Candidate no.2 in the race for the leadership of the Democratic Party, former Korean YMCA General-Secretary Lee Hak Young, is getting a lot of attention in South Korea for his involvement as a lookout in the burglary of the home of the former president of Donga Construction, Choi Won Seok, in the late 1970s. Lee was a member of the South Chosun Liberation Front (KLF) at the time, and took part in the robbery for the purposes of raising funds for the organization.
It should not be unduly surprising for seasoned watchers to learn that Lee was previously involved with an underground group which had connections to North Korea; he is, after all, a man with over 30 years experience in civil movements, and civil movements in South Korea are predominantly leftist in nature. However, the question remains: how appropriate is it for someone who has a past of genuine criminality to become the face of a political party?
As is well known, there are actually quite a few influential South Korean politicians to have come from the KLF. For one, there is Lee Jae Oh, a lawmaker for the Grand National Party, who used to head up the KLF’s United Front Department. The current president of the Liberty Forward Party, Hong Sae Hwa, went into asylum in France for a number of years thanks to his involvement with the group.
These are just examples; there are many more key figures from the KLF who currently hold positions in Korean politics, mostly on the left. Indeed, that there are so many public figures today that have a background in the KLF shows just how big the movement actually was.
The KLF was belatedly found by the Commission for Democratization Movement Activists’ Honor-restoration and Compensation to have played a role in resisting the repressive Yushin Constitution system instituted by the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee, and its members subsequently awarded compensation. However, this does not override the fact that the KLF was an underground organization whose major goal was to bring Kim Il Sung-ism to South Korea.
The story reads like a thriller. In the late 1970s, the KLF sent a message through Chongryon (the Association of North Korean Residents in Japan) saying that it wanted to connect itself with North Korea, and the North Korean authorities replied by demanding proof of the group’s sincerity. That proof came in January 1978 when they scattered fliers printed with slogans calling for the overthrow of the South Korean government in front of the Tokyo Hotel in Seoul and an arcade of shops in Euljiro in central Seoul, and sent a message of New Year’s greetings to Kim Il Sung.
One thing which made the KLF different from many of the other underground groups is that they actively prepared for armed revolution. They ran an armed wing under the supervision of Central Committee head and chief scribe, Lee Jae Moon. ‘Hyeseongdae’, as it was called, was created to fund the group and be the vanguard of its political battles, and the group soon became involved in activities as serious as armed robbery using guns stolen from an army reserve unit. It managed to illegally acquire over 600 rounds of M16 ammunition and six sticks of dynamite and equipment to detonate it. The group had even prepared a flag to hoist over the group’s headquarters if their red rebellion ever succeeded.
The KLF adopted Juche thought as its guiding ideology, and its central figures encouraged all members to study it in depth. The first of the group’s ten rules was to establish the Juche ideology in South Korea. They sent a telegram to Kim Il Sung pledging their loyalty in blood, leaving no doubt that its membership was made up of fierce loyalists.
However, the tides of time, three decades of them, have put all the men on new paths as diverse as they are sometimes unusual. As mentioned earlier, Lee Hak Young became devoted to civil service through the YMCA, among other things. Certainly, the majority are presumably neither undyingly loyal to North Korea nor planning an armed revolution anymore.
However, the fact is that one of the reasons South Korean society is still so caught up in ideological chaos in this day and age is that a great number of people who once had direct relationships with North Korea and worked to bring about the downfall of the Republic of Korea are now participating in the democratic process without ever having clarified exactly what they currently believe and where their relationship with the dictatorship of North Korea stands today.
It would, of course, be foolish of us to judge somebody in the present based entirely on their rather distant past. In the end, however, the rights and wrongs of engaging in outright criminality in the pursuit of armed insurrection must surely also be judged through the lens of modernity.