Ro Su Hui, the vice-chairman of the South Korean Reunification of the Fatherland Union, has been in detention since returning on the 5th from an unauthorized 104-day trip to North Korea. Although international opinion has been marked by incredulity at the physical nature of Ro’s arrest, there are plenty of people in South Korea who hope his punishment will be very severe.
On five previous occasions, a total of seven people have visited North Korea unauthorized and later returned to South Korea through Panmunjom.
The list: ▲ Lim Su Kyung, who is now a United Democratic Party lawmaker, and Priest Moon Kyu Hyun, who visited the North in August 1989; ▲ Daejonggyo officials Ahn Ho Sang and Kim Sun Jeok, who visited in April 1995; ▲ Park Yong Kil, the wife of Pastor Moon Ik Hwan, in July 1995; ▲ Hwang Sun, a failed proportional representation candidate for the United Progressive Party, in November 1998; and ▲ Han Sang Yeol, an advisor to the Korea Alliance of Progressive Movements, in August 2010.
Lim and Moon were imprisoned for five years each in June of 1990, but got released after two years and six months in December of 1992 for good behavior. In 1999 lawmaker Lim was pardoned.
Hwang, who visited North Korea as a representative of the General Association of Korean Universities, was sentenced to two years in prison but was released in 2000 after a year and a half. He was also pardoned in January of 2008.
It is also likely that Han, who was sentenced to three years in prison, will be released from prison in a similar manner. His original five year sentence has already been reduced to three years on appeal.
Conservatives point out that these light sentences are insufficient to eradicate the acts. In particular, these people should not be pardoned, they say, especially because they will then be praised as national heroes by the pro-North Korea element in society.
On the other hand, increasing penalties will not prevent their activities, former activists say. They believe the most desirable solution is to reduce the desire to go to the North through social change.
Hwang Jae Il, a former pro-Juche ideology activist whose MA thesis covered changes in national liberation student movements after the 1980s, said, “When these people are punished by the government they like to call it repression and wrap their acts up in the image of a democratization activist. If not only the media but also society takes zero interest in them, and above all if we create a public atmosphere of not tolerating their activities, then they will have nowhere to go.”
Yoo Dong Reul, a senior researcher with the Police Science Institute, agreed, telling Daily NK, “It is the government’s fault for not dealing with them strictly, then releasing and pardoning them and giving them the ‘democracy activist’ treatment. These people acted as if their unauthorized North Korea visits and even the subsequent imprisonment were acts of democracy; it was like a medal to them. We need to socially ostracize these pro-North Korea elements.”