Ideals and ordeals of a fugitive’s wifeAt a time when most young Koreans are busy pursuing money, love and leisure, a small group of passionate activists remains committed to high ideals while running from the law.
Hwang Sun has even spent time in jail for publishing a book about her illegal 90-day trip to North Korea that the government considered “pro-North Korean”.
But her 26-month sentence was nothing compared to the seven years she has endured while her husband, Yoon Gi-jin, 30, has been a fugitive. Yoon is a leader of Hanchongryun, which believes unification should be achieved ultimately by the efforts of the people. Their agenda includes expelling U.S. troops from Korea. They also support the North’s idea of a federated Korea before its full unification.
The organization has held rallies and demonstrations for years, often violently clashing with riot police. After a particularly violent demo in 1996, which lasted over a week, the Supreme Court ruled the organization illegal. The government said the student actions were excessive and unnecessary given that the nation is no longer under dictatorial rule, and thus classified Hanchongryun as "benefiting the enemy" under the South's notorious National Security Law.
It may seem odd that the Roh Moo-hyun government, like the Kim Dae-jung government before it, would be pursuing these activists. After all, the two recent administrations have been led by former pro-democracy activists and are known for pushing exchanges and reconciliation with North Korea.
However, a key difference is that the Roh administration still views the U.S. as an important ally. “Hanchongryun’s ideal state is independence without foreign help or troops stationed in Korea,” said Kim Gyu-cheol, the head of Unification Solidarity, the biggest civic group focused on the North-South issue.
Despite pressure from the government, several student bodies remain dedicated to Hanchongryun’s cause, and argue that it should be made legal again. Other student councils have pulled out, saying it has become too political and pro-North.
Because it is so easy to end up on the government’s wanted list, civic groups say 600 students become new political fugitives every year. Most are pardoned after they "sign out" on a note promising never to be involved in such activities again, although some actually serve jail time.
Yet others, like Hwang and Yoon, are true believers who plan to stick to their ideals until the government repeals the National Security Law, and in the long run, until the two Koreas unite.
In 1999 when Yoon was elected to lead the group, prosecutors immediately added him to the wanted list. Since then he has hopped from one school to another, outrunning the authorities. He was spotted at times participating in Hanchongryun-led activities such as celebrating the anniversary of the June 15 North-South Joint Declaration or at protests against U.S. policy on North Korea.
“I am sure people had their reasons [for giving in,] but my husband has come too far to stop now," Hwang said. "Activism was what he believed in. You can't take away what someone believes."
Staying true to those beliefs is not without sacrifices.
Her husband only calls using pay phones, and hangs up after one minute. It was in these short conversations that she recently learned he was suffering from chronic stomach pain, and he heard about their baby daughter’s first birthday.
Meanwhile, intelligence officers have harassed her parents and in-laws for years, asking where her husband was hiding. Her sister-in-law was even fired from work after an intelligence officer visited her boss. "They would talk as if my husband had committed the most serious crime,” she said.
Hwang agreed to discuss the situation with a reporter only if the meeting was held away from where she lives with her in-laws in northeastern Seoul. “With a son that has been on the run for seven years, these folks don't welcome strangers hanging around their house," she said.
“A lot of people tell me that I should ask him to turn himself in for the family," she said. "They say he should be pardoned soon because he was not actually a criminal and North--South relations are getting better. But neither of us wants that. That's like denying your conscience.”
For Hwang, it was plain curiosity that led her to study what she calls “leftist ideas.” Initially a literature student, she soon “realized that some things are very wrong, and you want to change that,” she said.
The couple first met in 1994 when Mr. Yoon entered Myungji University. Campus activism was still common then, and student councils often organized anti-government rallies. Mr. Yoon became a member of the student council, naturally making him part of Hanchongryun, because the group was originally a coalition of student bodies from colleges around the country.
Ms. Hwang was also a member of Hanchongryun. She said her first impression of him was a "strong man who pursued what he thought was right." She called him her mental comrade.
“These days, students are more concerned about jobs, but it was still very natural for students to become activists when we went to school," she said.
But Ms. Hwang, now 32 years old, was definitely not like ordinary students. When she was a senior in Duksung Woman's University, she was was chosen to secretly visit the North. When she returned, police were waiting for her at the border, and she was sentenced to 26 months in prison.
In 2004, the two secretly married. She said she was worried that this could put her husband in danger. But that has not happened.
However, she has been targeted persistently. Shortly after her release from jail in 2003, she joined a legal civic group as a speech writer, but police arrested her outside her house one day on charges of writing “pro-North Korean” books, she said.
The charges referred to an essay about her 90-day stay in Pyongyang, which is now a popular tract read by student activists. The Supreme Court has yet to rule whether she was guilty of breaking Article Seven of the National Security Law, which bans praising anti-state organizations. But she was detained for few months anyway for other charges such as attending a protest.
“That shows how arbitrary the National Security Law could be," she said. "One could be arrested and detained without a clear explanation."
There are currently a total of 48 people on the run like Mr. Yoon in Korea, according to civic groups.
“Becoming a fugitive is worse than becoming a prisoner," read a joint statement released by 30 legal, political and academic groups last month. It said most students on the run have serious health problems, but cannot visit doctors because once they are off campus ― a traditional safe zone ― police might take them away.
“Regulating someone for ideological reasons is a disposition of past governments," said Jang Ju-yeong from Lawyers for a Democratic Society. "Why produce unnecessary fugitives when there are hardly any student activists these days?"
Recently, Ms. Hwang was able to meet her husband at a ceremony held during this year's Liberation Day festival. For four days, North and South Koreans celebrated the 60th anniversary of independence together. It was like the event Ms. Hwang attended several years ago in Pyeongyang. However, this time no arrests were made.
Ms. Hwang spotted her husband standing with other pro-unification activists. “I held his hands and asked if he was okay," she said. He nodded, before disappearing again into the crowd. She now has to wait for his next phone call.
by Lee Min-a