From the shadows into the spotlightYoung conservatives are not political novelties, but they are often viewed with skepticism. After all, why would a twentysomething want to be like his parents, or, even worse, his grandparents? Despite the apparent incongruity, an overlapping of South Korea’s Internet generation and the nation’s war generation can be found on many issues, especially North Korea.
Kim Byoung-chul, who refers to himself as a right-winger, is a member of the Netizens Coalition for Democratic Participation, which supports a hard-line against Pyeongyang. He asks: “Why does the South Korean government try to suppress right- wingers, when it remains so tepid when it comes to the radical left?”
The sentiments of Mr. Kim, 29, are not unlike those of many of the the demonstrators attending an anti-North Korea rally at Seoul City Hall last month. As people are waving the Stars and Stripes under a gigantic banner that says “Bring the traitors to justice,” North Korean flags are being set ablaze, cut to ribbons and trampled on.
For more than three hours, the crowd of 10,000 people shouts in unison, “Bring down pro-North Roh Moo-hyun and the unforgivable dictator Kim Jong-il to save North Koreans.” Some even cry for blood: “Kill ’em all!”
When the fusillades of angry exhortations die down, the muffled roar of a competing protest a few blocks away reminds the crowd that their opposition has them in its sights. The leftist student group, Hanchongryun, is also rallying for peace but they see America as a bellicose nation full of dangerous mischief, not as a protector and ally.
The groundswell of conservatism in Korea cannot be dismissed as the latest social fad; the right is built on cadres of true believers who have come forth as Seoul’s 50-year alliance with Washington appears in jeopardy, under withering attack from the left -- a confident left at that.
Korea’s liberals are highly credentialed, having led the long struggle against military rule and for democracy. They have joined ranks with unions to support workers’ rights, fair treatment for rural regions and, most recently, protection of the environment. It counts numerous martyrs for its causes.
The left has a way of grabbing the headlines, noisily vocal in their proclamations and not shying away from the use of violence, they are masters at attracting media attention. Little wonder the right, whose most storied exploits date back to the Korean War, is overshadowed. But the August rally shows they are learning from their foes. It also indicates a sharpening rift in Korean society.
Lee Jong-bun, 64, who escaped from North Korea during the war, is one of those waving an American flag. “I could not just sit idle at home,” Ms. Lee says. “I thought I had to do something before South Korea is eaten up by communism.”
Song Ho-keun, a sociology professor at Seoul National University, categorizes Koreans into two groups -- young and anti-American and elderly and anti-North Korean. “The radical difference in the two groups’ viewpoints is the most noticeable aspect of Korean society at the moment,” Mr. Song says.
While Mr. Song’s observation is correct, further analysis shows that the geriatric right is being invigorated by an influx of people for whom the Korean War is only a lesson in history textbooks. At the rally these young conservatives are in perfect sync with their older cohorts, roaring, “Knock down the pro-North Korean and anti-American groups.” They rip apart a life-size portrait of Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, and set fire to the pieces.
One of the groups attending the demonstration, the Solidarity of Young Right Wingers, shows how young conservatives are refuting perceptions about Korea’s youth. Choi Yong-ho, 30, who runs the organization, says, “Not every single young man in this country is pro-Roh Moo-hyun, anti-American and pro-North Korean. That is why I formed this online group, which has attracted many members.”
Mr. Choi says his organization, established in January this year, has more than 2,300 registered members. According to Mr. Kim of the Netizens Coalition, there are 10 online organizations in South Korea supporting conservative causes.
Lee Myong-jae, 24, says he is not only happy but proud to take part in the rally. Mr. Lee, who has dyed bright yellow hair reaching to his shoulders, explains how history has motivated him. “My grandfather slew more than 30 partisans with his bamboo spear after the war in search and destroy missions in the South. I guess it’s my turn to show something.”
Standing next to Mr. Lee is Lee Bo-ram, the picture of hip-hop, wearing a baggy Nike T-shirt, jeans and sneakers.
“I held back during the Kim Dae-jung administration, which looked like a passing whim. After Roh Moo-hyun took office, however, I changed my attitude. Something is wrong with this society and somebody like me should rise against the left wingers.” He says his friends were considering joining him at future rallies.
Another protester, a fashionable young woman in exquisite make-up and stiletto heels, who is accompanied by a male friend, says, “I hate those student activists, they are mere puppets of North Korea. Why don’t they just go to the North and greet their Dear Leader?”
As the City Hall rally reaches its climax, members of the Netizens’ Coalition for Democratic Participation climb upon the stage. They are led by Lee Jun-ho, 33, and Kim Byoung-chul, 29, who started the group during the Kim Dae-jung administration, with the motto “Smash those commies down.” With Shin Hye-sik, a reporter for the Digital Independent, a conservative Internet newspaper, they cry out, “Let’s eradicate the leftwing from eating up this country of freedom.”
As they lead the crowd in denunciations of the left and North Korea, volunteers pass out leaflets inviting new members. The flyers contain bank account numbers for donations.
After his voice grows hoarse, Mr. Shin rejoins the crowd. Many elderly war veterans press forward to shake his hand.
“This is incredibly encouraging,” says Noh Byung-rye, 81, commenting on the comity that bridges several generations.
“There are still young fellows who are saner in mind. Before this rally, I thought every single young man in this country was pro-Roh Moo-hyun and anti-American,” Mr. Noh says.
The rally drew attention. If the intention was to show the right could unsettle the powers that be, then their success extended all the way to Pyeongyang. The day after the rally, North Korea cancelled its team’s participation in the Summer Universiade Games. After an apology by Roh Moo-hyun for the protest, they agreed to let their athletes take part in the Daegu event. Right wingers condemned Mr. Roh’s actions, calling him a traitor.
To show their displeasure with the decision, members of the Netizens Coalition tried to rip up a North Korean flag in front of the Blue House, but were arrested. They held a press conference in Daegu, denouncing North Korea, which ended in a scuffle with the North Korean press.
Mr. Kim of the Netizens coalition, however, is ambivalent about the word “conservative.” “We are progressives, not those radical student activists, who refuse to move forward with the changing times. They are as stubborn as rocks.”
According to Ahn Sang-jeong, a spokesman for the conservative Grand National Party, these rocks do not represent the dominant view. “In the past, minority groups of leftists posed as the representatives of the young, with the majority remaining silent,” he says. “After the Roh Moo-hyun government came to power, promoting clashes between the left and the right, however, the silent majority started to voice its opinion. The young conservatives surfaced, who we hope will correct the distorted image of the conservative.”
Lee Yun-ho, a 24-year-old student, says that he agrees the left has been truculent in their quixotic pursuits. Speaking of Hanchongryun, he says, “Those leftists should abandon their illusion with communism, a failed ideology, and stop acting like they are the representatives of all college students in this country.”
The Netizens Coalition held another rally last Friday in downtown Seoul. The group’s leaders say the assault will continue “until the North Korean dictatorship falls and South Korea is clean, without any commies.”
For this former student leftist, North Korea no longer a beacon
“If you are not a socialist in your 20s, you have no heart. If you are still a socialist in your 30s, you have no brain.” According to this adage, Lee Gwang-baek, 34, has both heart and brain.
As a leader of a student activist group, Mr. Lee spent his 20s in symbolic protest: He shunned Big Macs and Cokes. Mr. Lee, however, was recently found in an Italian restaurant, visibly pleased with his seafood spaghetti, discussing the disillusionment that followed his youthful passion for radicalism.
In 1993, Mr. Lee took initiative in founding Hanchongryun, the leftist student group banned by the Supreme Court five years ago. Now a researcher for the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, he calls the students’ group a gathering of North Korean puppets. For him, North Korea has changed from a nation pursuing an ideal to a deformed society whose innocent people need to be saved from tyranny.
Entering Wonkwang University as a law major in 1989, Mr. Lee gravitated toward the left-wing ideologues of the student government. Raised in a farming family that barely got by, Mr. Lee was no stranger to poverty. Like many of his classmates, he was drawn to the student movement, where radical leftists ruled.
Devotion to his cause meant neglecting his studies. He chose rallies over classes, and in the end was disqualified for graduation. “I did not and still do not care that I did not earn a degree. I am self-taught,” Mr. Lee says.
He made himself a core member of the student movement. He devoured every book on communism he could get his hands on, including the writings of Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea and father of its current leader, Kim Jong-il. “North Korea to me back then was the last ideal communist-led society on earth,” Mr. Lee says, “and Kim Il-sung was our idol. We thought we bore a responsibility to save South Korea from capitalism and American imperialism.”
Student groups enforced a code of conduct among their members, banning things like wearing clothing with English words and eating Western food. By the mid-1990s, Mr. Lee was in charge of Hanchongryun’s policy board and more familiar with the odor of tear gas than the smell of French fries.
Then came a turning point. He began to hear stories, mostly gleaned from the tales of North Korean defectors to the South, that tarnished the image of a worker’s paradise he held in his head. “It was a cruel eye-opener. All those years, I was blind.”
He also became disillusioned with the student movement. Seeing his Hanchongryun comrades refuse to accept some of the things they were hearing about the North, Mr. Lee knew he had to get out, which he did in 1997. His view toward the United States changed as well. Though he does not always agree with U.S. policy and still cannot stomach Big Macs, he says, “Nobody ― student radicals included ― can deny that the United States contributed a lot to humanity.”
His biggest concern is aiding North Koreans and helping South Korean activists see the light. He says, “Student activists still gloss over the failures of their ideology, beautifying North Korea’s regime to win over incoming freshmen. They warp the truth.”
No wonder Mr. Lee’s former comrades consider him a traitor. “When I run into friends still with Hanchongryun, all I feel is awkward silence,” he says.
by Chun Su-jin