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The Making of Activist Yu Jae Gil: Former Juche Supporter Imprisoned in China for Work toward North Korean Democracy

July 3, 2013

Read in Korean

Kim Young Hwan was not the only activist arrested in China in March 2012 and held for nearly four months. The following article about Yu Jae Gil, long-time activist for North Korean democracy, appeared on pages 46-49 of the October 2012 issue of NK Vision magazine.

“There is a deep sense of loss with 13 years’ worth of work in China gone down the drain. My determination to become a ‘friend of the North Korean people,’ however, has not changed.”

Yu Jae Gil, activist for North Korean democracy, in NK Vision, October 2012
It was a long time coming, but Kim Young Hwan (김영환) and three other activists for North Korean democracy who had been imprisoned in China finally made their appearance at Incheon International Airport on the evening of July 20, 2012. On March 29, the men had been arrested by Chinese police and held in the country’s Ministry of State Security and the Dandong Detention Center for a total of 114 days. The harsh treatment and poor prison conditions had taken their toll and the men had noticeably lost weight. In front of a group of reporters, Kim Young Hwan briefly mentioned his health and his views on the investigation process he underwent in China. Later, at a different venue, Kim also testified that he had suffered electric torture while in Chinese detention. While Kim Young Hwan’s activities had him regularly traveling back and forth between South Korea and China, fellow detainees Yu Jae Gil (유재길) and Kang Shin Sam (강신삼) are members of what can be called the “first generation” of China-based North Korean human rights and democracy activists who began their work there in the late 1990s. The pioneering activities of these men paved the way for many more activists to work in China. Beginning 13 years ago with a ferry ride that took them to Dandong, China, in June 1999, the Chinese government declaring them personae non gratae has effectively ended their activities there.

The agony of seeing 13 years’ worth of work go down the drain

Like Kim Young Hwan, Yu Jae Gil was a member of National Liberation, a group at the forefront of spreading the Juche ideology in South Korea, before his later turn into an activist for North Korean democracy. While an additional year of study led to his success in entering the medical school at Chonbuk National University in 1988, his experience in student movements ultimately made him to decide to become a career activist. “Having seen that people were not free and lived unfortunate and painful lives, I was determined to befriend them and fight for them.” For that reason, he was the only one among his classmates who did not become a doctor.

After leading local student movements from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, Yu suddenly left for China in 1999. Prior to the start of the interview, he made clear that he would be unable to talk about all his activities in China because there were still fellow activists working in secret. While 50 days had passed since his return to Korea, the process of winding down his activities in China has yet to be completed. Even on his way to the interview, he talked to a Chinese friend over the phone to have his belongings in China be delivered to him by international mail. As for his health, he said that it is relatively good, but has to take medicine for a while to treat a case of osteoporosis that was found during a medical examination.

Yu confessed that the agony of losing 13 years’ worth of work (조직보위투쟁) in a day and his feeling of failure to protect his fellow activists were what distressed him the most while in prison. Prison provided him the opportunity to deeply reflect on what he could have done and contemplate what he should do in the future. “The implosion of all my activities in China was really depressing. I haven’t fully recovered from the shock, but I’m on the road to recovery,” said Yu.

Yu said it was fortunate that his detainment in China had led to a more favorable public opinion toward North Korean human rights and democracy activities in South Korea. “I have heard frequently from friends that I need to take full advantage of the increased interest of South Koreans toward the issue,” says Yu. He is now preparing for new campaigns to promote North Korean human rights and democracy after he wraps up his activities in China. “When my fellow activists return back to Korea, our activities will begin again by the end of the year,” Yu forecasted.

Shocked that Kim Il Sung’s grave took priority while millions starved

What motivated Yu to go to China in June 1999? While it is now uncommon to find people who actively deny that a dire human rights situation exists in North Korea, it was quite a different story back in the late 1990s. Political activist groups, particularly groups that supported North Korea, claimed that accusations of human rights abuses were nothing more than exaggerated and false propaganda, and argued instead that the cause of starvation in the country was due to the hostile economic containment policy of the United States. Despite this atmosphere, however, there were many political activists who were troubled by what was really going on in North Korea.

In 1997, the National Democratic Revolutionary Party (민족민주혁명당), an organization guided by the principles of “Kim Il Sungism,” was disbanded by Kim Young Hwan. The following year, Kim wrote an article in a monthly magazine titled, “The ideology behind Kim Il Sung is pure fabrication, a total fraud.” His article severely criticized North Korea and caused a major ideological conflict with other pro-North Korean activists.

Furthermore, the testimonies by former Korean Workers’ Party Secretary Hwang Jang Yop following his defection in late 1997 shed extensive light on what was going on in North Korea. “The decisive moment for me becoming a activist for North Korean democracy was when Hwang revealed that Kim Jong Il spent a fortune on building the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (formerly the Kumsusan Memorial Palace) to simply store the body of Kim Il Sung, despite a period of severe famine,” explained Yu. “I could not understand nor tolerate the excessive amount of foreign exchange used on his father’s burial ground while the country was suffering from terrible starvation.” It was then that Yu realized the extent of the terrible situation in North Korea and resolved to fight for the North Korean people.

Yu chose China because of its close proximity to North Korea, and because of his determination to see the reality of the situation for himself. “The mistake made by those in the past of ignoring the situation in North Korea encouraged me to go see for myself what was happening. I started to think that if the truth about the people in North Korea was true, I would have to fight against the country’s regime,” said Yu.
During his first year in China he met with approximately 50 refugees both directly and indirectly through organizations supporting North Korean refugees. The stories he heard deeply shocked him. Refugees told him stories of trains with all of their windows broken and frequently stopping, people dying from falling off the top of trains or from electric shocks. Stories about executions by firing squad could be heard from almost every single refugee he met, along with unbelievable stories of people forced to eat human flesh to survive.

Now that followers of the North have been unshackled, time to face reality

Yu’s position on North Korea, however, did not change overnight. The after-effects of the democracy movement and the June 1987 Uprising were still strongly felt in the university town he entered in 1988. The student movement to reunite the North and South began at that time as well. The National Council of Student Representatives (전국대학생대표자협의회, 전대협) moved to hold North-South student talks in Panmunjom on June 10 (6.10 남북학생판문점회담). The slogan “Let’s go north, come south, let’s meet in Panmunjom” was rapidly spreading among students owing to the high-energy democracy movement on campuses nationwide. Reunification movements on campuses soon led to a movement to “Understand the Real North Korea” (북한바로알기운동).

When Yu was a freshman, an upperclassman activist gave him a book titled Returning Home: An Unfinished Diary (미완의 귀향일기) written by an American pastor who had visited North Korea. “The book is not about people who have horns growing from their heads. It’s about establishing an independent, righteous, and equal society with those from the North who look like exactly like us. On the other hand, the book also explains that while South Korea was achieving economic development it also was a corrupt society dominated by capital gained through an alliance of government and business. The book had a significant influence on me,” said Yu.

At that time, professional activists felt honored to become members of the National Democratic Front of South Korea (한국민족민주전선, 한민전), a group which sold itself as having been the vanguard party of laborers, peasants and student movement organizations. When Yu was a graduating senior in 1991, he joined the Anti-Imperialist Youth League (반제청년동맹), one of the four National Liberation student movement groups, and in 1993 joined the National Democratic Revolutionary Party, the secret revolutionary group espousing the Juche ideology.

Yu Jae Gil, activist for North Korean democracy, in NK Vision, October 2012
His period as a supporter of the North Korean regime soon came to an end, however. On December 31, 1993, Kim Il Sung delivered his annual New Year’s address. In the address, the North Korean leader said that, “People from all walks of life in the South are crying for the overthrow of the Kim Young Sam administration.” The next day, the National Democratic Front of South Korea brought out over 20 action slogans calling for the overthrow the Kim administration. The Korean Federation of Student Councils (한총련) also showed its support for the overthrow of the Kim government. At the time, despite opposition by farmers and others over his decision to gradually expand rice imports during negotiations with Uruguay, President Kim’s approval ratings had soared to 90% due to various reform measures his government had put into place.

“Under these circumstances, I thought it was unrealistic to call for the resignation of the administration. Student council leaderships had a heated debate on the issue, but it was an accepted principle at the time to put decisions made by the Suryeong (수령, supreme leader, i.e., Kim Il Sung) and the Korean Workers’ Party into practice, even if the decisions were wrong,” recalls Yu. It took almost a year for him to come to the conclusion that the National Democratic Front of South Korea was nothing more than a mouthpiece for North Korea.

After Yu’s change of heart regarding the National Democratic Front of South Korea, his thoughts about North Korea changed rapidly dramatically and he began to face reality. After shedding his pro-North ideology, he started to reflect on whether he had made misjudgments about Korean society and Korean-American relations. “The National Liberation movement was conducted based on the assumption that South Korea was an American colony and that the government was under the political power of the U.S.,” he said. “However, the claim that South Korea was a colony of the U.S. was based solely on the fact that there is a U.S. military presence here. The U.S. has its forces stationed in the U.K., Japan and Germany as well, so it was illogical to conclude that U.S. forces stationed in the South was evidence that the South was an American colony.”

Yu was a leading student activist in his region and set out to change the student movement on the national level, which was pro-North and had violent tendencies. However, he and his fellow activists were ostracized by powerful hardline camps and lost ground, evidenced by the fact they did not attend a reunification event in 1995 organized by the Alliance for National Reunification of the Fatherland (조국통일범민죽연합, 범민련). The 1996 student protests at Yonsei University made the situation even worse. “We were called revisionists, we were criticized for not following the orders of the Korean Workers’ Party and North Korean leaders. Hardliners even asked us outright if we acknowledged the existence of the National Democratic Front of South Korea and the Suryeong.”

The hardline student activists from that time are now members of the Unified Progressive Party (통합진보당), which used to be the National Liberation faction of the Democratic Labor Party (민주노동당). More precisely, they are remnants (잔류파) of the National Democratic Revolutionary Party, i.e., those who had opposed its disbanding. Yu denounced the leadership of this group, saying that, “The lower middle classes of the party’s remnant may have been going along with organizational inertia, but those in the leadership were just afraid of losing their position and vested rights. They are very stubbornly avoiding the facts.”

Regret over China’s oppression of democracy activists for North Korea

This year marks the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea. However, the prolonged detainment of activists for North Korean democracy in China has caused diplomatic conflicts between the two countries. According to international practices and diplomatic agreements between the two nations, China cannot refuse a South Korean citizen from meeting with his or her diplomatic representative. The Chinese flagrantly violated these agreements, however, all the while committing acts of torture against the activists, including electric shocks and forcing them to stay awake.

Activists for the democratization of North Korea previously held a favorable stance on China, so the recent incident only made their disappointment that much stronger. The movement for North Korean democracy has historically placed a high value on China’s role in the reconstruction of North Korea after democratization. When criticism of China’s one-party dictatorship has occurred in South Korea, these activists have sided with China by arguing that the Chinese Communist Party’s role in China’s economic development has been underestimated.

“Since the start of China’s economic reforms 30 years ago, the country’s growth of 10% per year is unprecedented. In a country covering such a large swathe of land and with such a high population density, their growth should be a highly regarded revolution in human history,” said Yu. “Not only has the economy developed quickly, but the country’s society and culture as well as politics have been and still are changing, despite a few deviations. One cannot help but recognize the communist party’s high ability to manage the country. This provides the groundwork for praising the communist party’s ability to manage the country.” However, Yu makes it clear that the recent prolonged detainment was both “shocking and disappointing.”

“We didn’t go against the Chinese government on human rights issues in China, nor did we gather information against them, and yet they rounded us up and we had to go through an intense investigation,” said Yu. He was worried that the Chinese government could further repress him. “While being interrogated, I was told that if I were to testify to the press about the brutal treatment I went through upon my return to Korea, they would take action against those associated with me. They also threatened me in saying if I was to testify about what they did to me, they would treat us as anti-Chinese forces so that we could never set foot in China ever again.”

If the North shows signs of change, many people will step forward

Although Yu was threatened by the Chinese not to disclose any information, he made it clear that the Chinese government should at the very least informally express their regret and promise to prevent it from happening again. Yu also said that the South Korean government should quickly conclude arrangements with China to prevent further human rights violations of South Koreans and other foreigners and expressed his hope for an end to the torture and human rights violations committed against the Chinese people. The recent problems that have been brought up will probably be an important opportunity for the Chinese government’s improvement on the issues regarding human rights,” Yu says.

He also stated that “currently there aren’t many details he can disclose” regarding his involvement in China. He did, however, mention that he had worked with defectors and Chinese, particularly in Northeast China, who were willing to systematically work for North Korean democratization. He had wanted to provide assistance, information, and a feeling of solidarity to those who held the same views as him, namely that North Korea must emerge from one-man dictatorship and open up the doors to reform. “We made it clear time and again that they were receiving support not only from us but also the wider world,” he says, adding that his group made various efforts to gather accurate information about the situation inside North Korea.

“Within three years of campaigning, we were able to find a North Korean who sympathized with what we were trying to do. This was possible because we were able to convince him that his own circumstances and misfortune were not due to his own defects or abilities,” said Yu. Although those in the North are currently unable to have a voice because of severe oppression by the state, Yu is convinced that many similar people will rise up when conditions in the country begin to change.

Related content:

Statement: Chinese Government Should Release Forcibly Incarcerated South Korean Activists

Series: Understanding the Pro-North Faction – I Was a Follower of Juche

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