[Viewpoint]A college activist comes of ageAs the negotiations for a free trade agreement between Korea and the United States went through their final phase on April 1, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade official Nam Yeong-suk was at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, where the meeting took place. She was in charge of negotiating two divisions of the deal. Although her eyes were heavy, her consciousness was flying across the ocean. “Finally, a free trade agreement will be signed. This can’t be a dream ...,” she thought. Tears from her past ― shed in a jail cell, in front of her friend’s dead body and at a college bookstore in the United States ― flowed in her heart once again.
In the early 1980s, the “daughters of Nam Jae-hui” were the talk of the town among politicians and student activists. Mr. Nam was a journalist who was elected to a National Assembly seat as a Republican Party lawmaker under the Yusin regime in 1978. In 1981, he became an assemblyman representing the Democratic Justice Party, the ruling party under the Chun Doo-hwan Administra-tion. Regardless of its reputation, he joined the authoritarian government twice with conviction. In the Democratic Justice Party, he served as the chairman of the policy coordination committee. His daughters were as stubborn and strong-willed as Nam. However, they chose to stand on the other side of the river.
The daughters joined student movements and clashed with the dictatorship, one after another. The older one, Hwa-suk, who was a history student at Seoul National University, was arrested for having participated in anti-government protests in 1981. Two years later, Yeong-suk, the second daughter who was studying economics at Korea University, followed in the footsteps of her sister. The daughters of a high-ranking executive were jailed for having protested the Chun Doo-hwan group’s Gwangju massacre. When Mr. Nam told President Chun that he was sorry for his daughters’ behavior, the president responded, “Not even parents can have their way with children.”
When Yeong-suk was a senior in high school, she was exposed to books on social awareness such as “National Economics” by Professor Park Hyeon-chae and “A Little Ball Launched by a Dwarf” by Jo Se-hui. They were about the capitalism and imperialism that neglected the poor and poor countries.
When Yeong-suk entered Korea University in 1980, she joined a social science club called the “National Love Society,” a predecessor to the “Modern Philosophy Society.” The level of her reading deepened day by day, and she was immersed in the commentary of Karl Marx’s “Capital” and leftist economic texts in Japanese. At first, she despised the Gwangju massacre and Chun Doo-hwan, but as she continued reading and discussing, she came to hate capitalism and American imperialism.
Some of the male members of the club were forced to join the military. In 1983, one of her best friends came home from his service in a body bag. The friend was said to have shot himself with an M-16 rifle after being betrayed by his girlfriend. Yeong-suk recalls that she knew the girlfriend very well, and she was faithful. Yeong-suk graduated from college in 1984 and went to the United States to study with her husband. When she first visited the bookstore at the Indiana State University, she shed tears. “We had to play hide and seek just to read controversial books that might be banned by the government. I found all of those books on the shelves as textbooks. I cried because I felt sad for my dead friend, for all the fellow members of the club and for the time we were locked away.”
She was grateful to have the opportunity to study abroad and she wanted to make up for the time that she was deprived of knowledge. For these reasons and for the memory of her dead friend, she studied fervently.
Upon receiving a Ph.D. from Stanford, Yeong-suk came out to the broader world, working for the International Labor Organization and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.
As time went by, she realized how narrow were the leftist economic theories that she spent night after night discussing with the club members in college. Yeong-suk says, “As I researched the development projects of individual nations, I came to understand that what saves a nation is not an ideology, but a realistic policy.”
When she opens her window at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, she can hear the shouts from the City Hall plaza. They are voices cursing the free trade agreement between Korea and the United States. Some belonged to some fellow activists from her darkest days in the 1980s. They might still be protesting on the street, calling an FTA “another way of betraying the country.”
Having experienced the broader world, Yeong-suk is flying high, but those opposing the FTA are locked in the cage of ideology. Which voice will bring the light of the future to the country?
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin
More in Columns
A new epicenter of social conflict
Lessons from a president
Tales of Chairman Lee
Chinese way of tackling challenges
Time to step up climate action