For an ideal world, a life of isolationOne sunny afternoon in May 1997, watching a fellow student die, Yoo Young-up accepted the mission of changing the world.
Mr. Yoo was president of the student body at Mokpo National University. He was among the leaders of a street demonstration in Gwangju, South Jeolla province, demanding that President Kim Young-sam disclose details of the election budget. He was fighting for democracy. But when the tear gas cleared, Mr. Yoo was told that a student had collapsed and been taken to a nearby hospital.
In the emergency room, he found Ryu Jae-eul, a sophomore of Chosun University, lying on a bed with his vital signs stopped. To Mr. Yoo’s eyes, it was obvious that Mr. Ryu had died in the course of excessive suppression by the riot police. As the dying student’s parents wailed, Mr. Yoo dropped to his knees. He could not look at the face of death. He felt guilty for not keeping his comrade safe. Until that moment, his ambition was to be a diplomat, to work for student welfare, his maximum demand more coffee machines on campus. Now he knew that the world was his calling. His vehicle was Hanchong-ryun, the student activist group.
That spring, a number of Hanchongryun members, including the group’s president, were seized by police. Mr. Yoo volunteered to fill the vacant post as acting president. That landed him on the police wanted list. Leadership in Hanchongryun defined him as a subversive, for the group is officially classified as an anti-government group siding with the enemy, North Korea.
Mr. Yoo, 28, is now the longest-wanted Hanchongryun fugitive, a marked man since May 30, 1997. For six years he has roamed the peninsula, playing hide-and-seek with the police. It is not an easy life, living out of a backpack, sleeping on the streets with an empty stomach. He kept a daily journal for a while, but abandoned it when he realized that it could serve as evidence against others. He has been in almost every city on the peninsula. The one exception is his hometown, Mokpo, South Jeolla province, where he is registered as missing, his citizenship canceled.
“In other words,” Mr. Yoo says, “the person Yoo Young-up does not exist in this world anymore. It’s like I evaporated.”
The world has not changed. Only Mr. Yoo’s life has changed.
For the past five months, Mr. Yoo’s life has settled, after a fashion, on the Yonsei University campus in northwestern Seoul. He has opened a sort of public headquarters for fellow fugitives. On the door to his shelter hangs a sign that says, “This is the office of the wanted Hanchongryun members. This office should be abolished as soon as possible.” He chose Yonsei for a rather superstitious reason. “The Roh Tae-woo administration once released wanted student activists hiding on the Yonsei campus,” he says. “I hope that could happen one more time.”
His hopes rose in February with the inauguration as president of Roh Moo-hyun, a human-rights lawyer and social activist. A little dance of reconciliation seemed to have begun, with Hanchongryun last year amending its platform, removing the parts that sided with North Korea, and Mr. Roh suggesting a reconsideration of the National Security Law, under which the organization is banned. The minister of justice, Kang Geum-sil, started a public debate by proposing the exoneration of the fugitive Hanchongryun members. Things seemed to be moving in a direction that would allow Mr. Yoo to return to some semblance of a life.
Then, five days apart, two things happened that dashed his hopes. On May 13, the Supreme Court sentenced last year’s Hanchongryun president to two years’ imprisonment under the National Security Law. “Hanchong-ryun still defines our society as a colony of American imperialism, leaning to the course of the anti-government group, North Korea,” the court said. “We thus have no choice but to conclude Hanchongryun to be a group that profits the enemy.” The decision was out of step with the Roh administration’s drift, but as a statement of the law from Korea’s highest judicial authority it is conclusive.
On May 18 Hanchongryun brought down public condemnation upon itself. The group challenged President Roh, blocking his attempt to pay honor to those who gave their lives to the democracy movement at the Gwangju democracy monument and berating him for what the students felt was toadyism during his trip to the United States. The president has turned his back on Han-chongryun, and police have renewed their campaign to round up the wanted students. The number of Hanchongryun fugitives has dropped from 176 to 162.
Mr. Yoo seems unfazed by this turn for the worse. “It was the same with the former Kim Dae-jung administration, seemingly the symbol of human rights,” he says. “More than 200 Hanchongryun members were taken in while he was preparing his speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Meanwhile, he feels safe on the university campus. “It’s usually the safest place to hide,” he said. But not perfectly safe. Police entered Changwon National University in South Gyeongsang province last month and dragged some activists out of their refuge there. The students have heard that a policeman who catches a Hanchong- ryun member is promised prize money and a three-jump promotion. “The police were eager to catch me,” Mr. Yoo says. “They even visited my bedridden father and said, ‘Surely you want to see your son before you die.’ ”
Jang Yoo-sik, a lawyer and member of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, says, “This issue is a matter of human rights. The wanted students are growing physically weak. It does nothing but darken the future of this country. It is cruel as well as absurd to treat a Hanchong- ryun member as a violator of the National Security Law without any concrete evidence.”
Mr. Yoo shares his Yonsei sanctuary with several other wanted students. They eke out a meager living on money sent by parents and friends. The tiny room is cluttered with laundry hanging from the ceiling and unkempt piles of communal T-shirts and bedclothes. A first-aid box, toothbrushes and phone numbers of affordable delivery restaurants are scattered about. It’s better than some places he has stayed, Mr. Yoo says, with shower rooms, laundry facilities, Ping-Pong tables and a cafeteria available in the student center. In the center, however, Mr. Yoo, in his shorts and blue rubber slippers, stands out among the throngs of gregarious, carefree students.
Mr. Yoo keeps busy with daily routines. On a recent Tuesday, a group of parents of other wanted Hanchongryun members drop by. Then he has a rendezvous with a Burmese social activist, Bo Kyl, who tells him the Burmese government once massacred student activists hiding on campus with dynamite. The mother of another fugitive, Kim Seong-ok, whispers, “Good thing that the Korean police at least for now are not likely to dynamite this building.” Mr. Yoo remains silent.
His cell phone rings, and his wariness shows. He listens quietly for several seconds before demanding sharply, “Who’s this?”
Yoo Young-up was not born to be an outsider. The elder son of farmers, he entered Mokpo National University as an English literature major in 1994. Like many students, he found his idealism quickening. “I was drawn to the modern history of Korea, full of grassroots resistance against the dictatorships,” he says. “I thought it would be great if I could be of service to the course of history.”
His choice has not been easy for his family. “I want to see my grandson” were his grandmother’s last words on her deathbed. But Mr. Yoo felt it was too risky to visit his grandmother, or to attend her funeral. His father, Yoo Tae-jong, 61, has been bedridden since a cerebral hemorrhage brought on when, riding a bicycle, he mistook a stranger for his son, and reached out and fell.
Lee Bok-soon, 63, Mr. Yoo’s mother, does not understand why her cherished son is in such big trouble. “It’s not that my son committed some serious crime,” she says. “He did neither harm to anybody nor good to North Korea. He’s just fighting for others, for have-nots like his own parents.” Ms. Lee says the police have tapped their phone line, threatened family members and ransacked the house at night. The police and prosecutors say that they have to abide by their legal responsibilities. “We have no choice but to do our jobs properly,” says a source at Supreme Public Prosecutors office.
Several times, Mr. Yoo was nearly caught. “One time, I had to go to a small clinic for my severe back problem,” he says. “I came across a riot policeman who was checking passers-by. I just pretended that I was on the verge of passing out. He forgot about checking my identification card and took me to a clinic.”
The hardest part, says the man who wanted to save the world, is the isolation he feels from it. “I sometimes feel that it’s only me who is staying behind the times, remaining at the same status quo, while others are moving forward.” But Mr. Yoo insists that he has no regrets. “I still firmly believe that student activists can change the world, by taking care of those without, of the disabled and the minorities,” he says.
Not that he is doing any care-taking at present. He can’t, he says, because of his fugitive status. He spends his days meeting with his activist friends or buried deep in reading. He remains committed to what he calls “true democracy” and to Korea’s independence from “foreign powers,” meaning the United States. He is guarded on the subject of North Korea. “Because I belong to Hanchongryun, people tend to manipulate what I say about North Korea, no matter what I truly intend to say.”
Many times, Mr. Yoo has considered turning himself in and quitting the refugee life. With good behavior, he would likely serve less than two years. “But if I give in now,” he says, “the authorities would think that they are doing the right thing, which could not be further from the truth. That’s why I’m lingering on like this.”
Mr. Yoo turns 30 next January. He is still a college student facing mandatory military service. He long ago gave up the dream of being a diplomat. He now envisions himself, of all things, as a capitalist. “If the day ever comes that I am freed from the wanted list,” he says, “I will start up my own small company.” But he will still engage in social activism, as in environmental movements.
His life is not over before it has begun, he insists. He suggests that there are ways to reconcile the students and the government. It should start, he says, with taking students off the wanted list. “Hanchongryun has had time to reflect on itself by now,” he says. “To keep up with the changing times, we are trying to make progress; for example, we want to avoid violence in demonstrations.”
He would like to be home for his 30th birthday, eating homemade birthday food, sea kelp soup, miyeokguk, with his family. “It is, after all, a matter of a life and death for students like me,” Mr. Yoo says. “It would not hurt too much to ask for a little more leniency and flexibility.”
“I would continue to pursue my own way of social activism in a practical way,” he says. “This society still favors only the haves. You do not necessarily have to be tilting at a windmill like Don Quixote to change the world. And after all these years, I still believe that I can change the world.”
A movement forged in earnest
Hanchongryun was established in 1992 on a platform advocating democracy and Korean reunification. It is the biggest nationwide student organization, registered at about 170 member universities. The group emphasizes national independence, condemning dependence on foreign powers like the United States. Until the platform was revised last year it did strike some pro-North Korean themes. For example, it called for reunification in a “federation” ― Pyeongyang’s preference ― rather than a “confederation” ― Seoul’s formula. A source at the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office says, “We have hard evidence that Hanchongryun members have exchanged fax messages with their North Korean counterparts, more than hundreds of times.”
In 1996, the group gave itself a bad name by illegally occupying the Yonsei University campus. It held its ground against the riot police for 10 days. Remembered as the Yonsei Incident, the tug-of-war between armed riot police and student activists cost about 2 billion won ($1.7 million) in damage to the school. More than 20,000 riot policemen were mobilized, along with 23 helicopters, to take on more than 2,000 students. The next year, the Supreme Court defined Hanchongryun as an organization whose penchant for violence benefited the enemy and found it in violation of the National Security Law by siding with North Korea.
Consequently, any student who takes a leadership position in the student body of a Hanchongryun-registered university automatically falls under suspicion of violating the National Security Law. This has been criticized as amounting to a crime of status or belief, independent of behavior or action.
After the summit talks of the two Koreas in 2000, Hanchongryun began to amend its pro-North Korean orientation. The pro-North Korea clause that was removed last year was replaced by the phrase, “We follow the ideas of the June 15 Joint Declaration,” the summit communique. In April, Jeong Jae-uk, the current Hanchongryun president, said he was trying to transform the group’s structure to accommodate a broader range of views from all college students with a view to having the organization legalized.
Jang Yoo-sik, a lawyer and member of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, sees some hope from these recent movements. “It is quite encouraging that Hanchong-ryun is trying to resuscitate itself,” he says. “It is all in the hands of the government ― whether it will take a bold, positive step for a brighter future or continue to linger in the dark past.”
(Excerpts from the revised version)
Hanchongryun is an independent group of Korean university students moved by patriotism, initiated by grassroots forces and fellow students, based on the ideology of unity.
1. We keep our country free from unjust political, military and cultural domination of foreign powers like the United States, to realize independent democracy in the truest sense.
2. We firmly unite with all patriotic grassroots forces such as laborers and farmers.
3. We oppose all ideological and cultural plunder from the imperialistic culture that boosts consumption and manipulates individualism and submission to the stronger powers.
4. We oppose every element of segregation, repression and inhumane treatment of women, the disabled and sexual minorities, both on campus and in society. By doing so, we guarantee their human rights and realize their independent demands. We also try to bequeath a beautiful land and reunified nation to our descendants, keeping the environment safe from the destruction arising from the use of capital.
by Chun Su-jin