away. That guilt led me to the student movement as soon as I entered University. At that moment, the president was Chun Doo-hwan, slaughterer of the May 18 Uprising. Then, in late June 1985, the Agency for National Security Planning arrested and tortured me for more than a month. It was a time beyond of any possible expression in words. My physical and psychological strength deteriorated constantly. My soul was miles away, writhing in agony in the pits of hell. The sense of shame and frustration by that I bow down to Chun Doo-hwan still remain as strong as the memory of the horrible torture. I guess my earnest wish to go back honourably to the Mangwol National Cemetery where fallen patriots of the May 18 Uprising were buried, sustained me through a hunger strike and a fight for 13 years and eight months in prison against the ideological conversion system.

JS: The May 18 Uprising, a fabricated spy ring case, confession resulting from torture, sham trials and life imprisonment. You experienced so many different types of state violence yet in prison you still strove against state power, refusing the “ideological conversion system” and “law-abiding oath”. Weren’t you afraid? You are someone who knew exactly how the government treated people who raised their voice against them.

KY: I was so afraid. I cried with fear for several days once I found that I could only be released after death if I didn’t sign for conversion. I was so scared. But to fight at Chun Doo-hwan which was, for me, to strike against the ideological conversion system, was the only way to cope with survivor guilt after running away from Gwangju uprising and succumbing to torture by Agency for National Security Planning. It was not easy. I just moved forward step by step, hesitatingly, and was finally was able to be released without signing for conversion.

JS: You were released after 14 years as a youngest unconverted long-term prisoner. How did you feel at that time?

KY: Well, at first was afraid of the ideological conversion system. Because it meant that I might have spent the rest of my life in prison. But after 10 years I felt that I had already won. Because, although I remained in prison, I had already won my fight socially. It was only a matter of time. So, when I left the prison door of Andong prison I felt so lighthearted and thought, “I no longer owe you anything at all” and that, “I will no longer be ashamed in front of the fallen patriots of the May 18 Uprising”. It is uncommon to win a battle for life. So that is why I can say that prison life of 13 years and 8 months was worth so much.

JS: Your arrest was nearly 30 years ago now. Since then, you have become a doctor, helping those who have gone through similar experiences. As a professional who hears their stories and heals their wounds, what would you recommend as a proper healing process for these individuals?

KY: The most important thing, I think, is sympathy and support for pain and suffering of torture victims and their families. This sympathy and support is only possible in a secure environment. That secure environment is not possible without any realisation of justice, which is a clarification of truth, and offender punishment. Society as a collective must promise to prevent such a recurrence. It is especially important to not lose faith that the true power of healing comes from inside the torture survivors and their families.

JS: I heard she is a source of strength in your life. What does your mother mean to you?

KY: My mother gave birth nine siblings. My father passed away when I was 15 years old. My mother alone raised nine brothers and sisters and out of them, I was the only child who entered university. Can you imagine how she felt when her son was sentenced to life in prison on charges of spying? Desperate. But she was strong enough to look after me all throughout my time in prison. She cried in front of me only once. It was at the time that the government announced they were repealing the ideological conversion system and would release prisoners who took a law-abiding oath. Mother expected that I would be released but instead I said, “Please stay healthy and live longer, mother”. Because I decided to reject the law-abiding oath, which I perceived as another type of ideological conversion. She nodded while shedding silent tears. People can endure if they have even one person who understands and supports them. For me, she was that person at the time and she still is today.

JS: After you left prison, you went back to medical school and became a specialist. Then you established “The Truth Foundation”. How did this come about and what type of place is it?

KY: When I got out of prison, in those days, my wife was working for a human rights organisation called Minkahyup, which supports family members of those who have been politically imprisoned under the National Security Act. We were concerned about the issue of healing for torture victims during the retrial of spy cases with fabrication by torture in the 1970s and 80s. To recall everything in order to reveal the truth is re-traumatisation. So we organised a meeting with psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and lawyers in charge. We dealt with the retrials and ran a group counselling at the same time, which continued for five years. That was the beginning of The Truth Foundation. Torture victims became torture survivors by facing their pain and became wounded healers by helping people who are still in pain. I guess that is ‘The Truth Foundation” is for torture victims to find a new meaning of their life within the community of suffering and growth.

JS: Could you tell us the basics of the GTC healing programme and its goal?

KY: Our centre is working largely on two projects, one is the Healing and Rehabilitation programme, the other is a state violence prevention programme through civil liberty activities. Under the Healing and Rehabilitation programme, we have been providing psychological consultation such as individual, group or family counselling, and psychotherapy for physical sequela. In terms of social rehabilitation, we provide a testimonial programme called “My Day” as well as photo therapy.

Our goal is, on the third anniversary of GTC, first and foremost to be an effective healing centre. Secondly, we aim to establish an independent permanent organisation and lastly, to develop trauma healing hub in Asia through international solidarity and exchange. I wish for the GTC to take on a role of inspiring and encouraging Asian people in the same way that the May 18 Uprising did. I want to see more interest in and support for the GTC.

JS: As you know, the May 18 Uprising was not the only instance of the fight for democracy against dictatorship in Asia. Yet it continues to inspire. What are the differences between the May Uprising and uprisings which occurred in other Asian countries?

KY: I think that we democratised our government and overcame massacre in a very short time. This was achieved the the nameless fallen. During the whole period of uprising Gwangju City formed a collective community. This dealt with the critical situation through cooperation and maintained peace and order. Following the Uprising, the struggle for democracy continued and resulted in regime change in 1987. Internal factors were an important role, such as the need of a democratic system as a superstructure for a rapidly growing economy. Yet external factors were also important, like the post-Cold War context and the necessity for the West to lead symbols of democratisation. Democracy planted its roots in Korea along very objective external and internal factors.

JS: The May Uprising citizen militant, unconverted long-term prisoner, the world’s youngest prisoner serving a life sentence, Executive Director of The Truth Foundation, Doctor, Director of Gwangju Trauma Centre. There are so many words to describe you. And through those words, we can see the Korean history of democracy and human rights. So, what is the next step for Dr. Kang Yong-ju?

KY: The principle of human rights which states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” is our hope. But this is so easily denied and damaged in reality. I think that never giving up on this principle is the most powerful means for protecting of our community from war and violence. My dream of the world without torture is part of that. It will come true when we all long for it together. Human rights are the most beautiful promise of humanity, and I wish to see that fulfilled.

I wish I will be that companion all the way to Human Rights, the most beautiful promise of human being.

Volum_4_number_5&6_interview_JiWong(Jiwon SHIN is an intern at the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong SAR.)