Fine Young Communists

Uncle Sam Is Losing the War for Students in South Korea

 SEOUL, South Korea—Dae Sik Yoo, the student body president of Kyung Hee University, is on the lam. Since police can arrest him anywhere but here—they're not allowed on university grounds—Yoo never leaves campus for more than 12 hours. For a wanted man, he looks wholesome, with wire-rimmed glasses, baseball cap, and khaki pants. He could pass for a preppie American student. But when asked about the political opinions that got him into trouble, he sounds more like a North Korean Communist affiliate than a college student in a U.S.-allied country.

"Kim Jong Il is an outstanding leader," says Yoo. "No other country can stand up to the U.S. Only North Korea can."

The object of Yoo's admiration, North Korea's premier, is believed to have already built one or two atomic bombs; recent intelligence suggests the country may begin testing nuclear arms. Even as the U.S. is counting on South Korea to stabilize the region—Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is visiting leaders here this week—South Korea has become more conciliatory to its threatening neighbor, an approach favored by some of the very students who elsewhere would be expected to protest such a repressive regime. North Korea is a land of well-documented concentration camps, where an estimated 200,000 people are wasting away. A government-fostered mass famine has claimed the lives of some 2 million citizens.

Blame Bush: Seoul students protesting the U.S. war in Iraq
photo: EPA-photo
Blame Bush: Seoul students protesting the U.S. war in Iraq

Yoo landed on the wanted list for his role as spokesperson for the Hanchongryun, a left-wing student organization notorious for its pro-North Korean views. Hanchongryun spearheaded demonstrations and sit-ins for 11 years, pushing for reunification of the North and South—but on Korean terms and without any U.S. interference. In 1998, South Korean officials charged Hanchongryun with defying the National Security Law, a measure that prohibits groups from expressing "anti-state" beliefs. The members had hoped the new president, Roh Moo-Hyun, a former human rights lawyer and activist, would exonerate the group. Then Hanchongryun invaded a U.S. firing range last summer, and Roh abandoned his promise.

Today Yoo lives in the Kyung Hee student union, a drafty room cluttered with chairs and old computers. Its walls are scabbed with splattered paint and torn posters from past demonstrations. He sleeps on a pallet in a small room near the men's bathroom. He pads around the common areas in slippers and offers guests grape soda from the vending machine. Yoo still meets with other fugitive Hanchongryun members, stealing away from the university in the predawn hours, usually in a taxi. He jokes that he feels a bit like 007. Every day, his parents ask when he'll be arrested, and he himself concedes that capture is inevitable. Even so, Yoo remains adamant.

"Kim is just another leader and not a despot or a dictator," he says. "If he really is a dictator, the North Koreans wouldn't have tolerated that and overthrown him. They're not that brainwashed. They must see something in the system that's right."

Over the past five years, young South Koreans have grown increasingly sympathetic toward North Korea, and their distrust of America has deepened. They've watched their own government seek to engage peacefully with its neighbor, while the Bush administration asserts a more hard-line policy. Kim has said that if the U.S. threatens his nation, he'll turn Seoul into a "sea of fire." Yet a poll by the Korea Institute for National Reunification shows 90 percent of South Koreans show little or no concern about the nuclear situation. In fact, many between the ages of 20 and 35 firmly believe the U.S. poses a greater national threat than North Korea. Last year, an MBC-Korean Research Center poll found that 51 percent blamed the nuclear buildup on America's tough approach to Kim Jong Il, while just 25 percent blamed Kim's regime.

"South Koreans who were born in the '70s and the '80s didn't experience the Communist threat. They are blinded by national pride and think of North Koreans as our brothers and sisters. The problem is that they mix up the regime with the people," says Jin Wook Choi, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Reunification.

Most of the older generation, who have memories of the Korean War, feel indebted toward the U.S. and criticize the youth for what they term naive nationalism. Choi attributes the attitude among the younger generation to former South Korean president Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine Policy. Eager to thaw Cold War tensions, Kim implemented a gradualist strategy for reconciling with North Korea, propping up and befriending the struggling nation with humanitarian aid and increased trade. His plan, though, also included covering up North Korea's appalling human rights record and secretly funneling hundreds of millions in government money into Kim's coffers. Meanwhile, the Bush administration was refusing to engage with North Korea, until September's six-way talks in Beijing.

"During the last five years, Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine Policy was based on the assumption that North Korea will change if we're sincere about engaging with it. So they did that and failed and Kim should have admitted their failure. But instead, they said our conception was not wrong. They said it was Bush who changed his engagement policy, and many of the younger generation believe this," Choi says.

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