Historical comparisons can open up new exciting ways of understanding events that have become trapped by a dominant narrative, or proposing solutions to pressing current issues. We do, however, have to be very careful when we juxtapose highly distinct clusters of events. As I have watched things in Egypt unfold (I emerged from my own research having missed Tunisia) the democracy movement in South Korea has constantly been on my mind, but some connections are more helpful than others. If forced to connect the dots, Jo Gap-je’s linking Jeon Du-hwan (전두환) with Mubarak and No Tae-u (노태우) with vice president Omar Suleiman playing a transitional role is easy to make but the comparison is deeply problematic in both descriptive and normative terms. Nor is a making a connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and Korean Christians useful in understanding the roles either played in protests.
There are a whole number of questions, both small and large, we could ask about Egypt now and Korea in the late 1980s that might help us both better tackle general phenomena as well as understand the two historical moments in their own right. What is the role of the politics of self-immolation? How important is the symbolic power of specific physical spaces such as Tahrir square or Myeongdong cathedral? How do we evaluate the rapidly changing and internally divided US policies towards its authoritarian allies? How important are highly organized movements in these moments? How is middle class support gained in each case? In this posting I wish to explore another one of the issues where I think there are deep parallels between the Egyptian January 25 uprising and the momentous spring of 1987 in Korea: the role of police torture and brutality.
The Most Serious Eventuality
A CIA report from April, 1980, included this observation in its evaluation of the potential for unrest in South Korea:
Should a bloody confrontation develop, the most serious eventuality would be the death of a student at the hands of the police or military. Government officials are all too aware that it was the police killing of a high school student in Masan in 1960 that provided the student movement with a martyr, solidifying student opposition to the Rhee government, which led to Rhee’s eventual downfall.
Only a few weeks later a popular uprising in Gwangju was met with massacre, and followed by several years of renewed state oppression. The first fatality at the hand of paratroopers in the city, Kim Gyeong-cheol, contributed to an explosion in support for the protests.
The death of protesters would time and time again provide such martyrs. Byron Engle, who helped retrain police in US occupied Japan after World War II and for decades led controversial US training programs for police around the world, advised departments against using bayonets in riot control (advice apparently not heard by soldiers in Gwangju). His reason for wanting to remove these fixed knives from crowd control was more cynical. It was too easy, he argued, for a Marxist agitator to “push a demonstrator onto one” and thereby gain an instant martyr for the cause.
Police torture and brutality tends to simmer for much longer. It is notoriously difficult to prove, especially when police use techniques that leave little mark. It is also double sided. Police torture can be a powerful weapon of intimidation by an authoritarian regime. It is not only used to extract confessions or reveal information; in both in Egypt and in South Korea it has been deployed as a form of punishment and to spread fear among those who challenge the state. Suspects might not even be processed, but instead given a thorough beating for a few hours or days and then released. To generate this deterrent fear impact, it need not be used in all or even a majority of cases, thus promoting deniability.
However, if the timing and circumstances are right, revelations about just one or a few cases of brutal torture at the hands of the police, especially if it results in the death of a prisoner, can have an effect that is arguably more powerful and long lasting than the death of a single or several protesters. Since these actions take place away from the chaotic and violent interactions on the front lines of a political demonstration, they cannot be dismissed as tragic accidents, but come to serve as a symbol of the systemic failures of the regime. Since revelations of police torture and brutality are often accompanied with shocking details of attempts to cover-up the brutality, they become a bitter cocktail of violence and corruption waiting to be set on fire.
One of the most famous Korean examples of this can be found leading up to the mass protests of June 1987: the torture and killing of Pak Jong-cheol. Before his death in January, the nation was already following another case throughout the previous year. The first woman to step forward and bring suit in accusations of police sexual torture, Kwon In-suk, had an especially powerful impact on the mobilization of women but was accused by the government of being a lying Communist sympathizer and cruelly humiliated in the censored press. In the tense January days that followed Jeon Du-hwan’s 1987 New Year’s policy message and tense debates on constitutional reforms, news emerged of the death in police custody of Seoul National University student Pak Jong-cheol (박종철 Pak Jung Chul). Officials announced he had fainted during questioning and died of “shock” but relatives who attended the autopsy immediately made accusations of torture. Anger and sympathy grew quickly, especially after memorial protests for Pak were held on February 7th and details of his water torture and the police cover-up emerged in May, leading directly to the resignation of the Prime Minister at the time, No Sin-yeong.
The outrage over the killing of Pak Jong-cheol went well beyond those already in the protests and sparked sympathy for the students throughout society, especially among parents. It also helped to mobilize students who had stubbornly refused to join the protests, including one Korean friend of mine who had up to then, “only smelled tear gas when it came through the windows of my classroom.” Another activist remembers the impact of the revelations about the Pak case, “From that moment on, I knew I could not live a normal life like getting married and having kids”
Students holding Pak Jong-cheol’s Picture
“I want to live in a country without torture”
From Pak Jong-cheol Memorial Protests 1987.2.7
See more pictures from the event here.
Since democracy movements are highly complex events, with a multitude of causes, actors, negotiations, and political changes, a case like the torture and killing of Pak Jong-cheol also provides a convenient marker for use in more compact historical narratives. For example, two 2008 Korean history textbooks for high school students I picked up last time I was in Korea note the importance of the Pak torture case (one with a photo) on their single page of coverage of the 1987 June democracy movement.
We Are All Khaled Said
I couldn’t help thinking of Pak Jong-cheol when I first heard about the organization, “We Are All Khaled Said” (Arabic) in Egypt. A loose network of activists that formed in mid-2010 after the brutal beating and killing of Khaled Mohamed Saeed by Egyptian police, judged by its (Arabic) Facebook support alone, the group was already the largest human rights organization in Egypt many months before the January 25th uprising. Saeed was beaten to death before he even reached the station, leaving a number of witnesses, and a horrifying photograph that made laughable police claims of an accidental death caused by choking on swallowed drugs.
We Are All Khaled Said began as an organization dedicated to opposing the rampant police torture that has been attacked by Human Rights Watch and in US Department of State human rights reports, though the US has been known to make use of their skills. The organization also collected video clips of Egyptian police torture and organized protests.
As I understand it, following the revolution in Tunisia We are All Khaled Said shifted into new gear, and cooperated closely with other older political organizations such as the April 6 Youth Movement that had experience in mobilizing workers and an emphasis on economic issues. These groups decided to combine their forces and on or around January 15th settled upon the date of January 25th for the beginning of a nationwide uprising. Of these organizations, We are All Khaled Said was the largest and, according to Freedom House researcher Sherif Mansour, “promoted the [initial] event widely and managed to get it to over one million people. They also were the central location for organization, instruction, sharing information and sharing materials could be printed out and distributed by hand.” The Facebook wall postings and event announcements on their site from the time already began to embrace a wider set of issues: unemployment, dictatorship, oppression and fear under the emergency law, and the stagnant economy. However, the day chosen was not random: it was Egypt’s annual Police Day – celebrating the police as nationalist heroes by remembering a moment decades ago when their officers stood up against the English colonial oppressor. In Youtube clips (2011.1.20, 2010.1.22) posted by the coalition and spread widely on Facebook and twitter, it was the theme of police torture that was most emphasized. One of the videos transitions from patriotic clips of the police fighting the English to scenes of police beatings.
There was no guarantee that Jan 25 would become what it did. Even before the internet was shut down in Egypt, the movement was already an organic force of its own, driven by deep structural circumstances that have been building for years. The protester victories of those first days were in a war fought directly with a clearly despised police force and their triumph was made visible to the world as the Egyptian interior ministry forces almost completely melted away. Torture in their hands, alas, has continued up to day I write this posting. New York times reporters who were detained on Friday were not themselves hurt, but during their short stay, they could hear the sounds of tortured detainees in cells nearby.
As we continue to watch developments in Egypt and calls for a calm and smooth transitional regime, I hope no one will forget that while this takes place, the repressive institution that continues to hold thousands of protesters will be free to continue its practices, especially under a vice president who is no champion against police torture.
Even when there is a clear and unambiguous message sent to police that torture will not be tolerated under any circumstances, it takes years to reform an institution of that size, even without a process of reconciliation or retribution against torturers. That work needs to begin now.