Korean ex-political prisoner Zainichi enjoys democracy after 13 years on death row (Part 2)


Lee Cheol, left, speaks to South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Osaka City on June 27, 2019, in this picture captured by Lee’s friends. (Courtesy photo by Lee Cheol)

The first half of this two-part series featured Lee Cheol, a Japanese-born ethnic Zainichi Korean who survived the death penalty imposed on him on false espionage charges by the South Korean authorities. This was a politically motivated plot designed to pose “a threat from North Korea”. Lee has since been released amid a movement for political reform.


OSAKA – On October 3, 1988, the South Korean government released 52 suspended prisoners convicted of the so-called crime of disturbing public security, including two political prisoners from Zainichi. A total of 1,026 prisoners were paroled that day. Among them was Lee Cheol. At almost 40 he was free for the first time since he was 27 years old. He left the Andong Correctional Institution in North Gyeongsang Province to rejoice with his relatives.

I found a Mainichi Shimbun news report about this event. “Lee Cheol’s family in Nishiki City, Kuma County, Kumamoto Prefecture received a call from him just after 10 am on October 3rd. His older brother Myeon answered the call and heard his brother say, ‘I have … I got out of jail at 10 am. I’m fine. I plan to go to Kumamoto to visit our parents ‘grave.’ ”

This photo, taken by Park Yeon-soo on October 28, 1988, shows Lee Cheol and Min Hyang-suk’s wedding guests at a parade through central Seoul. At that time it was called the “wedding and protest march”. (Courtesy photo of the Korea Democracy Foundation)

Lee married his 13-year-old fiancée Min Hyang-suk, then 38, on October 28 of the same year in Myeongdong Cathedral in central Seoul. Over 3,000 people attended, including members of the pro-democracy movement. They marched through the streets with a banner on top that read in Korean, “Conscience wins! Love wins!”

On May 26, 1989, the newlyweds returned to Japan. Harassment by the South Korean authorities ensued. As a tagged man, Lee was refused a passport even though he wanted to return to his home country.

The couple found a home in Osaka. Lee worked at his brother-in-law’s electrical company during the day and taught Korean at night to make a living. In December 1990, he and his colleagues founded the Zainichi Kankoku Ryoshinshu Doyukai (Association of Ethnically Korean Political Prisoners in Japan) and Lee became its representative. The members shared among themselves the torments of their past. They also agreed to partner with the South Korean pro-democracy movement.

But psychological pressure and fear remained. Lee felt he wasn’t going to live long. Even today he stiffens his legs when a train pulls in on a platform in order to protect himself from the possible danger of being pushed underneath.

He still sees the same nightmare. He is unable to move and is linked to other inmates awaiting execution. An executioner pulls a rope at one end and a noose around his neck at the other end. Another man kicks away a chair. One hung, two hung, three … and next it’s his turn. “That’s when I wake up. Bathed in sweat, palpitation, I can no longer fall asleep.”

A series of tragedies that struck Japan in 1995 – the Great Hanshin Earthquake in January and the AUM Shinrikyo cult’s sarin nerve gas attack on Tokyo’s subway system in March – also affected his psyche. “Who knows what could happen to my wife and me. We have to document the difficult life we ​​went through for our young children.” Her daughter was 6 years old at the time and her son was 4 years old. Little by little he wrote down his experiences on the train to work or during the lunch break. Seven exercise books were completed in a year and three months. He felt relieved.

Roh Moo-hyun, who was President of South Korea from 2003 to 2008, founded the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in December 2005. The committee began re-investigating the cases of former political prisoners of Zainichi, such as Lee’s. This opened the door to a retrial, but he was concerned. He had hoped for a comprehensive acquittal of all charges through a special law. “I was afraid of a retrial. It would be like reopening a healing wound myself to see fresh blood,” he said.

However, encouraged by the former prisoner’s defense attorney, Lee filed for a retrial in October 2011. The Seoul Central District Court ruled “not guilty” in February 2015 and the Seoul High Court followed suit in July. “The court deeply apologizes that it is not the last stronghold in the protection of human rights,” said the chairman of the Supreme Court. On November 26, the Supreme Court upheld the Supreme Court’s ruling by dismissing the prosecutors’ latest appeal. Lee’s innocence has been confirmed.

In our interview, Lee highlighted an event that will be remembered forever – because of its positive side.

On June 27, 2019, Lee and his wife, both formally dressed, attended a meeting at a hotel in Osaka. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in hosted the G-20 summit, and 400 compatriots were the guests.

Moon said in a speech: “As President and on behalf of my country, I acknowledge the suffering of the victims and their families in the fabricated ‘North Korea espionage case’. I sincerely apologize to those who have been traumatized by the violence of the dictatorial powers and their families became.” This was the first time a President of South Korea apologized for past human rights violations by Zainichi political prisoners.

Lee approached Moon, who was sitting at the same table, to express his gratitude. Moon brought up the subject of his past as a lawyer. “I was in the Legal Department for the First Political Prisoner Retrial. Did you know?”

“Of course,” Lee replied. The two shook hands. Lee was comforted. “I can finally meet my parents in the other world.” His father and mother had died without seeing his acquittal.

The number of former Korean political prisoners in Zainichi is believed to be around 70. Most were arrested for espionage while studying in schools in South Korea or visiting the country on business. All were released until 1998, but not before they served up to 19 years in prison. 36 of them proved innocent in retrial. Some victims have even hidden their pasts from their immediate families, while others have since passed away. A complete picture is difficult to grasp.

President Moon organized a second Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The committee sheds light on past political mistakes as the country progresses towards democracy.

The already mentioned association Zainichi Kankoku Ryoshinshu Doyukai is now looking for former prisoners or their bereaved relatives who have not yet applied for readmission to support them until they are acquitted.

“I would like to see a special law passed confirming that all of Zainichi’s former political prisoners are innocent. This will really free us from our suffering and justify our honor and dignity, ”says Lee.

Again and again voices can be heard claiming that democracy is decaying worldwide. However, Lee emphasized the importance of democracy. Japan was in the middle of a House election when I met Lee for this interview. “The freedom and democracy we enjoy cannot be sustained unless we fight for it. Many colleagues have recognized our victim as a political prisoner and cultivated the democratization process in South Korea. I can feel the dynamism of democracy in South Korea’s parliamentary elections. I sincerely hope that Japan’s democracy will continue to grow and mature, “he said.


Lee, now 73, and his wife, 71, walk together in a park for about two hours each morning before sunrise. They seldom reflect the past. They tie their hands as if they want to regain the time that they could not spend together as young lovers. “The world has changed, hasn’t it?” “Yes, it has.” Such words are good enough for both.

(This is the second and final installment in a two-part series. The Japanese original by Expert Writer Tomonari Takao was released on October 23, 2021.)

Lee Cheol, right, and his wife Min Hyang-suk take their daily walk in a park in Osaka City on October 18, 2021. (Mainichi / Tomonari Takao)


Comments are closed.