Wishing for warThe success of South Korea’s democratization movement stemmed from the power of going down to the grass roots. Student activists won the hearts of ordinary people through their bold political courage and imagination. Riot police were a fixture on university campuses during the summer of 1981. During a lunch period, leaflets rained down from a window of a humanities department building of Seoul National University. Police immediately stormed the building and arrested students. But they were stupefied by what they found. The leaflets were blank sheets of paper. The crowd of students erupted in laughter. The police retreated in profound shame and embarrassment.
At a military tribunal under one of the emergency decrees of 1974, student activist Kim Hyung-gon was sentenced to death for collaborating in a student uprising against the Park Chung Hee regime. When he was given his final say, he spoke loudly with a smile on his face: “I am honored and grateful that you have given the highest penalty to someone who has done nothing.”
Yoo In-tae, another Seoul National University student, was seated on the same bench awaiting a similar sentence. He was known for being a sleepyhead. His own mother was seen nodding off during the trial that sentenced her son to death. Famous dissident leaders Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Keun-tae all had brushes with death under the tumultuous dictatorial military regimes. Yet they survived and became presidents and political leaders of the country.
That aura of charisma and confidence is absent from Lee Seok-ki of the Unified Progressive Party, who is currently detained by the prosecution on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. Lee comes across as cowardly. He skedaddled when prosecutors raided his office with a search warrant. He hid behind the legislators’ immunity from arrest. Finally he came forward and said he would comply with the investigation.
But in fact, he remained silent. A troop of the 20 best liberal lawyers came to his defense. As the investigation proceeded, hundreds of left-wing followers cheered for him. It was a completely different scene from the democracy movement of the past in which dissidents proudly walked ahead of the police and prosecutors. Lee was garbed in self-indulgence. He was more like the leader of a cult trying to raise a public uproar.
We have to see the evidence and how strong a case the National Intelligence Service has against Lee and his group during the trial. But Lee should remember there is another ongoing public trial. It could very well turn out to be more powerful and lasting than any legal ruling in his case as it involves the sentiment of the public. A Gallup Korea poll found that 61 percent of respondents believe in the conspiracy allegedly plotted by the UPP faction and Lee. Just 12 percent was skeptical of the charges by law enforcement. Lee and his group do not have public confidence on their sides. It’s a bigger and riskier battle to fight against public sentiment than to take on prosecutors in court.
Why has Lee and his UPP group received so little sympathy from the public? First of all, the people have been appalled by their alleged plot of an armed uprising against an elected government. Kim Han-gill, head of the main opposition Democratic Party, claimed they would have “jabbed a knife into the back of our children,” underscoring the level of fury and betrayal even the liberals were feeling. This country values the right to free expression and thought. But that right does not entitle anyone to threaten to destroy our society.
Our people innately feel in debt to the dissidents of the past for their sacrifices in the name of the freedom and democracy we enjoy today. They were beyond average in their morality and convictions. The UPP has wiped out the reputation of the liberals with a tissue of lies. It claims all the charges are a fabrication by the government and NIS. The party said no meeting of the factional group ever took place. Then it amended that claim and said a meeting took place, but the conversations described by the NIS never took place. Then it amended that claim and said the conversations took place - but they were just jokes. The whole mess turned into a distasteful farce.
South Korea achieved industrialization and democratization through blood, sweat and tears. North Korea pulled back into dynastic rule. Yet the liberal group sees patriotism in the North and treason in the South. It has defamed our society. In a recorded conversation, Lee and his group predicted in May that tensions between the two Koreas would develop into war. They approved of this notion.
But most South Koreans knew that North Korea would never go to war without endorsement from China - an endorsement that wouldn’t come. Its young leader Kim Jong-un would lose too much. Despite all the saber-rattling and military tests, life in the South progressed normally. Only Lee’s group lived in its delusion of wishing for war.
The UPP is staking everything to save Lee. We no longer can expect the progressive party to save itself. Fortunately, our society is wise enough to differentiate between democracy and a pro-North Korea campaign. The real trial will be the general elections of 2016. The approval rating for the UPP has fallen to below 1 percent. With ratings like that, no wonder Lee and his group doesn’t like democracy.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho