KWANGCHON, SOUTH KOREA -- After tilling somebody else's land for more than 30 years, tenant farmer Kim Jae Man worked up his courage last summer and boarded a bus for Seoul to confront his landlord. There, Kim and about 150 of his village neighbors occupied the offices of one of South Korea's industrial giants to call attention to their grievances a half-century old.
Their month-long sit-in was barely noticed as far bigger strikes roiled the nation, but their long-suppressed complaints hinted at the difficulty South Korea faces as it aims for its first democratic election in 16 years and an era of reconciliation.
After decades of authoritarian rule, South Korea is struggling to come to terms with its tumultuous history.
Kim and his associates claimed they had been cheated during land reform by a wealthy landlord who had collaborated with Japanese imperialists. Never mind that land reform happened 37 years ago and Japanese rule ended five years before that; democracy was sweeping South Korea, and Kim believed he finally would have justice.
"Everybody was talking about democracy," Kim said during a recent interview in this remote coastal village. "That's how we got the courage to do what we did."
Executives of Sam Yang Co., the industrial powerhouse partly owned by Kim's landlords, said that his demands amounted to communism. Besides, said Cho Choon Sik, a company director, the fairness or unfairness of land reform in 1950 is now a matter for historians.
"Even for big crimes like murder -- if time passes, the guilty can walk free," he said. "Talking about 40 years ago is useless."
But many Koreans these days are talking about the past, debating subjects that were taboo until the liberalization brought about by widespread street protests last June. The coups of 1980 and 1961, the U.S. role in Korea's division after World War II, the Japanese occupation before the war -- all are being debated with a passion normally reserved for current events.
"None of this has been discussed, no one has been allowed to express himself," said Carter J. Eckert, a Korea history specialist at Harvard University. "That's why everything broke out with such force in August."
Even today, some seemingly historical subjects remain too sensitive for open discussion.
A Korea University student was arrested this month for saying that U.S. troops "occupied" southern Korea after World War II, while Soviet troops "liberated" the north. Land reform remains a touchy topic, in part because North Korea promoted redistribution earlier and more sweepingly than the south.
And accusations of collaboration with the Japanese before and during the war have never been aired. Today, many students view their military-installed government as heir to a tarnished legacy of collaboration.
So when Kim Jae Man and his neighbors, after decades of private and ineffectual complaining, carried their grievance to the big city, they challenged official history and touched some of the most sensitive unhealed divisions of South Korean society.
Lee Chin Sup, a 78-year-old tenant farmer, has seen little change in daily life since the days of Japanese rule. Lee, who never attended school, still sleeps on the floor of his two-room cottage, still harvests his rice by hand and still hands over some of the harvest each fall to his landlords, the prosperous Kim family of Kochang County.
Kim Song Soo and Kim Yon Soo, in the official history books, are patriots: industrial pioneers who used their fortune in rice paddies to establish the first indigenous factories and went on to found Korea University, establish an independent Korean newspaper. Yon Soo also served as vice president soon after independence.
Their sons have carried on, serving as prime minister, head of the Korean Red Cross and managers of one of South Korea's largest textile firms, the Sam Yang Co.
Lee Chin Sup, with his weatherbeaten face and wisps of Confucian beard, has different recollections.
"To speak frankly, he was pro-Japanese," Lee said recently of the late Kim Yon Soo. "That's how he could own so much and exploit the farmers for so many years."
Lee recalled how the Kim family, with Japanese subsidies, reclaimed rice paddies from the sea near here beginning in 1938 and how, when land reform was finally enacted in 1950, they held onto that land by claiming desalination was not complete. He recalls years of futile entreaties and timid rent strikes.
"When we didn't pay, the Sam Yang people would come with court officers and take whatever they could -- our crops, our cows, whatever we had," he said. "So we were unsuccessful."
The Sam Yang Co. denied in a pamphlet that Kim was pro-Japanese, and company director Cho said that tenant farmers paying only 20 percent of their crop in rent -- compared to 50 percent in the old days -- have little reason to complain. Cho also said the farmers have been incited by Catholic farmworker organizers who are "commonly regarded as procommunist.
"They are denying the basic principle of property-owning by individuals, of individual capital interests, of all the basic rights of a capitalistic, democratic system," he said.
Still, when Kim Jae Man and his neighbors set up housekeeping in Sam Yang's auditorium, singing protest songs and passing around milk and bread, Cho and the Kim family soon realized that times had changed. Kim Song Soo's memorial had recently been moved off the Korea University campus at the students' insistence, and when Sam Yang called the police, no one came.
"They didn't come to help us out," Cho complained. "That's why it dragged on so long." So the two sides negotiated; after a month, the company agreed to sell the land -- about 750 acres altogether -- at one-quarter market value. The farmers declared victory and went home.
Recently, however, the farmers said they remained tenants. They could not buy the land even at the reduced price .
But Lee Chin Sup, the 78-year-old farmer, is confident that his neighbors' protest will bear fruit. "Most farmers hope democracy is coming, because that is the only way to a better life," he said. "We want democracy so that we can send our children to school."