washingtonpost.com  > World > Asia/Pacific > East Asia > South Korea

South Korea Weighs Allowing Once-Taboo Support for the North

Debate Reflects Division Over Detente

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 22, 2004; Page A16

SEOUL -- Labeled a subversive and trailed for decades by secret agents, Soon Na Chang, now a grandfatherly 72-year-old, has faced repeated arrests and years of imprisonment in his homeland of South Korea. In a nation standing on the Cold War's last frontier, his crimes ranked among the highest possible offenses: publicly praising North Korea.

But with the pace of national reconciliation quickening between the two Koreas, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun and his ruling Uri Party are pushing ahead with plans to repeal the National Security Law, which since 1948 has prohibited vocal support of North Korea as well as unauthorized communication or visits there by South Koreans.


Members of the Pan-Korean Alliance for Reunification, a pro-Pyongyang group, protested last week at the National Assembly building in Seoul. (Anthony Faiola -- The Washington Post)

Roh and his supporters say the law, long viewed as the dam preventing the North's communist ideology from washing over the Demilitarized Zone, has become an outdated affront to democracy and free speech.

Among other results, the repeal would legalize Soon's outlawed, pro-Pyongyang group known as the Pan-Korean Alliance for Reunification, as well as other banned groups sympathetic to the North -- including a radical student association whose members attacked a U.S. military installation with molotov cocktails in 2002. The law's abolition would also permit a host of new North Korean propaganda Web sites, aimed at young Korean-speakers, to be freely viewed in South Korea.

Roh's move to do away with the security law has become the latest symbol of an ideological battle now raging in South Korea over whether detente with the North is happening too fast, too soon. Many conservative critics are blasting the administration for adopting an apologetic attitude toward the North. They have cited several recent statements by Roh -- including his suggestion in Los Angeles last week that North Korea is merely trying to protect itself by pursuing nuclear weapons.

The effort to repeal the law has sparked the most significant outcry from critics of the "sunshine policy" of rapprochement with the North since Kim Dae Jung, then the president, met with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Il, in a historic 2000 summit in Pyongyang. The South Korean leader was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.

"They think our conflict with the North is over, and that it no longer poses any threat to us," said Yoon S. Chang, a legislator from the opposition Grand National Party. "Repealing the security law would make pro-North Korean activities legal here. How can it not be clear that this is in direct violation of our national security interests?"

But Roh and his supporters call the law a Cold War relic and an impediment to better North-South relations. Its demise, they say, is key to undoing the repressive legacy of South Korea's anti-Communist military leaders.

The Uri Party is positioning itself to use its majority in the National Assembly to abolish the law, pushing for a vote in the next several weeks.

"If we are to shift to an era of people's sovereignty and respect for human rights, don't you think it is desirable to scrap the old legacy?" Roh, a former human rights lawyer, said in a recent televised panel discussion. "The National Security Law is an old relic. Thus, we should put it into a sheath and display it at a museum."

In preparation for a possible repeal, South Korean authorities have already begun easing hard-line interpretations of the law, permitting greater freedom of expression for pro-Pyongyang activists by no longer actively seeking the arrest of their members, according to leaders of at least two of the banned groups.

"North Korea is not our enemy, the United States is," Soon said during a demonstration in front of the National Assembly building earlier this month. His group joined bands of labor unionists, pumping their hands in the air in what has become a daily show of force in support of the law's repeal. "Kim Jong Il must be respected. . . . The North Koreans stand up to the United States while South Korea for years has been a puppet regime. We should not be silenced. We have the democratic right to be heard."

The Grand National Party argues, however, that repeal of the law would grant Kim Jong Il a new foothold in the South. Intelligence officials estimate that there are still as many as 40,000 North Korean agents in the South. Many of the party's officials and political analysts see Pyongyang's influence behind a militant labor movement in South Korea.

Choi Jae Cheon, a leading Uri Party legislator, argues that South Korea has already won the ideological war with the North. The success of the capitalism system in South Korea is such that the communism ideology of the shattered North Korean state could no longer gain a foothold, he said. "The Cold War is over," he added.

Various opinion polls show that although most South Koreans support rapprochement with the North, the majority are skeptical about repealing the security law.

"For most South Koreans, this goes too far," said Lee Jung Hoon, professor of international relations at Seoul's Yonsei University. "North Korea has not in any way reduced its military threat against the South, or renounced their position to have communism spread across the peninsula. And yet, here we are unilaterally offering to get rid of a law that is an integral part of our national security."

Any attempted repeal of the security law will be hard fought. The Grand National Party has threatened to block the repeal bill from passing by physically disrupting National Assembly sessions. Equally firm is the Uri Party, which has invested much political capital in its bid for the repeal, and is not likely to back down easily, analysts said.

Groups such as the Pan-Korean Alliance for Reunification, founded by pro-Pyongyang activists in 1990 in an effort to promote the idea of national reunification through the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea, say they will continue staging demonstrations until the law is abolished.

"All these rumors about hunger and repression in the North are completely false. They are lies," said Lee Kyung Won, 39, the alliance's director general. "We should not be stopped anymore from voicing the truth."

Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company