When he glanced at his television and caught the face of his torturer, saw him emerge plump and brazen from 11 years in hiding, Kim Sung Hak froze with remembered terror.
"My heart sank instantly. I went into this fuddled state, like I did when I was tortured," Kim said. "The memories came back, and I could feel it, physically--the smell of my skin burning, the silent screams stuck in my throat."
Last week, the 49-year-old shopkeeper sat close to the man he says caused that pain, testifying at the trial of the acknowledged chief torturer for South Korea's oppressive military regimes in the 1980s.
The trial of Lee Kun An is the latest unwanted specter to emerge from South Korea's turbulent past. On Jan. 10, U.S. Army Secretary Louis Caldera came to hear South Korean civilians say they were strafed by American planes and that hundreds of others were massacred by American troops during the Korean War. A week earlier, old U.S. records disclosed accusations that South Korean police and military executed 1,800 political prisoners at the outbreak of that war.
Like those revelations, descriptions of Lee's work at the torture table has been met with ambivalence here--a mix of outraged calls for justice and shrugs that it was all part of a necessarily brutal past. Lee, 61, will not even be prosecuted for most of the torture he has acknowledged; the statute of limitations has expired. Two of his underlings, already convicted, received prison terms of less than two years.
Despite what police described as an intensive manhunt since Lee's acts of torture were exposed, he spent most of the last 11 years in his own house, occasionally hiding behind boxes stacked to close off a small back room. The account of his time on the run suggests little official enthusiasm to prosecute old crimes.
Lee reportedly has told police he was financed by his old police superiors, some of whom have not been called to account by the current democratic government in Seoul. "I have no doubt the country protected him," said Kim Sung Hak.
For Kim and others, Lee's reappearance summons decades-old fears of steely repression and midnight disappearances under the military governments of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan. In those years, the tense standoff between North Korea and South Korea colored everyday life. In the south, North Korean soldiers were portrayed as red devils with horns, civilians as prisoners in shackles.
Seoul saw North Korean "infiltrators" behind every foul deed. Patriotism equated with anti-communism. Democracy activists were hauled away to jail cells and torture chambers on charges of being "red." Kim Keun Tae, now a legislator and senior official in the democratically oriented ruling party, was president of a student activist group when he was arrested in 1985.
"I was tortured for 26 days. The electric torture went on for two weeks," Kim said, fighting back tears. "You can have a heart attack or brain damage from that, so they only had a specialist do it--Lee Kun An."
In 1988, as democracy gained ground in Seoul, Kim Keun Tae was freed in a general amnesty and publicly accused Lee of torturing him. Lee disappeared, emerging only last October, a month after expiration of the statute of limitations in all cases except that of the shopkeeper, Kim Sung Hak.
On the witness stand at Suwon District Court last week, Kim Sung Hak told how he and his father were among dozens of South Korean fishermen captured by North Korea in 1971 and imprisoned for a year. When he returned, he was interrogated repeatedly on suspicion that he had been brainwashed to be a spy.
"They took my clothes off and laid me down on a table. Then I was tied up with what felt like seat belts in a car, on seven or eight different places in my body," he testified. "Then they stuck wooden sticks between my toes and bandaged each foot. They poured water on me. . . . " Lee began weeping on the stand at the recollection. "Then, the electric shock came.
"It felt like my body was snapping out of the table, bent. With the shock, one of the belts broke loose. I screamed. They stuck a wooden stick in my mouth. It repeated. Lee Kun An was controlling the electricity switch while the others followed his orders to beat me up, tighten the belts and so forth. I think it went on for five hours."
As Kim testified, Lee stood in a blue prisoner's uniform, hands cuffed, staring down or away from the witness. "I wanted to see him right in the eye," said Kim. "But he wouldn't. Perhaps he couldn't face me."
Lee has acknowledged interrogating other prisoners and using electric torture on Kim Keun Tae. But he has denied using electric torture during the interrogation of Kim Sung Hak in December 1985.
Lee's lawyer, Kim Won Jin, said he was initially reluctant to take the torturer as a client, but has come to what he calls "a more balanced view" of the defendant. "I think you have to understand that it was inevitable, given the customs of the period, that he had to carry out these tortures as part of the interrogations," the lawyer said. "He didn't do it because of greed, or because he was a bad person. He didn't arbitrarily decide who was a suspect. He only carried out the orders to do interrogations."
That argument receives surprising sympathy here. "You can't say he was a demon," said Cha Jong Soo, 55, who works for a car rental agency. "Tortures and illegal confinement were so prevalent in those periods. They were painful and evil customs that were inevitably necessary."
But a small group in the courtroom protested. "Is that a human being?" one person shouted at Lee. "You should be beaten to death!" shouted another. Afterward, Shin Chun Hugh, 67, said he, too, had been persecuted by Lee Kun An. "I want him to suffer exactly the way I did. No more, no less," Shin said.
Lee has emerged as more complex than a thoughtless thug. According to police and press accounts, he spent most of his 11 years in hiding in scholarly concentration. He painstakingly penned manuscripts, twice copying the Bible and ruminating for thousands of pages on such subjects as language studies, Chinese medicine, biblical figures and, appropriately, human pain. He helped his sons with their homework.
He surrendered voluntarily, he reportedly told police, because he was tired of hiding. Others think it was more involved. His reemergence came just in time to embarrass a former superior, now an opposition legislator who is causing headaches for the government of President Kim Dae Jung.
His lawyer, Kim Won Jin, said Lee told him he was feeling remorse that his deputies had been sent to jail for following his orders. Kim said Lee also told him that "living and hiding in his own apartment was much more painful than a jail cell."