Renditioned in the back of a secret police vehicle and blindfolded, Park Jong-cheol, a 21-year-old university student, would not have seen the barbed-wire topped walls of the black building – innocuously signposted “Marine Research Center” – that loomed ahead.
But he would have heard the sinister clank and clatter as the black iron gate crashed shut behind them.
Hustled out of the vehicle, he was manhandled to the rear of the building. Thrust through a masked entrance and up a metal spiral staircase, he was hurled into his destination, a cell on the fifth floor.
With blindfolds removed and the metal door slammed behind them, he would have seen what is was – a garish orange bathroom suite. Electrical sockets were prominently set into the walls.
There were no bars on the windows, but the windows were narrow, vertical slits. Neither Park nor any other detainee would escape the “Anti-Communist Interrogation Office” by leaping to their deaths.
In the bright, upbeat South Korea that is known worldwide today for K-pop and cosmetics, Samsung gadgets and Hyundai cars, it is easy to forget – or not even know – that the country had a surprisingly dark past not so long ago.
Following the 1950-53 Korean War, the devastated and poverty-wracked nation trod a path to industrial development under a brace of generals who seized power in coups. Park Chung-hee and Chun Do-hwan, between them, held power from 1961-1987.
They could claim considerable success. Untrammeled by democratic governance or rule of law, Seoul created a national infrastructure, while an export-focused industrial sector rose from the paddy fields. As the country urbanized and industrialized, “economic warriors” in grim plants labored heroic hours to win South Korea its status as a “tiger economy.”
But while Korea enriched itself economically, political development remained stunted. By the late 1970s, a bourgeoise was emerging. In this newly prosperous neo-Confucian society, a university education was highly prized. It was from among the ranks of students that activists began agitating for change, for democratic rights and freedoms.
In response, Seoul’s authoritarian governments – which faced legitimate espionage threats from North Korea – engineered a machinery of repression. A vast network of informants, divisions of conscripted riot police and secretive undercover police units came into being.
In 1976, a key element of this shadowy infrastructure rose in central Seoul’s Namyeong Dong, a district that is today just two subway stops south of City Hall.
The “Anti Communist Investigative Office” was the work of noted architect Kim Soo-geun, who designed the Korean Embassy in Washington and Seoul’s 1988 Olympic Stadium. Kim was an associate of Kim Jong-pil, the intelligence officer and later politician who oversaw one of Asia’s more feared spy agencies, the Korean CIA. His 1976 building was fit for purpose.
It squats in a back alley one block behind a major road. People in nearby buildings were allegedly instructed to not even look at it. But it was impossible to ignore, surrounded by barbed-wire topped walls. Entry and exit were via a sliding electric gate. The building itself was made of matte black bricks.
The regular entrance at the front was for the secret police who worked within. The masked entrance at the rear was for suspects. The metal, spiral staircase which they were led up was designed to disorientate. The fifth floor cells featured lighting controls in the corridor outside, and peepholes in the thick metal doors that allowed people to look in, but not out.
In a supreme irony – a prime example of what is now known as “blowback” – this chamber of horrors would play a central role in Korea’s democratization. When the torturers within its walls went too far, a revolution was ignited.
In late 1970s Korea there were rumblings of discontent. In 1980, over 200 pro-democracy demonstrators were killed in the city of Gwangju by airborne rangers. As the decade progressed, Seoul campus neighborhoods exploded with street battles between students hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails, and samurai-armored riot police wielding batons and deploying “Seoul perfume” – bitter tear gas.
“Korea as a whole was that much more violent back then,” said Mike Breen, a then-reporter who covered Korea in the 1980s. “Among politicians and activists, there was an assumption that if you were arrested, you could get knocked about and might even be subject to pretty unpleasant treatment.”
But that was just the public face. Behind closed doors, the regime instructed KCIA and secret police units to seize and interrogate activist leaders.
“Many student activists in the 1980s were socialists and some even had pro-North Korean tendencies,” Breen said. “That gave the authorities license for worse treatment.”
While beatings were common from regular police, torture favored by Namyeong Dong interrogators were more scientific. It could be prolonged, and leave no mark on a victim’s body. The preferred methods were electric shocks, with electrodes applied to the heels, and waterboarding in the center’s orange-tiled bath fixture.
Behind black walls
Procedures were well established. “There were five-member teams [of interrogators]: two held the legs, two held the upper body and one person pushed the victim’s head under the water,” said Jun Shin, a former student activist in the 1980s who suffered a broken leg at the hands of police, and who recently led a tour group from the Royal Asiatic Society around the center.
Some victims would endure a comprehensive suite of agonies.
Activist Kim Geun-tae suffered sleep deprivation, waterboarding and electric shock at the hands of notorious interrogator Lee “The Torture Technician” Keun-ah. And survived. At massive personal risk, he released details about his treatment in 1985. Koreans finally learned what went on inside the black building.
But Kim was not Namyeong Dong’s most famed detainee. That was the 21-year-old student, Park.
On January 4, 1987, Park was pronounced dead at a hospital. The police report of his death would, in less tragic circumstances, be farcical. Park, they claimed, had been given a drink of water, and – when an officer slammed his hand on a desk – he died of shock.
In reality, he had been questioned on the whereabouts of other activists. When he refused to name names, over-zealous interrogators waterboarded Park to death.
The people rise
A disgusted prosecutor leaked the news to the media. And defying censors, the media revealed all. Making Park’s death particularly poignant was that, though from a poor family, he had achieved the “Korean dream” by entering the country’s top educational institute, Seoul National University.
Every Korean parent realized that Park could have been their child. A spark had been lit. Massive protests shook Seoul. Then came the final straw.
In June, a student demonstrator, Lee Han-yeol, was hit by a flying tear-gas grenade. He died in July. Demonstrators flooded central Seoul, but this time they were not students – they were housewives and salarymen. The middle class had stood up.
The situation hung on a knife-edge. President Chun blinked – and consented to direct presidential elections. They took place in December. Since then, Korea has been transforming into arguably Asia’s most vibrant democracy.
Namyeong Dong’s victims would never overcome their trauma. Kim subsequently became a lawmaker and party leader, but suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and could never visit a dentist or doctor: treatment reminded him of torture.
His cell has been converted into a small library. Due to his disease, Kim was unable to concentrate on long tracts or books. His cell is today lined with the poetry he took to reading. He died in 2011, aged 64.
The otherwise excellent professional reputation of the late Kim, the building’s architect, was smeared.
“Opinion is split [among Korean architects],” said Doojin Hwang, a respected modern architect who admits that he admires Kim’s visual control, detail and scale – all visible in the interrogation center.
“One group says he collaborated with a dictatorial regime, but the question is: ‘Did he know what it was for?’” Hwang continued. “On a top-secret building, the architect only provides the overall shell of the building, other details are only filled in by insiders. The architect’s hands are bound.”
Another legacy of authoritarian days is a broad suspicion towards rule of law. The key bodies – police and prosecutors – have moved in different directions since 1987.
“The police appear different today, they have sort of reinvented themselves as friendly, cuddly people who will help you. They look different from the old cops,” said Breen, recently the author of The New Koreans. “But prosecutors have not, and though they don’t beat people up anymore, their contempt for rights and due process remains.”
Indeed, one of the hottest political potatoes in Korea at present is a demand for prosecution reform.
The sharpest end of 1980s enforcement – the torturers – faced post-judicial punishment. However, the longest term any of them served was three years, Kim Gyun-ri, a staffer at the Korea Democracy Foundation, told Asia Times. Some were subsequently rehabilitated by right-wing Christian groups.
Lee, the most notorious, disappeared; some believe he was hidden by powerful figures. He resurfaced in 1999 and was sentenced to a year in jail. He even met Kim, his former victim, to beg forgiveness.
Tours and films
In 2005, the building itself became the Human Rights Center for the police force, functioning as an education center for officers, and as a small museum open to the public. It formed a key setting for two movies.
The 2012 film “National Security” (also known as “Namyeong Dong 1985”) is an unflinching account of the sufferings of a Kim Geun-tae-like figure at the hands of a sadistic Lee-like interrogator, “The Undertaker.” Due to its unblinking focus on torture, the film bombed at the box office, with some members of the audience reportedly unable to finish watching it.
“National Security” is “…so successful in depicting the horrors undergone by young pro-democracy political prisoners that the film is virtually impossible to watch,” the Hollywood Reporter wrote in a review.
More accessible, and commercially successful, was the 2017 film “1987,” also known as “When the Day Comes”. Though it focuses on interactions between secret police, prosecutors, press and student activists after the death of Park, it is essentially uplifting.
The Namyeong building is one of Seoul’s last physical remnants of the bad old days. The other infamous torture location – the KCIA interrogation center at the foot of Seoul landmark Mount Namsan, just minutes’ walk from the popular tourist shopping zone of Myong Dong – was taken over by Seoul City in 1995.
After operating for a while as Seoul’s Disaster Management Headquarters it was converted into a youth hostel in 2006. The spy agency, meanwhile, is now headquartered in a forested location off a major road south of Seoul, notable for its lack of signposts.
The “Anti-Communist Investigative Office” now stands – somewhat out of place – in a backstreet overlooked by boutique hotels and apartments, amid barbeque restaurants and trendy coffee shops. The neighborhood is a lively student zone, home to a women’s university.
Last December, President Moon Jae-in ordered that the building be handed from police control to the Korea Democracy Foundation. It currently hosts tour groups, educating a generation who grew up amid prosperity and democracy about a frightening and tragic past.
The building showcases exhibits of Korea’s various protest movements, press clippings, images, art and a case of possessions owned by Park. It will be fully transformed into a full-scale Democracy and Human Rights Memorial Hall by 2022, Kim Gyu-ri explained. A design competition is underway, and opinion is being canvassed from within civil society.
In corridors and courtyards formerly trodden by secret policemen and their victims, one visitor expressed unease at news that the building will become a tourist site.
“I am not sure how I feel about making it into a memorial where tourists come and take pictures,” said Emily Williams, 33, a graduate student at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “I’ve got mixed feelings, I guess.”
What will not change is Cell 509.
The site of Park’s death has been preserved as a shrine. Bouquets are placed outside the cell door, his image hangs on the bare wall and a small banner from Seoul National University stands at the foot of the bathtub in which his head was forced underwater.
In 2001, Park’s alma mater granted the student who never had the chance to graduate an honorary degree.