Understanding S. Korea’s ‘386 generation’ and pro-north activists

(Photo: Newsis)

As all our readers are surely aware, South Korea is now in the middle of yet another political scandal. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) recently produced evidence that seemingly indicates that Lee Seok Ki, a member of parliament from the far-left United Progressive Party, was engaged in conspiracy and was even preparing an armed rebellion to be started in case a war with North Korea.

The NIS surveyed the group (known as ‘revolutionary organization’ or RO) for long time, so there is little doubt about the political motivations behind the decision to reveal this conspiracy right now. The NIS itself has been the center of its own political scandal for sometime now. It has come to light that during last year’s presidential elections, South Korean intelligence operatives were instructed by their superiors to undertake a massive online campaign against the candidate of the center-left candidate from the Democratic Party. The campaign’s impact was probably not that significant, but it was nonetheless not befitting that of a democracy. The NIS therefore needed a distraction, and the Lee Seok Ki case fitted the bill perfectly.

However, this does not mean that the allegations that have been made against Lee Seok Ki and his comrades are groundless. Everybody who has had the opportunity to talk to supporters of South Korea’s extreme left is well aware that these people have never minded the idea of a violent revolution and have not made a secret of their admiration for the violent tactics of Lenin, Mao and Che Guevara. Equally widely known is the sympathy that many (but by no means all) South Korean radical leftists feel toward the Kim family regime in Pyongyang.

This sympathy seems rather strange given the fact that North Korea is widely perceived to be the epitome of economic disaster. Hereditary dictatorship also can hardly be seen as the embodiment of democracy. Nonetheless, this does not prevent the South Korean far left from feeling a great deal of affinity with the rather odious regime in Pyongyang.

Of course, these people can easily be written off as political fanatics (and surely many of them are fanatics indeed). Nonetheless, such views are common enough in South Korea for these people to get elected to parliament. One also has to admit: these people may indeed be mad, but there is a systematic logic to their madness.

It is remarkable that all the major defendants in the Lee Seok Ki affair are of the same age – they are now in their late forties and early fifties. In most Western countries this is not an age when one usually fantasizes about violently overthrowing the existing order. However, in the South Korean context this means that all these people belong to the ‘386 generation’.

This term was first coined in the late 1990s. Back then it indicated that these people were in their 30s (hence ‘3’), attended university in the 1980s (hence ‘8’), and were born in the 1960s (hence ‘6’). The 386 generation was by far the most left-wing age cohort in South Korean society – which otherwise tends to be rather pragmatic, and often right leaning.

The 386ers came of age in the final days of the military dictatorships that had run South Korea from 1961 to 1987. Their parents did not have much trouble with authoritarian rule under General Park and General Chun. Their mothers and fathers were born in the colonial or early liberation era. They grew up in extreme poverty, amidst political chaos. For them, the authoritarian military regimes signified the sudden arrival of unimaginable prosperity and stability, not oppression. Indeed, under Park Chung Hee, South Korea grew faster than almost any other country in the world, and became one of the only a handful of the Third world countries to break out of the spiral of poverty and political chaos.

The parents of the 386ers spent their childhood in a country where pure rice was a food reserved only for special occasions and where only really rich people could eat meat daily. They retired though when owning a car was a norm, and trips to other countries were the way everyone spent their vacations.

The 386ers managed to live through one of the greatest success stories of modern economic history and seemingly failed to notice it. Where their parents saw great achievements and breakthroughs to be immensely proud of, the 386ers saw only oppression and inequality.

They came to perceive a bowl of pure rice on their table as an unremarkable part of their everyday life and did not feel gratitude towards government or the powerhouses of the economy for their economic prosperity. Rather they saw their country as being run by a dictatorship, openly supported by Washington. They saw that the media was heavily censored and that freedom of expression was much restrained. They also saw that pro-democracy politicians and trade union activists faced the threat of imprisonment or perhaps even assassination.  They saw the rich industrialists existing alongside and profiting off sweatshops where girls from the countryside worked in dangerous and unhealthy conditions.

Interestingly enough, the last impression is quite deceptive – by the standards of developing countries, South Korean inequality was much lower than most, much lower indeed than modern China. Idealistic students though were not that interested in such comparisons.

The young idealists naturally began to shift leftward. Some of them were interested in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but many others were attracted by the mysterious and alluring North Korea. From the early 1980s, treatises on North Korean Juche philosophy, as well as North Korean propaganda publications began to be read by student activists on South Korean university campuses (needless to say, such publications were and remain banned).

Surprisingly, the thick veil of secrecy that shrouds North Korea played a major role in this infatuation. The official South Korean media painted a bleak picture of North Korean life, but of course, the students activists did not believe the media. They began to access official North Korean propaganda instead. This propaganda was showing a country where happy workers always over-fulfilled their quotas, where sick children from remote islands were always safely airlifted to the nearest hospital, and where farmers enthusiastically turned out one bumper harvest after another. This shiny picture was actually much further from the truth than the black picture painted by the official anti-communist propaganda in the South, but it was attractive and won many young hearts in the 1980s.The pro-North Korean forces thus appeared in South Korea.

Most pro-Northern activists suffered a major blow in the 1990s when their dream world collapsed. They were shocked to see how the allegedly happy masses of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe rose up against their own governments. The second blow was delivered in the mid-1990s when the North Korean economy collapsed into famine and refugees left North Korea, fleeing into China. It became impossible to deny that North Korea was a destitute hereditary dictatorship with an abysmal human rights record.

Many activists either lost all interest in the politics, or became the South Korean version of moderate socialists and social democrats. However, a small core of hardline activists managed to remain oblivious to the obvious. These people were not ready to jettison their fantasies about a perfect society that allegedly still exists north of the DMZ – or at least, they chose to believe that the shortcomings of capitalism are more important than the possible weaknesses of Juche-style socialism.

Lee Seok Ki and his comrades belong to this hardcore group of former student activists. Their dreams can potentially turn into nightmares, but in real life they pose no threat to us. They are merely a group of political lunatics with little ability to influence mainstream politics or inflict any damage. However, one should understand that people like Lee Seok Ki emerged from modern South Korean history, they are one of its necessary products.

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