Dear Jiwan Yoo
I am Kyoungmook Kim, and I am currently imprisoned in Tongyeong Detention Center. I remember you sent me a letter in March after reading the article about me that was published in the March edition of <Hankyoreh> newspaper. I hope you have been well since then.
Thank you so much for the letter. Not only did you support my decision, you also shared many of your own experiences about being inside, with which I resonated very much as someone who is having a difficult time being confined. After the article was published, the Detention Center tightened its grip on me, and I had been extremely stressed out. Your letter gave me great solace, even if only momentarily.
I am sorry that my reply has been delayed. I am concerned that maybe you were worried or disappointed because of the absence of my response. I apologize. It would’ve been nice if, as the saying goes, ‘no news was good news.’ However, as soon as the article was published, I became subject to heightened control by the Detention Center. Everything that was related to the article, such as my diary and letters, was censored. For this reason, even your letter could not remain with me, and it took me three months to be able to write you a reply.
Perhaps it will be difficult for you to imagine what I was subject to. Even I cannot concisely describe those times. I will try to share with you my experiences, also in an effort to update you. As soon as the article was published, I was interrogated about the procedure and intentions of the publication. For several days I was summoned to many different places for interrogation. I thought the article would not be a problem because I regarded it as a commonplace prison diary of a conscientious objector. However, that was a huge misperception on my part. Bureaucratic culture of detention centers prioritize ‘hierarchy, order, and regulations.’ Now that I look back on it, I realize how naive I was.
The article itself mentioned nothing that could have been damaging the Detention Center. However, the very fact that it was published as a cover story on the front page of a progressive newspaper, caused quite a stir in the Detention Center and the Ministry of Justice. They were afraid that I might contribute more articles to the newspaper. And in fact, I actually had agreed to serially publish in a column in <Hankyoreh 21> magazine during my imprisonment. During the interrogation I spoke honestly about this, and therefore the Detention Center did everything they could to stop this future publication. They took every measure to make sure that I won’t be able to publish anything.
I never intended to write any criticism of the Detention Center, nor did I ever intend to raise any issues, I only intended to share my personal thoughts and musings about life inside. I raised my voice against the administrative measures who led to my incarceration. However, as the saying goes “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me”, things could not be reversed after I stirred things up through my first publication. I felt the regulations were unfair, and spoke up about it, but the more I resisted, the more insidious the punishments became.
On top of being confined, I was subject to isolation within the prison. All the letters I received were censored, every visitation I received was under the surveillance of the prison guard. I was subjected to solitary confinement, and everything, including exercise and bathing, had to be done in isolation. I was prohibited from participating in labor or in religious gatherings, which banned me from having any kind of contact with other inmates. Once every three days the Correctional Rapid Patrol Team would storm into my room and censor my notebook, diaries, and letters, to make sure that I was not publishing anything. If anything was even a tiny bit suspicious, they took and discarded it. All of this was illegal. However, a prisoner has no freedom at all and is in the position of absolute powerlessness. The more I resisted, the more the punishment and surveillance intensified. I think you would be able to relate to this by looking at the internal structure of the military.
Through this process, I have felt extremely oppressed and stressed out, which resulted in a nervous breakdown. Because I did not want to antagonize the Detention Center, I gave up on publishing in the <Hankyoreh 21> magazine. Long before I made this decision, though, I sent all of the notes and letters that were related to the article, home, so that they would not be taken away from me again. At that time, your letter was sent home as well.
I did not foresee the impact that the article would have on my life in prison, and had to suffer through its consequences. If one were to compare my life here to life in the military, it would be as if I had become a ‘maladaptive soldier.’ As a result of the article’s publishing I was moved out of Seoul and sent to Tongyeong. I think this was done to prevent my friends from frequently visiting me. It was a form of retaliation. I was so mentally exhausted that I had no choice but to accept all of this. I had to surrender.
Afterward I arrived here, I focused my mind on books. That was the only pleasure I was able to have in order to take care of my exhausted mind. Through reading books I could find myself little by little. Isolation was not something I wanted, but it was a good environment for reading books. It was difficult to find any kind of joy other than reading.
Nowadays I am much more stable than before. It took me five months to adjust to the everyday rhythm of prison life, and to get into an adaptive mental state. In the meanwhile, I went through the entire process of ‘shock – anxiety – anger – resistance – frustration – depression – renunciation – adaptation.’ Of course, this same pattern could always be activated again. However, because I went through an extreme version of it in the beginning of my imprisonment, I believe that from hereon I will be cautious not to fall into it. This is probably how they tame prisoners like me. If you follow the rules, no more pain is inflicted upon you. Even if the rules unfairly and overly restrict the freedom of individuals, if you obey them, you can escape punishment. This is probably how the nation effectuates its power.
I feel like I’ve been too verbose. Upon reading your letter, I felt that perhaps my past experience could bring about some resonance and comfort for you, so I shared it in detail as much as I could. I think that as you read it, you will find the semblance between the military and prison. The places, where are completely isolated from society, are forcefully subjected to rules that are oppressive, to rules that are not fit to be administered in a civil society. If one behaves differently from others, one is singled out and punished without question. One must learn to obey the power holders and learn how to be violent towards the weak and powerless. Otherwise, one cann ot survive. Perhaps the military is more overt about these systems than prison. However, if one can safely be discharged from the military, one can be acknowledged for the ‘sacrifice’ they had made, and can gain ‘normativity’ as an honorable member of the Republic of Korea. This is why everyone adapts fiercely to life in the military and bears the pain so as not to fall behind.
I would imagine that the military is a very cruel environment for sensitive people like you, who had been questioning the military since a young age. When I re-read your letter, I felt pain in my heart. I think the military is a space that is tainted with the kind of despair, anger and sadness that you describe. When the repression reaches its limit, then the tragedies we see on the news happens, and even if one returns alive and safe home from the military, oftentimes the traumas experienced during the service remain throughout one’s lifetime. Even though prison is a different system, I have also been stripped of my freedom, and have been forced into molds that I could not fit into, and so I deeply commiserate with you. I think if I had served in the military, I would have immediately been classified as a maladaptive soldier. I think we must question the humanity of those that can thrive in such an environment.
In this society, you and I used to hang out with people that have similar convictions as ourselves. Before coming to prison or entering the military, we prepared ourselves for it. But, when these systems are experienced, we find that they have their own structures that are much more obstinate than we could have ever imagined. Our initial plans and expectations are nowhere to be met, and soon we learn that the only way to survive is to submit and endure. We also realize that the people we used to hang out with, are an extreme minority in the larger society. By gathering males from all over the country within one system, they instil normative mainstream thoughts and behaviors and impose the rules of control and obedience.
Even though we go through this, I am not sure if this is something that can be endured, or is worth enduring. Although it is fortunate that I have been able to rethink human society and civilization through my experiences here in the prison. Had I not experienced such intense oppression, I would never have even attempted to understand it. Now I take this as an opportunity to accept this issue as my own and to contemplate the trigonometry of ‘school-military-prison’ and the relation between the individual and society.
I am curious how life in the military is for you now. I wonder if there were changes. I pray that everything is going smoothly. I think wherever you go, you can find someone that you can talk to. I hope that even within a system of cruel oppression, you are persevering and receiving support from such peers. And that you can see that your sufferings in the military will one day be viewed as an opportunity to provide new perspectives for profoundly reinterpreting our society. I think then you might be able to be less cynical about it. Time is moving forwards, and one day your time in the military will end, so please persevere.
I re-read Baek Suk’s poem <There is a White Wall> that you sent me. When I read this poem in my prison cell it made me think of the white wall as the walls of my solitary confinement. The walls here are not completely white, but the room is structured so the inmate is forced to feel poor, lonely, lofty, and forlorn, as the poem says.
It is June now.
I hope this letter reaches your hands soon.
I hope today there will be at least one good thing that happens to you.
May 30, 2015
Sincerely from Tongyeong,