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S. Korea Debates Ban on Outlawed Group

March 21, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ When helicopters swooped down on the pro-unification rally and baton-wielding riot police poured out, plenty of fellow student activists were rounded up. But Yoo Young-up made a break for it and escaped.

That was five years ago, but the soft-spoken 28-year-old South Korean is still on the run _ with a $2,440 bounty on his head for allegedly aiding his country’s No. 1 enemy, communist neighbor North Korea.

It wasn’t fire bombs or bloody police battles that got Yoo on the list. It was his membership in what was once South Korea’s most popular, but now most vilified student group _ Hanchongryon, an organization outlawed in 1997 as ``enemy-benefiting″ for its promotion of North Korean reconciliation and left-leaning dogma.

Now, with much of Hanchongryon’s membership on the lam and a new government in Seoul seeking better ties with the North, a debate is brewing over whether to lift that ban.

The nationwide soul-searching comes amid a nuclear standoff with North Korea, and underlines divisions in a nation that deeply yearns for better relations with its estranged Northern cousin but still remains wary of a potential atomic arsenal aimed at its capital.

Persecution of Hanchongryon, the Korea Federation of University Student Councils, has tailed off in recent years. But 735 members have been arrested since 1997, and another 179 _ including Yoo _ are still wanted subversives. Just last November, a 25-year-old member was reportedly sent to prison for two years.

``I think there is something seriously wrong,″ said Yoo, who spends much of his life sequestered at the student union of Seoul’s Yonsei University where police are reluctant to launch raids. ``This vicious cycle of persecution must stop.″

While supporters write off the group as scrappy band of college idealists, critics paint them as unrepentant emissaries of a communist threat.

Arguing that the ban is outdated, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun urged lawmakers earlier this week to consider legalizing the group. The ruling Millennium Democratic Party called the ban a ``shameful portrait″ of modern Korea.

``It is clear that North Korea is our military’s No. 1 enemy, but we also continue exchanges with them,″ party spokesman Jang Jun-hyong said.

``The law should also reflect reality.″

Roh took office last month pledging to pursue the reconciliation policies of his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his unprecedented 2000 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The agenda includes not only calls for a re-evaluation of Hanchongryon, but plans for cross-border family reunions and overland transportation links between North and South Korea.

Critics argue now is not the time for revision in Hanchongryon’s status, with tensions mounting over North Korea’s nuclear programs. They also argue the group should first renounce its often violent past before leniency is shown.

The main opposition Grand National Party claims Hanchongryon still sympathizes with North Korea and said any move to lift the ban would require national consensus.

``Legalization of Hanchongryon without a consensus among the people is a dangerous idea,″ party spokesman Park Jong-hee said. ``This will only create ideological confusion.″

Hanchongryon dominated South Korea’s 200 universities during its heyday of the 1990s, when South Korea was ruled by military-backed governments. Members protested for peace and democracy, but the hard core were no flower children.

The group has a history of throwing firebombs, clashing with police, and rousing massive protests that injured hundreds. The violence quickly undercut its popular support.

The last straw for many South Koreans was the death of a factory worker who was tied down and beaten unconscious by students who believed he was a police informant.

Hangchongryon’s anti-government, anti-U.S. message made it a natural target of South Korea’s dictatorships. It called for reunification of the Korean Peninsula under North Korean terms and demanded an end to the U.S. military presence in South Korea.

Yoo, who served briefly as Hanchongryon secretary-general in 1997, scoffs at being called a communist. He regrets the group’s violent past but says its purpose remains the same _ fostering open debate about how to reunify North and South.

The current generation of leaders has disavowed violence, he says. And they plan to hold a congress from April 11-13 to draw up a new philosophy aimed at showing Hanchongryon has turned over a new leaf.

``We are going to announce various changes that are in step with the times,″ Yoo said.

When pressed for details, Yoo was unclear.

But a wistful smile still crept across his face when he recounted the thundering rallies and political speeches of years gone by.

``I just wish those days would return,″ he said.

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