Originally published in January 2020, we’re republishing this article on June 27, 2023, on the 70th anniversary of the armistice agreement ending military action in the U.S. war against Korea.
Ahn Hak-sop was an officer in the Korean People’s Army of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) during the Korean War. In 1952, he was captured by the United States and its proxy forces while on his way to a meeting in the southern part of Korea. He served decades as an unconverted political prisoner before finally winning release in 1995. Today, he is still active as a peace and reunification activist in the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea). Derek Ford of Liberation School interviewed Mr. Ahn in November 2019 at a peace church in the Civilian Control Zone just south of the 38th parallel that divides the Korean peninsula.
Liberation School: Thank you so much for speaking with us today, Mr. Ahn. It’s wonderful to see you again. To begin, can you tell us about how you got involved with the Korean struggle for peace, independence, and reunification?
Ahn Hak-sop: My birth town is Ganghwa Island. I was born in a poor household, in the era of Japanese imperialism. My family was Confuscianist. I went to elementary school and was taught an imperialist education. They didn’t teach me that Korea was a colony. I found that out in second grade. Through my experiences in the imperialist education, I found out that Korea was not independent, and since that time the feeling of anti-imperialism grew in my mind. At the time of liberation from Japanese imperialism, I was in hiding because of anti-imperialist activism, and that is where I met the resistance forces. On the afternoon of August 15, I knew that I was liberated from Japanese imperialism.
Liberation School: What was your understanding of US imperialism at that time?
Mr. Ahn: At first, I thought the US Army was a liberation army. But soon General MacArthur referred to the US as an occupying army. There was no word of liberation, only occupation; so I was suspicious, but only partly so. Although I was young, the whole nation was full with division between the rule of the US and Soviets. In September of 1945, Koreans went out to greet the US Army, but the US Army shot at them. After the Moscow Committee, the US Army said explicitly that they were there to block the Soviet Union. But in 1948, the Soviet Union withdrew all of their troops. But the US Army didn’t withdraw.
In almost every town, there was a People’s Committee for self-rule, but the US Army crushed the People’s Committees with tanks and soldiers. There was a lot of resistance and revolt at that time.
On August 8, 1947, when I was returning home with a colleague from a meeting to prepare a celebration for the liberation, someone shot at us, and my colleague was wounded and arrested. I survived and ran away and went underground to Kaesong, which was in the northern part of the peninsula, although there was no 38th parallel at that time. While I was in Kaesong, I went to engineering school. The South Korean police went to school to arrest me, but the school protected me.
Liberation School: What happened after that, during the war?
Mr. Ahn: During the war, I enlisted in the Korean People’s Army, but the school delayed my admittance. I was sick, and so I wasn’t able to fight when I finally joined. I served in intelligence gathering. The KPA sent me to the South in 1952 as an intelligence officer, where I was arrested. In early April of 1952, I was going to a meeting of the Workers’ Party in the district of Kangwondo. I was observed on my way there and arrested.
While I was in jail, I had a lot of obstacles to overcome. There was spying and torture for 42 years. There was pressure to convert from Juche ideology into capitalism beginning in 1956.
First they tried to make theoretical arguments against the DPRK. But they couldn’t defend their beliefs to me. After that, they tried to bribe me with property. After that, there was torture. There is a small place in the jail, and they would throw water in the room in the winter. They take all of your clothes and bedding. I tried to survive. So I ran and exercised to keep my body warm. But I couldn’t last forever. I became unconscious, and they dragged my body out to keep me alive. There were other forms of torture. I could overcome all of this. What was most painful was when the police brought my family, my mother and brother to the prison.
Liberation School: When and how were you finally released?
Mr. Ahn: On August 15, 1995 I was released from jail. They didn’t want to do it, but they had to release me because of the Geneva Convention. They should have released me in 1953. At that time, I should have been sent to the DPRK, but the US and South Korea didn’t do that. They said I was a spy, and so I didn’t fall under the convention, which they said only applied to battleground soldiers, not information operatives.
I tried to litigate for many years, and the army and prison did everything they could do to block the law. I couldn’t send any letters or meet with anyone. I finally got one letter out, however, and human rights lawyers took up my case. The government was forced to justify my detention, and there was no justification. They had to release me.
Two other prisoners came out of jail with me. Two of them went to the DPRK in 2000 after the June 15 Declaration. Those comrades went to the North because they thought that shortly there would be free movement between the two states. They went to the North to study and thought they would come back later.
Liberation School: Why did you stay in the South?
Mr. Ahn: I remained in the South by my own choice. There are three reasons. First, I thought it was a temporary situation. Second, there were young progressive people here in the South, and they asked me to stay. They said, “If the unconverted prisoners go the North, we will lose the center of the struggle.” It became very important for me to stay. The third reason is that Korea is now divided, and the US occupies the southern part. We have to keep struggling here for the withdrawal of US army, the peace treaty, and peaceful reunification. I decided to stay here to fight for these goals. In 1952, I came here to liberate the southern half of the peninsula, and I need to stay here and continue that struggle.
Liberation School: What has your life been like since release?
Mr. Ahn: The government required me to have one guaranteed supervisor when I was released, so if there was any problem with me they could hold them accountable. I tore up the paper and said, “I will not give you a hostage.”
Still, there are security police who follow me. Whenever there is a problem with the North and South, they raid my house and stand guard outside my property. One time at a demonstration, conservative forces attacked me. The police did nothing to protect me.
I’d like to explain more about the Security Surveillance Act, which mandates that police watch former political prisoners. Every week or every other week, the police come to my house and ask about my activities, who has visited my house, and so on. Once every other month I need to report to them about what I did, who I met, and who visited me. Every two years I need to go to court. However, I don’t report to them or go to court. That is their law, and it’s unjust.
It’s not easy to continue fighting this law. I can’t leave the country. I can’t visit my hometown. But I’ve lived my whole life for reunification and anti-imperialism, and I’d like to live the rest of my life for that.