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.
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.
South Korea has always had an ambivalent relationship with America. The U.S. keeps some 37,000 troops stationed in Seoul, where they have not necessarily been welcome. Further, Washington has supported past military dictatorships in South Korea. Last winter, hundreds of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against the acquittal of two United States Army sergeants, who were tried for negligent homicide in a U.S. military tribunal after their armored vehicle crushed and killed two 14-year-old girls.
“Even though it happened last year, we still think about the two girls. We still have bitter feelings about what happened,” says Jiwon Kim, a 27-year-old exchange program coordinator in Yonsei University.
A year after the acquittal, Hanchongryun’s influence over the student movement has waned. The anti-American furor that swept the country last year has lost its momentum. Signs of “Americans not allowed” have disappeared from storefronts, and the scuffles between U.S. soldiers and students are nowhere evident. Seoul is a city where there’s a Starbucks on every block, where parents stress about getting the best English-language tutor for their children, and where students yearn to study abroad at an Ivy League university. It’s difficult to fathom that such antagonism exists between the youth and Uncle Sam. But the most moderate student will echo Hanchongryun’s views, that Kim Jong Il should be admired for his defiance against America. Even popular movies now echo the theme. One, Whistling Princess, depicts the Americans as nefarious villains blocking a star-crossed North-South couple.
Jang Sung Woo is a 24-year-old business student from Yonsei University. Before college, his teachers drilled in him that without the U.S., North Korea would have invaded South Korea and the peninsula would have become one repressive, Communist nation. He remembers drawing anti-Communist posters, playing games where teams could be any color except red. He looked up to Americans until he was recruited into KATUSA, a military program that works with the 37,000 U.S. troops in Seoul. “You would think KATUSA troops would be understanding of the U.S., but after coming out of it, 90 percent of KATUSA felt negative about the U.S. Army,” Woo says. “The sergeants had this ‘America is No. 1’ attitude. One chaplain prohibited us from speaking Korean inside the church. That kind of stuff was not unusual there.”
Along with several friends, Woo guarded the gates of the American military compound when the protests over the two schoolgirls rocked the nation. He says the accidental homicide was one of many crimes committed by U.S. soldiers, many of them never reported, including rapes and other “accidents” on the base. He remembers standing in the front of the gate, preventing protesters from entering the U.S. camp and feeling guilty, feeling that he was on the wrong side. Since then, he has begun reassessing what he learned in high school. “I don’t like Kim Jong Il, but I have not experienced the war so I have a more positive perspective on North Korea,” he says. “They are the same as us. I really think the U.S. is more dangerous because they are more capable of a preemptive attack.”
He is careful to emphasize that he’s not a radical and prefers to stay out of student protests. Still, he feels little reason to be threatened by Kim Jong Il’s regime: “Maybe it is dangerous for North Korea to have nuclear arms. I think, though, when reunification happens, their nukes will be our nukes and give us a higher international standing.”
On Saturday, September 27, South Korean students held a demonstration protesting the possibility of sending 3,000 troops over to aid the U.S. Army in its preemptive war on Iraq. The younger generation largely supported President Roh last winter when he rode the anti-American tide, promising that he had “no intention of kowtowing to the U.S.” Now, at the protest, college students held posters of a businessman being straddled by a prostitute, their faces replaced by those of Bush and Roh.
A rock band played Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and protesters occasionally chanted in English, “Down, down with U.S.A.” Everyone interviewed responded indifferently to the nuclear crisis and said they feared Bush more than Kim Jong Il.
North Korea’s violent crackdowns at home counted for little here. “The U.S. has been giving false propaganda about the North,” said one Catholic university student. “There is no proof that the North commits human rights violations. I think the U.S. is misbroadcasting information about North Korea killing its own people.”
In accordance with the Sunshine Policy, Roh’s administration avoids confronting the harsh realities of starvation and imprisonment in North Korea. The media follow suit. “We don’t really read about the oppression in North Korea. It’s not in the newspapers so we’re not sure what’s going on,” says Jiwon Kim.
In April, the UN Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution calling on the Pyongyang government to give full access to international investigators so they could follow reports of torture in prison camps. South Korea failed to show up for the vote. South Korean officials also discourage the few thousand North Korean defectors from speaking about their harrowing experiences under the regime.
“The media is reluctant to construct Kim Jong Il as a bad person. Instead of an evil, pygmy dictator, he’s portrayed as smart and clever. Even professors are reluctant to speak out because they don’t want to appear too old-fashioned, too Cold War,” Jin Wook Choi says.
Activists who try to denounce Kim Jong Il for human rights violations complain that South Korean government officials have sabotaged their efforts. Human rights activist Norbert Vollertsen, a German, once spent 18 months in Pyongyang working for Doctors Without Borders and witnessed the devastating effects the famine and gulags have had on North Korean citizens. Now residing in South Korea, he complains that he is followed and harassed and says surveillance is so strict, he feels like he is in Pyongyang again.
“The youth are quite interested in human rights issues in Iraq, racism in America. They’re eager to do something and make changes. But when it comes to North Korea, they are so ignorant and uninformed of human rights violations,” Vollertsen says. “When I do college tours, it’s quite shocking because first of all they don’t want to believe my stories. When I showed them pictures of children starving, they thought the pictures were from Dachau or Auschwitz. They didn’t want to believe it was in North Korea. They kept challenging me and saying, ‘Are you sure they’re starving and dying? Are you sure you’re a doctor?’ ”
Experts and activists, like Vollertsen, claim North Korean agents steer groups such as Hanchongryun, newsrooms, even Roh’s administration. But Yoo denies that Hanchongryun has official ties to North Korea, and is quick to defend the country. “Everywhere in the world, there are prisons. North Korea is nothing special,” Yoo says, with a sigh. “But if there are human rights problems, then Hanchongryun will help them.”
Yoo once had ambitions of being a counselor. Now that the police are looking for him, he realizes his future is limited. He’s preoccupied with recruiting more students to Hanchongryun, graduating, and not getting caught. Asked what he wants for a career, he pauses and says, “I’ll worry about that after reunification.”