[Viewpoint] No longer political martyrs

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[Viewpoint] No longer political martyrs

It was one quirky twist after another in the saga of the scandalous house feud of the fledgling, liberal Unified Progressive Party. Lee Jung-hee, a co-chair from the mainstream faction, fell stunningly from stardom among liberals while once-forgotten politician Rhyu Si-min, another co-chair from the smaller faction, staged a strong comeback with his “heroic” performance at the violence-ridden party congregation. Rhyu was seen trying desperately to protect his female co-partner Sim Sang-jeong even as his glasses were slapped away and hair grabbed by an angry mob from the pro-mainstream faction raiding a party convention to dismiss proportional candidates and leadership culpable for the vote-rigging scandal.

A former welfare minister under the last administration and considered the most outspoken among the political lineage of late President Roh Moo-hyun, Rhyu once confessed in a private gathering: “I have also been treated as the outlandish one. But in this progressive party, I feel strangely sane.”

The UPP, dominated by the so-called Gyeonggi Dongbu Alliance, which sprouted from a pro-North Korean student activist group, may have been so bizarre it made it possible to portray brash Rhyu and farmer-turned-politician Kang Ki-kab, notorious for his violent attempts to block the Korea-U.S. free trade deal, as the genteel breed.

The Gyeonggi Dongbu may have been naive to walk into the trap of the more experienced and shrewd politician. Rhyu graciously turned down the large faction’s offer to field him as their presidential candidate and instead insisted that the party meeting be open to the public and Internet broadcasting. As a result, the entire society was able to watch the Gyeonggi Dongbu members run as wild as cult followers.

During the military regime, their fervent resistance may have been better understood and applauded. But we no longer live under a dictatorship. Violent clashes and foul election moves against their fellow members are suicidal for the liberal camp. If they have deluded themselves into believing that the party is above the people, they have been oblivious to how wise the public has become over the years.

The Gyeonggi Dongbu is suspected of having an ulterior motive for releasing the stampede of hot-headed students into the party meeting. They wanted to protect files on the party members and the secretariat from falling into the wrong hands. They feared their members would be hounded by law enforcement officials if their files were handed over.

If the secretariat office that oversees accounting and finance management of the party is absorbed by another faction, it feared its illegal acts committed over the last eight years may be exposed. Their skeletons - bogus member names and proxy payment - would be let out of the closet. Instead of defendants of conscience, they could be stigmatized as criminals of corrupt offenses like embezzlement and breach of duty.

The Gyeonggi Dongbu stigma has become a scarlet letter. But law enforcement may not be the solution. In 1986, three law students at Seoul National University were arrested, accused for underground activities in breach of the National Security Law that bans any sympathizing, praising and associating with North Korea.

Intelligence officers under the military regime were notorious for abusing the security law to suppress and torture dissident activists and anti-government politicians. Kim Young-hwan and Ha Young-ok were among the three who endured a brutal, incessant probe. Kim insisted that he authored the manifesto praising North Korea’s founding juche (self-reliance) ideology. But the intelligence officers continued to persecute him to name the masterminds behind their pro-North Korea organization.

The traumatic experience in the torture room turned them into ardent pro-North Korea activists. They led and formalized the underground student group into Minhyukdang, an outlawed political party openly praising North Korean ideology. Their trajectory can suggest how to approach the Gyeonggi Dongbu controversy. Kim secretly entered North Korea twice to meet with the country’s founder and supreme leader Kim Il Sung. Kim, however, was shocked to learn that the North’s founding father, who invented the so-called juche ideology, did not understand the essential concept behind the dogma. Since then activists of SNU disagreed with North Korea’s supreme dictatorship.

Ha turned himself in after advising Kim to turn over the money and contacts to Pyongyang. Pro-North Korea followers found new harbors in less respectable university campuses.

Their third peer under the surname Park is an acting lawyer. He was the third founding member of the Minhyukdang who agreed to disband the party. He turned himself in and is now an expert in international lawsuits. I talked to him over the phone after some difficulty.

When I asked him about the controversy at the UPP, he declined to speak his mind. He only said, “It is true the people in hot waters are those I associated with in the past. I hope they will better adapt to our society and earn public support,” before abruptly cutting off the conversation to return to his work.

On the turf of ideology and dogma, it may be better to exercise tolerance than outright criticism. They are no longer martyrs of underground activism. They have seen the daylight after more than 20 years spent underground. They should be granted more time to get used to the rays of common sense and reason.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Chul-ho
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