Big sister tells unheard stories of the executed

[HERALD INTERVIEW]Big sister tells unheard stories of the executed
People often think that to befriend death-row prisoners who have committed multiple murder, rape and other heinous crimes would be tough. And it certainly is. Nothing can prepare someone for a friendship suddenly ended by execution and the attendant "psychological scars and unbearable feelings of loss " this leaves, says Kim Hae-won who has been a mother and sister to more than 20 death-row inmates.

For 27 years, Kim counseled prisoners on death row, prayed for them and watched them change. Most of them are now dead, or more precisely, executed. Only three of the death-row inmates she knew, all of them political prisoners, walked out of the prison alive.

Kneeling down, Kim Hae-won prays for those executed in Seodaemun Prison History Hall a prisonturned museum in northwestern Seoul. [Odumak Editions]"At every execution, I could not but ask, 'What is this? Is this what God really wants?' Execution took away the life of a person with whom I built a close relationship with and who I believed was reborn after being a monster in the past,'" Kim said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald. "Someone said those who witness violent crimes become proponents of capital punishment and those who see execution practised become opponents of it," she went on, explaining her convictions against the death penalty.

She has never seen an actual execution though. Those who do are the clerics who hold the hands of soon-to-be-hung prisoners and offer solace to them right before the hanging. The 'sisters' - volunteer counselors, mostly female, like Kim - gather in a separate room to pray, she explained.

Her encounter with death-row prisoners dates back to 1975 when the nation was shocked by the murders of 17 people by serial killer Kim Dae-doo who was subsequently sentenced to death. Then a stay-home wife and mother of four kids, Hae-won learned from newspapers that the murderer had come from the same area as her husband. That small connection between her and the murderer affected her so strongly that she prayed for him every night for about a month. Finally she wrote a letter to him, "God is there for you. Hold onto Him.'
To her surprise, Kim Dae-doo replied, and that how it all started.

When Kim Dae-doo was hung on the morning of Dec. 28 the next year, at the age of 28, he was her close friend.

She was asked to come to the Seoul Correction House by prison officials on that morning. She somehow knew through her instincts that Kim had been executed so she refused to go. "I was afraid of the things I would see there." No one from Kim Dae-doo's family came for the corpse, she learned later.

That incident weighed heavily on her mind. She felt guilty and sorry for him. Twenty five years later, she paid a visit to Kim's mother which released emotions that had burdened both of them for so long. She told everything she could remember about the reborn Kim Dae-doo to his mother.

Within the Seoul Correction House, there are about 200 people registered as counseling volunteers, however, only a few are asked to be friends with death-row inmates, she said. Hae-won is only ever introduced to those prisoners convicted of the most heinous crimes.
"Maybe it's because I started with Kim Dae-doo who was so notorious ."

Every execution has been devastating to her, but there was one particular prisoner whose loss, she said, still breaks her heart.

It was Kang Sun-chul, who was executed on Dec. 30 of 1997, only two days after the once-death-row inmate Kim Dae-jung won the presidential election. Twenty-two others across the country perished on the same day in what was recorded as the last execution ever to have taken place in South Korea. During the term of President Kim, not a single execution was authorized.
According to the Ministry of Justice, a total of 60 convicted criminals are on death row in Korea, with serial killer Yoo Young-chul being the latest to join the group.

Kim's memories of past relationships with death-row inmates are not all tainted with sadness.
Kim recalled a heart-warming gift from Park Chul-woong, who was convicted of three counts of burglary/murder charges and was awaiting execution.

It was a get-well letter to her youngest daughter, who had to take leave from school because of illness.
"I don't know where he got all the materials. I guess he used his own clothes and pulled out threads from bath towels to make an envelope and writing paper, then stitched every letter on them," she said.

Throughout a 27-year-long journey of tense first meetings with criminals, the process of getting to know each one and then the sudden endings to these relationship by execution, Kim has grown from being a typical housewife to a soft-voiced, yet strong-willed person who is more activist than volunteer. Between taking care of the prisoners and joining a campaign against the death penalty, she has spared time for former sex slaves of the Japanese army during World War II, becoming involved for years with a group that has been representing them.

Now turning 70, Kim has granted herself a little break from experiences full of wrenching, profound emotions, she said, but she hasn't stopped caring for others in her mind.

"My last wish now is to see the foundation of an organization which helps the victims and their families. To help them recover from the deep wounds. Just like being struck by thunder on a street, their lives have been ruined in the brutal act of crimes and most of them are still bleeding inside," she said firmly and unreservedly.

Kim recently authored a book titled "Haruga sojunghassdeon saramdeul (Those who cherished one day's life)," dedicated to the memory of seven death-row prisoners she knew.

"People only remember them as monstrous criminals who do not deserve life, not knowing what happened behind the prison walls, how they prayed for their victims and their families."

"I wish to help their stories be heard. It is my expression of friendship," Kim said.

However she did not forget to say, "my greatest fear is that this book may reopen the wounds of victims or their families in any way."

By Lee Sun-young