Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

South Koreans Feel Lure of North

Unhappiness with government, Western culture, unequal wealth boosts North Korea's appeal. STUDENT RADICALISM

PLAINCLOTHES police lurk around the campus of Dongguk University and scour nearby boarding houses, searching for Park Chang Su. The alleged crime of this 21-year-old senior? Organizing the illegal production of ``Sea of Blood,'' a North Korean play. Twenty minutes into the play's opening performance in early September, some 2,500 riot police stormed the campus, firing tear gas. After battling their way past firebomb-wielding radical students, the police stripped the stage of props and equipment.

Korean culture is ``dying out,'' corrupted by Westernization and ``American cultural imperialism,'' says the clean-cut Mr. Park, in a clandestine interview later last month. Only in communist North Korea can we find ``our traditional culture uninfluenced by foreign cultures,'' he says, explaining why they chose the drama.

About these ads

From the writings of North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung to pirate videos of North Korean films, students on campuses all across the South are eagerly drinking up the forbidden emanations from the North.

While some Western pundits watching the rapid changes in the Soviet bloc have declared the end of communism, South Korean youth are embracing romantic visions of socialism.

``I thought Kim Il Sung was only a tyrant and a dictator,'' says Lee Sang Ho, editor of Yonsei Annals, a student paper at the prestigious Yonsei University. ``But recently I read [North Korean] books. Without having support for his ideas, he could not rule the country.''

South Korea is determined to suppress what it labels ``leftist subversion'' on campuses and among trade unions. But its efforts, experts say, are way too late. Even worse, the suppression only makes the lure of the North more enticing to the predominantly antigovernment youth.

``By labeling any antigovernment activity as `left-leaning,' the government has encouraged people to think anything left is good,'' says Dr. Horace Underwood, a Yonsei University administrator and a resident of South Korea for more than 50 years.

At its root, South Korean radicalism is both antigovernment and nationalistic, reflected in harsh feelings toward Japan, Korea's colonizer until 1945, and the US, which is blamed for perpetuating the division of Korea. ``When we criticized America, the government said we were pro-North,'' says student editor Lee.

Reunification of the peninsula, divided since 1945 and in a state of war since 1950, is an emotionally powerful issue for all Koreans. The demand for urgent steps to promote unification with the North became the theme of student protest last year, following the mass uprising in 1987 that produced a democratically elected government.

About these ads

The South Korean government tried to co-opt its radical opponents with a new, more open policy to promote reunification. President Roh Tae Woo announced measures to liberalize contacts with the North, including trade and access to writings.

After this change, a flood of previously banned books, including North Korean literature and commentaries on the ideas of Kim Il Sung, were put out by publishers, some of whom are radical sympathizers. Kim Il Sung's ideology of juche (self-reliance) became widely and openly popular within the student movement.

``Through high school, we were taught that North Korea was a place where only beasts could live,'' says a student activist who wished to remain anonymous. ``Now we realize they are people like us.''

``The myth of North Korea as an enemy has been broken,'' the activist says. ``But we don't have an alternate value system to replace it with.''

Student activists praise the more equal distribution of wealth they believe exists in the socialist North, contrasting it with the capitalist South.

``Students see North Korea as a highly disciplined place where there is no disparity between rich and poor,'' explains Seoul National University Professor Lee In Ho, who teaches courses on Russian history and communism. ``They are fed up with this consumption-oriented culture.''

MS. LEE believes the appeal of juche has its roots in a ``lack of intellectual sophistication.'' Korean students are surprisingly ignorant of the reform movement in the socialist world, for example. A Yonsei student, following the first group visit to China by students this past summer, wrote an article in the student paper expressing dismay at finding what he believed to be a communist society corrupted by disparities of wealth, free markets, and luxury hotels catering to foreigners.

The pro-North sentiment also feeds off a strong tradition of anti-Western nationalism that was ironically inculcated in the 1960s and '70s by the military-dominated regime of Park Chung Hee.

According to activist circles, the student movement is split into two factions. The majority are ``pro-juche'' in their ideology, stressing reunification of the nation as their main goal and dismissing Marxism as a ``Western way of thinking.''

The minority are classical Marxists who believe that ``class struggle'' is the key task, emphasizing support for Korea's militant labor movement. While the majority of students hold more moderate views, these organized factions control the student governments of virtually every major Korean university, activists say.

Taking advantage of the opening created by the Seoul government, dissident political circles sought to advance their own direct approaches to the North. Despite a government policy that insists that all contacts take place under its auspices, prominent dissident Rev. Moon Ik Kwan visited Pyongyang in April, meeting with Kim Il Sung.

The trip caused a major political stir, becoming the justification for a rightward lurch in government policy. The Roh government banned books and arrested publishers whose activities had been legal only months before.

Security forces were massively deployed to block student groups from attending a World Youth Festival in Pyongyang in July, although one female student, Im Soo-kyong, slipped in and received a heroes' welcome there. The Rev. Moon has just been tried and convicted of violating the National Security Law and sentenced to 10 years in prison for his visit. Ms. Im and others involved in these and other visits are also on trial on similar charges.

The government's crackdown has support from most South Koreans, for whom any embrace of North Korean communism is anathema. But many critics believe the government is merely repeating the errors of the past.

When Ms. Lee was teaching her courses on communism in the early 1980s, ``I could not discuss [Friedrich] Engels's writings without being afraid the students would be caught with this in their textbooks.'' Meanwhile, photocopies of Marxist tracts were circulating heavily throughout the underground networks of the student movement. By the time the government made even standard Western textbooks available, ``It was too late to compete.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.