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Learning about Gwangju at Freshmen Orientation [Understanding the Pro-North Faction – I Was a Follower of Juche – #1]

January 28, 2013

Most are surprised when they first learn that South Korea generally has not taken the lead in talking about the human rights abuses in the North. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the best way to understand it is to hear first-hand the stories of former pro-Juche (주사파) college student activists. Below is the first installment of a monthly NK Vision column, “Understanding the Pro-North Faction – I was a Follower of Juche” (종북주의 해부하기 – 나는 주사파였다). Most of the articles in the series have been written by Lee Kwang Baek, who is now the head of Radio Free Chosun. As in the case of Mr. Lee, many of the founders of NKnet previously had supported North Korea and its Juche ideology.

This column appeared on pages 46-47 in the September 2011 issue of NK Vision magazine. Translation courtesy of NKnet intern Jenni Jung.

Read in Korean

“During the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the pro-North movement was at its largest point and its followers blindly supported the North Korean regime. I would like to share my experiences and shed some light as to why people joined the pro-North movement, their thought processes and actions, and how the movement changed.” –Lee Kwang Baek

Lee Kwang Baek, president of Radio Free ChosunAmong the mid-21st century duties facing all who live on the Korean peninsula, there is one we cannot be exempted from: the reform and democratization of North Korea. For nearly 70 years, the Korean people have been competing with each other while divided in two. While North Korea set up a socialist system founded on principles of group ownership and economic planning, South Korea established a liberal democracy and a market economy. By the late 1980s, the competition was over: South Korea achieved miracle-like economic growth and freed itself from poverty. Its people attained freedom and political empowerment. In contrast, North Korea’s socialist system failed, and three million died of hunger. Socialist ideals collapsed and the North Korean people became the slaves of Kim Jong Il.

Where do we go from here? For now, we need to liberate the 24 million North Koreans who suffer as slaves under the Kim regime, as well as reform and democratize North Korea. Of all the tasks we face, this should be our first priority. If the ideological and foundational differences between the two Koreas were to be reduced via North Korea’s reform and democratization, we could unify the peninsula and carry that energy out into the world. This is the ultimate task that we face in the 21st century. To solve this national problem it is crucial that our people of 74 million, excluding the Kim Jong Il dictatorship itself, collaborate tirelessly. However, the pro-North faction in South Korea continues to abet the Kim Jong Il regime and thwart the solidarity of the 74 million, the democratization of North Korea, and the unification of the peninsula. For these reasons, we must take a vigilant stance against the pro-North faction.

Dealing with the Pro-North Faction: Know Your Enemy

During the Warring States Period, the renowned Chinese general Sun Tzu who served the Wu nation wrote the following piece in his work The Art of War: “If you know your enemies and know yourself, then you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.” To respond effectively to the pro-North faction, we need to fully understand it. There is no need to overestimate or underestimate; first we need to observe and understand the origins of the pro-North movement and assess the status quo. Strategizing should come after.

Academic research plays an important part in understanding the pro-North faction. In addition, listening to former participants of the movement may be just as effective, if not more so. In particular, insiders have valuable insights as they have been exposed to the ideology and spirit of the pro-North movement.

I participated in the pro-North movement during my college years. For nearly a decade, I was part of the revolutionary movement to reform South Korean society along the lines of the North Korean socialist model. During the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the pro-North movement was at its largest point and its followers blindly supported the North Korean regime. I would like to share my experiences and shed some light as to why people joined the pro-North movement, their thought processes and actions, and how the movement changed.

In late February 1989, I went to my college’s freshmen orientation. I wanted to know how to navigate college life. But I can only remember two scenes from that orientation session. One is the “tuition struggle,” and the other is “May in Gwangju.”

In 1988, the government enacted a policy that deregulated college tuition and enrollment fees. This resulted in a tuition struggle that became the main focus for every university student union. The president of the our student union stood on the dais and tied a crimson band on his shaved head. On the band “Unified Resistance” was painted in white. Though he was emaciated and small in frame, his eyes shone sharply. He appealed to us: “School tuition hikes are unjust, let’s fight to stabilize and freeze our tuition fees.” At the time, many college students were from poverty-stricken rural areas. I too had come from a tiny riverbank town in the countryside of the Jeolla province. My parents grew pepper and tobacco on a palm-sized plot and could barely pay my tuition. Why would I ever go against stopping tuition hikes? I was moved by the union presidents’ slogan, “Sold produce to pay for my child’s schooling — what is this tuition hike?” It was also refreshing to see students sharing their opinions on important school policies. I finally felt like I was an adult, and participating felt exhilarating.

Chilling and Haunting: The “May in Gwangju” Footage

The first portion of the orientation session was followed by a short film screening for the freshmen. The image quality was poor and there was a lot of noise. It looked as though it had been copied many times as well, it couldn’t have been the original footage. But I could clearly understand the content. Soldiers struck bare-handed young college students with clubs. Armed with guns, a group of six soldiers stepped on and kicked a student who fell down on the street. The soldiers’ guns were tipped with bayonets. On a large road, many civilians were forced to lie on the ground belly-down in rows, with their hands tied behind their backs. They were like hunted game. Soldiers kept bringing in civilians, ordered them on the road, and tied their hands behind their back. The seniors informed us that the footage was of what occurred in the city of Gwangju in May 1980. I was in utter disbelief.

Gwangju Massacre scene (a still from a video at the recently opened National Museum of Korean Contemporary History)

There were also photos of large sports stadiums and auditoriums. The spaces were filled with many coffins in tidy rows. Next to these coffins covered by the Korean flag, people who were presumably family members of the deceased cried despairingly. The heavy and melancholy song, “The Song of May” could be heard, like the footsteps of a bereaved woman who just lost her beloved husband: “The day when spring sunshine falls and a strong wind blows / the day when red petals fade and scatter, and only the fragrance lingers / on the grave without a tombstone I give you a great name / on lives not yet gone I give you this song / love, my love….” I felt great, indescribable sadness.

Later, while the song played, one by one, the images of those who died in the violence were shown on the screen. There was a picture of a civilian with a bullet hole in his back, another of a woman with her face and neck mutilated by a knife. I found it difficult to keep my eyes open for the third and fourth scenes. There were faces demolished after beatings. A person with the right part of their skull and eye, ear and mouth dismembered and detached. Where eyes, teeth, a nose, and mouth should have been, there was a bloody gap. I was reminded of road kills of cats and rats I used to see on the highway on my way to elementary school: crushed flat on the road, with bloody eyes and nose, sprawled organs. The prospect that people could be mangled like rats and cats was chilling.

Lessons from the May Revolt: Overthrow the Military Dictatorship

The screen changed. “Dear citizens of Gwangju, the military is approaching.” Filled with fear, fury, and desperation, a woman’s voice pierced through the sounds of gunfire. A senior who had been standing next to the video throughout the screening session informed us that this woman was later found dead after the martial-law brigade invaded Gwangju. Somewhere deep inside me, something cried out in alarm.

I will probably never forget the last scene. It was a child holding a portrait of his dead father. When I saw his sad eyes, the tears that had been welling up finally flowed over and cascaded down my face.

The video education session ended, and the seniors told us that Chun Doo-hwan’s regime was a military dictatorship that killed numerous civilians in order to seize power. They told us that two thousand people died in Gwangju in May. I shuddered. From the bottom of my heart, anger for the military dictatorship was silently building. The seniors shouted slogans: “The country lives if the youth rises,” “Take the teachings of May and overturn the military dictatorship.” I did not shout the slogans. But before I knew it, my fists were clenched tight.

Read the next column in this series:
2 – Renouncing Capitalism for a Class-Based Worldview

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