Life went nightmarishly wrong for medical student Suh Kwang Tae in November 1975 when he was seized without warning by South Korean army interrogators. He showed up in a Seoul courtroom months later, unable to recognize his relatives, and was convicted of spying for North Korea - largely on the basis of what prosecutors said was his voluntary confession.
Suh subsequently repudiated the confession in a dramatic eight-hour address to an appeals court. The admission of guilt was false, extracted by severe torture and trickery, he claimed. He rolled up his sleeves to expose scars he said were caused by the lighted cigarettes of army investigators. The judges confirmed the verdict but reduced his sentence from 15 years to eight years, without offering any explanation for the apparent inconsistency.
Following rejection of Suh's final appeal by the South Korean Supreme Court last March, numerous sources made court records available to me and alleged that the student was the victim a gross miscarriage of justice.
Espionage cases here are not reported in the government-controlled press, and political opponents of President Park Chung Hee admit that while they are skeptical of many prosecutions, they generally lack the knowledge to challenge guilty verdicts. Yet, those who are knowledgeable about Suh's case unhesitatingly accuse government officials of framing an innocent man. Further, they claim that there was abundant evidence that the 'confession' was obtained by torture and therefore inadmissible under South Korean law.
The Park government's foreign press spokesman, Yu Tae Won, made no reply to repeated requests over a 10-day period for official comment on the case or ghe opportunity to interview prosecutors.
Reliable sources in South Korea's political opposition insist that Suh's situation is a prominent but not unique example of politically motivated criminal prosecutions. Former President Yun Po Sun, although under a suspended five-year prison term for anti-government activities, is staunchly anti-Communist. He knows Suh and vouches for his innocence. "This young boy is very clever and brave. He was cruelly tortured and imprisoned. There are many, many such cases," he wsays.
At least 200 students have been charged under an Aril 1975 presidential decree banning virtually any political dissent. Recods are not available, but dozens of persons have faced espionage trials.
Suh was a fourth-year student at the prestigious Seoul National University Medical College when he was arrested. he had an I.Q. of 150, and engaging manner and a social conscience that prodded him to join a health service for slum-dwellers in the Suuth Korean capital.His friends say he was intellectually and peacefully anti-government and much more strongly anti-Communist.
In the fall of 1975, police and Korean Central Intelligence Agency operatives arreste dozens of students allegedly involved in interrelated espionage cases. Suh and 13 othr students were taken to the headquarters of the Counter Intelligence Corps, the much-feared supreme security agency charged with guarding the Park regime against possible coups and maintaining surveillance on South Korean army commanders.
According to reliable sources, who insisted on anonymity and would meet only under conditions of considerable secrecy, all the students were tortured. Suh later testified that he had been beaten and forced to kneel with a stick behind his knees while men wearing army boots stamped on his legs. he was denied food and sleep for seven days and was continually tortured until he became unconscious. A stick was poked into his stomach until he vomited blood, Suh claimed.
To avoid further torture, the students told investigators what they wanted to hear, the sources said, with the intention of saving the truth for the prosecutors. Suh was tricked into giving his false confession to a man introduced as another KCIA agent, the sources said. In fact, the studentwas taliking to a prosecutor and the testimony was eventually produced in court.
Suh later claimed that the psychological, not physical, torture drove hime insane. Investigatos told him his elder sister was also in prison undergoing interrogation. Since he was kept in solitary confinement and forbidden family visitors for more than six months, Suh had no way of knowing this was a lie, the sources explain. He was obviously deranged when he appeared in court and was admitted to hospital for a month.
The prosecutors charged Suh with helping the central figure in the case - a Korean medical student who lives in Japan - start a Communist spy ring to report campus anti-government activities to North Korea. Suh was accused of espionage, crimes against the national security and anti-Communist laws, and violation of a presidential emergency decree. He denies all the charges and says he does not know whether the alleged ring-leader, Kang Chang Hun, was a North Korean agent. Eleven of the students are free, Suh and one other man are serving long prison terms and the alleged ring-leader - who also claims that he was tortured into making a falsse confession - is awaiting execution.
Koreans who live in Japan, where they can brush shoulders with North Koreans in a free atmosphere unthinkable in either Korea, are regard with particular suspicion by Seoul authorities. Although Park's political opponents agree with McIntosh that there is an "ideological paranola in the South Korean system," they are careful not to make wholesale dismissals of the espionage allegations.
"I just don't know about Kang's behavior in Japan or whether he went to Pyongyang as the government claims," explained an expert on Suh's and the other students are not guilty. There was no clear material evidence. The only proof was the testimony they gave against themselves and one another which was made to fit."
"Suh's case is terrible," ssid a law professor, "but there are many students falsely charged, unfairly tried and being sacrificed."
Another source stressed that the government's rigid stance against communism places the investigators, prosecutors and judges in espionage cases under irresistible pressures to secure convictions.
"By American standards you can't even even expect a fair trial here," he said.