Sat, 29 Mar 2003

The line between dissent and subversion Shim Jae Hoon The Korea Herald Asia News Network Seoul

Che Guevara has been dead and forgotten for decades, but South Korea is probably the only industrial nation where his dream of permanent revolution has refused to die among a waning group of university radicals. Their declining ranks cling desperately to the idea that Yankee imperialists are the root of all evil in society; they advocate removal of U.S. troops as a shortcut to reunification. It is this innocent worldview that guides the student radical movement called Hanchongnyon, or the Federation of Korean University Student Councils.

But it may now be standing before some significant changes. In the last decade of democratic rule, campus radicalism has slowly -- but surely -- dissipated. More democracy, it has proven to be the case, is the best cure against radicalism.

In place of flame-throwing students, the vanguard for social and political changes has been taken over by unionists, teachers, journalists, and above all, politicians. Even government workers belong to trade unions, and they have just opposed Seoul's sending a battalion of army engineers to help the U.S. war in Iraq. Such is the pace of democratization and open government.

Quite rightly, President Roh Moo-hyun wants to push ahead with more political reform, suggesting that courts should consider decriminalizing Hanchongnyon activists who are sympathetic to North Korea. It's a move that could bring some far-reaching changes to Korean society in favor of a greater degree of pluralism and tolerance. It's a development we should all welcome without reservation.

Specifically, Roh has directed the Justice Ministry to ask for a review of the Supreme Court's 1998 ruling outlawing Hanchongnyon as an anti-state organization for its support of Pyongyang's position on reunification.

That judgment rests on its members' endorsing the North Korean communist party's program defining U.S. troops in the South as occupational forces propping up a colonial regime. The organization also supports the North's political system of the so-called "people's democracy."

Most of this is hot rhetoric of campus politics. Hanchongnyon never achieved the force of the Baader-Meinhoff group in pre- unification West Germany, where its violent rallies sometimes extended to bank robbery, kidnapping and murder.

Hanchongnyon has mostly been a political issue, if a complex one linked to North Korea's subversion tactics. To the South Korean government, however, it has posed the question of how to deal with an organization dedicated to overthrowing a free society. So far, state prosecutors have refrained from jailing activist members for lengthy periods of time, if they wrote statements forswearing the revolutionary overthrow of society. In essence, the law-enforcement officers haven't overlooked their status as students with idealistic motivation.

But this arrangement hasn't helped in curbing an increase in the number of university students with rap sheets. After authoritarian rule, South Korea has produced an alarming number of people with records of political crimes; National Intelligence Service, the secret police agency, holds dossiers on several million people, just as Stasis of East Germany did to keep watch over dissidents.

Now that he's ending the political surveillance, perhaps President Roh should re-examine and order these files to be destroyed, not only to end the police hunt on 179 Hanchongnyon leaders, but to redefine and legitimize what is an acceptable form of dissent as an expression of free society.

After the demise of Soviet communism and adoption of an open economy by China, North Korea's potential to subvert South Korean society has considerably weakened.

Indeed, the death from famine of up to two million people in the North, coupled with a rising number of defectors, has sobered and restrained the left-wing community in the South.

Now is the time for the court to reflect this sense of change in our security environment to widen our democracy frontier without compromising public safety and order. Hanchongnyon has been marginalized enough as a threat to public security; it is fast becoming politically irrelevant as social intermediary groups such as advocacy groups take over political activism.

In order for the court to start reviewing its earlier decision on Hanchongnyon, however, it appears essential for the group to officially renounce the platform of violent struggle and reject fealty to North Korea's state ideology of juche (the personality cult of the Kim dynasty and anti-foreign reunification formula).

It's in their own interest for Hanchongnyon leaders to make a wise choice and see North Korea's Stalinism for what it is: An anachronism whose time has passed.