Memories of imprisonment, to which I would not come back

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by Yongsuk Lee

On 1 December 1 2005, I called a press conference to declare my conscientious objection to military service, with two other conscientious objectors. One was Taehoon Kim, a friend who I had known for ages, and the other was Youngjin Kim. We decided to have the press conference together in order to make stronger impact since, by that time, the Korean media was no longer interested in the declaration of an individual conscientious objector. In fact, my enlistment date to join the army was on 21 December, 20 days after the press conference, but I joined the other two conscientious objectors to make our voices louder. Since I became active in a university student movement, I had been thinking of becoming a conscientious objector, not as a pacifist but as a radical statement of resistance to the State. It was more or less my group, who at that time were focusing on the movement for the rights of conscientious objection, that inspired me to become a conscientious objector. Interestingly enough, only after my decision to become a conscientious objector did I begin to try to live as a pacifist.

Unlike other conscientious objectors, who are usually arrested around three or four months after their enlistment date, I was not arrested until August 2006, later than I had expected. In those days, it was becoming common for conscientious objectors to be tried without first being detained, and this could have happened in my case except unfortunately the prosecutor challenged the court's decision to let me stay free until I was sentenced, so causing repeated trials in which he demanded my confinement. Nevertheless I was still able to participate in many actions against the expansion of US base, which particularly happened in Pyeong-taek. Looking back, those experiences made it possible to enlarge my interest in the peace movement and nonviolence.

Generally, conscientious objectors are sent to a jail from a detention centre once when their trial has finished (unless they are given work to do in the detention centre). As usual with conscientious objectors, I was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, which I spent in four jails in the end. Actually, before being imprisoned, I was arrested for protesting against the US base mentioned above. Because of this, during my imprisonment I was moved to Suwon detention centre near to the district court where I would be tried. Of all the prisons I experienced, I had the worst time in Suwon detention house.

Aside from other difficulties in prison, a major problem for all prisoners - not only conscientious objectors - is over-crowding. Usually, one person is allocated around 1.65 square meters of space. While I was detained in Cheongju, following an incident in which two cellmates died after fighting each other, the Ministry of Justice issued an order to all detention centres never to have two people in a cell, but either one or three. As a result, I had to share a cell of 3.3 square metres with two others prisoners, meaning that nobody could lie down straight.

These physical difficulties were easier to cope with because I had been warned about them. The emotional problems were harder. The feeling of being isolated. The more I received letters of support from my friends, the more I felt loneliness. There used to be a flowerpot in my tiny solitary cell in Suwon detention centre. And one day it started to wither. It was bitterly painful to acknowledge the fact that I was the only living thing in the cold cement-surrounded cell. The world outside seemed to keep going well without me. I was still so self-obsessed that I didn't regard myself as just a mere human being with no other special meaning. The people in Pyeongtaek were forcibly evicted for the US base, and the US and South Korea concluded a free trade agreement against people's will, so what choices did we have? Well, it would have been the same even had I not been detained. The problem was I didn't have any clue where I was supposed to be, whether I was in the prison or in the outside. For me, normally an optimistic and positive person, these were the most severe feelings of loneliness and helplessness that I have ever experienced.

Another agony that I had to cope with was realising that I kept finding somebody to hate. It happened during my time in Suwon detention centre. I hated one person in my cell so much that I wished he had been sent to another prison or released. One day, my wish came true but not long after that, again I began to dislike someone else who I hadn't hated before. It was when I came across one passage in Demian by Hermann Hesse that I realised the way my feelings were made: “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us.” The hatred originated in myself not others! I can't say how much suffering it cost me to admit the truth of this.

Without question, were I to face call-up again, I would again object to military service. However, at the same time, I don't ever want to be put to prison again. Despite the fact that one might be able to have some meaningful experience in prison, as happens in other communities, there is far more to lose through imprisonment than to gain. For me, it was a process of pain rather than a useful experience in any sense to get to know the limits of my tolerance for others. Without glorifying my experience in prison or exaggerating the adversity, I am sure that I don't want to return to prison for whatever reason, including as a result of my nonviolent direct action or civil disobedience. This is not an excuse for not committing myself, but - although prison may be unavoidable - I genuinely do not want to spend any more of my life there.

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