The Most Stubborn Spy

The old comrades linked arms as they emerged defiantly from South Korea's Taejon Penitentiary. Leading the way: Woo Yong Gak, a 70-year-old North Korean widely regarded as the world's longest-serving political prisoner. Like each of the communists Seoul set free last week, Woo's crime was one of conscience. Throughout 41 years spent in solitary confinement, he steadfastly refused to abandon his leftist ideology or denounce Pyongyang's Stalinist dictatorship--renunciations that would have won him his freedom. Captured in 1958 during a botched spy mission, Woo vowed to "continue the struggle" for Korean reunification. "After living for decades in a cold place," he told human-rights workers and student radicals gathered outside the prison, "I am so happy to walk out into this open world."

In all, Seoul released 17 political prisoners linked to North Korea--each a spy captured before 1970. Together the infiltrators served more than 500 years inside South Korean jails, a detention marathon that Justice Minister Park Sang Chun recently described as "inhumane." Categorized as "long-term unconverted prisoners," they refused to pledge loyalty to Seoul--as have 20 fellow spies who still remain behind bars. "These prisoners were denied fair trials and held for much longer than normal," says Claire McVey of Amnesty International in London. "They were consistently refused parole because they would not reject communism."

Woo was captured in a boat off South Korea's east coast. A college-trained economist, he left behind his wife and young son to lead an eight-member team into enemy territory. While his mission remains a mystery, infiltrators typically did reconnaissance, conducted sabotage or organized resistance to Seoul's pro-U.S. government. Such covert operations made the Korean peninsula a major cold-war battleground. Once captured, spies were harshly treated--even executed. After a swift military trial, Woo was handed a sentence of life in solitary confinement for espionage.

Like most other Northerners jailed in South Korea, Woo served his time alone in a closet-size cell without heat. One luxury kept him sane and relatively healthy: daily trips to the exercise yard, where inmates got 30 minutes to walk and mingle with comrades. It was there that Woo met fellow prisoner Choi Sun Mook, released last week after serving 37 years for sneaking southward across the border to visit relatives. North Korean POW Ham Se Hwan, now 69, was another prison comrade. "All of the inmates suffered inhuman treatment," Ham said, recalling how he once watched guards kill a hunger striker by incorrectly force-feeding him. "We were beaten up often, and there wasn't enough to eat."

South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung declared the amnesty to celebrate his first anniversary in power. Yet the gesture also appears timed to answer complaints that the dissident turned president hasn't delivered on promises to rescind the sweeping National Security Law. Human-rights activists say about 230 South Korean student activists and labor organizers remain unjustly imprisoned under the decades-long law, which bans unauthorized travel and contact with the North, outlaws public praise for Pyongyang and requires people to report North Korean sympathizers. Kim is expected to repeal at least the reporting requirement, but the government says many of those still in jail were not just sympathizers but agents stirring up protest and trouble on orders from the North.

After the amnesty announcement, Pyongyang demanded that Seoul unconditionally repatriate all North Korean captives. That won't happen. But in a news conference last week Kim stressed the need for "reciprocity"--a clear hint that his inter-Korean peace initiative known as the "sunshine policy" could be broadened to include a prisoner exchange on a scale not seen since the end of the Korean War. By Seoul's tally, 440 kidnapped South Koreans (most taken from seized merchant ships) and 234 Korean War POWs still languish in Northern jails or toil in labor camps. Woo, now free, awaits a deal that would permit him to join his wife and grown son in North Korea. "I hope both sides will resolve the matter in a humanitarian way," he said.

Prisoner diplomacy has failed before--miserably. Shortly after his 1993 election, former South Korean president Kim Young Sam sent back North Korean spy Lee In Mo in a good-will overture meant to warm ties with Pyongyang. Lee, then 70, crossed the 38th parallel to a hero's welcome, greeting relatives and communist dignitaries as a military band played on. But rather than reciprocate, North Korean strongman Kim Il Sung dispatched Lee on a national lecture tour to denounce his brutal jailers, recount the evils of South Korean capitalism and denounce Seoul as the puppet regime of American imperialists. To this day, Lee can be found preaching to North Korea's "unconverted" masses. Soon, perhaps, he'll have some help.