On February 25, 1999, South Korea freed Woo Yong Gak, the world's longest serving political prisoner. Woo spent 41 years in solitary confinement in a 12' by 12' cell in the Taejon penitentiary. The 70 year-old Woo told reporters upon his release "After living for decades in a closed place, I am so happy to walk out into this open world."
Woo is a North Korean who was captured on a boat off South Korea's coast in 1958. The South Korean government convicted him of espionage. Woo said he hopes to return to North Korea where he has a wife and son.
More than 200 political prisoners remain in South Korean prisons. Woo was freed along with 16 other political prisoners accused of espionage for North Korea. They were released under a special amnesty to celebrate the first anniversary of South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung's rule. Also released were 1,490 non-political prisoners who had their sentenced commuted under the amnesty and 7,304 parolees who were pardoned.
Since taking office Kim has released 180 political prisoners. These prisoners were released on the condition that they sign an oath promising to obey South Korean laws, including those which make it a crime to believe in or espouse communism. Woo and the other 16 political prisoners released on February 25, 1999, had refused to sign the oath, claiming that to do so would violate their freedom of conscience. Had Woo been willing to sign the oath he could have been released as early as 1986.
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