Understanding North Korea 

For years, East Bay activists have been trying to influence US policy toward North Korea. Finally, Washington may be listening.

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Because of South Korea's massive campaign to demonize North Koreans after the Korean War and during the 1970s and 1980s, many Koreans who immigrated to the United States subscribed to a pro-US, anticommunist stance. Many are conservative. "There was a kind of effort to instill anticommunism and to instill fear of the authority of the South Korean, pro-US, right-wing military dictatorship and then spread that fear to the US and to the diaspora, I think," said Kim.

But slowly, that attitude began changing in South Korea. Democracy movements in the South erupted in reaction to postwar military dictators — many of whom were supported by the United States. Many questioned the role of the United States in the Kwangju Massacre of 1980, in which pro-democracy students and activists were killed by the South Korean Army. (The United States had authorized the release some South Korean troops to quell the rebellion, and President Reagan endorsed the actions of then-President Chun Doo-hwan, who was sentenced to death for his role in the event, then later pardoned.) In 2002, two American Army sergeants were acquitted after their tanks crushed two South Korean girls to death, causing widespread outrage. In 2006, US military expansion in Pyongtaek, south of Seoul, evicted farmers from their land and spawned protests and clashes with South Korean military soldiers. "That's one thing that really I think often gets lost on people, is that democracy flourished in South Korea not because of US intervention, but despite it," said Christine Hong, a Korea Policy Institute fellow and former UC Berkeley post doc, who recently relocated to UC Santa Cruz where she's now an assistant professor.

All of this points to a radically different point of view of the United States among South Koreans today. "I remember a few years ago when the people in South Korea said they thought that US was more dangerous than North Korea," Kim recalled. "So that means that there are many decades of one-sided love affair had come to an end. ... Many people had decided that the US was in Korea because of self interest for the US and that things that happened politically in Korea could often be laid at the door of the US and its self interest."

Activists like Kim, Hong, and Ahn certainly aren't unique in their advocacy for peace among Korean Americans. The Bay Area doesn't have a very large population of Koreans, especially compared to Los Angeles and New York, but that fact has perhaps allowed voices here to be particularly strong. "As the community up here is relatively small, it makes for both a certain kind of intimacy and, given the nature of a lot of social activism within the area, it also permits a certain kind of progressive possibility," said Hong.

The area's proximity to UC Berkeley has also contributed to a more open-minded atmosphere, says Korea Policy Institute's Paul Liem. In the 1990s, Berkeley students invited peers from North and South Korea to attend forums at the university. Elaine Kim, who was present during those years, said many students traveled to South Korea and were influenced by its politics. "Even if they're Christian, they don't tend to adhere to the old demonizations that used to exist," said Kim about the students. "It doesn't mean that they're not susceptible to stuff like the damsel-in-distress story — I think they probably are — but I think it's kind of easy to point out what's wrong with that story to them now, whereas before it really wasn't. If you said anything at all then rumors would fly that you were a spy and stuff like that. It was really bad in the Korean community."

While the community has become more accepting to a degree, these activists say they often found themselves targets of suppression. Even the US government got in on the act. Liem said that in the late 1990s, the FBI called him and claimed that somebody had made a threat against a member of the South Korean consulate in San Francisco. "They wanted to go through a list of names with me to find out who these different people were," Liem recalled. "I essentially said that if he wanted to talk to me about his political views I was happy to talk to him, but I wasn't going to go through a list with him. And he ended up just saying a lot of derogatory things about my father, how he was un-American because he was very active in the overseas movement for democracy in South Korea. He wrote a lot of articles about US policy. Which surprised me that he knew all that."

For Kim, it started in the 1960s. Until the 1980s, she said, "if you wanted to express ... any interest in North Korea, you were immediately suspected of being a spy for North Korea or something like that; it was very ridiculous." Kim said she gave a talk in the late 1960s against the normalization of relations with Japan, after which she was approached by some Korean guys who told her, "From now on, you study literature, you talk about literature." Kim responded by buying a vanity license plate that read "Juche," the North Korean ideology meaning self-reliance, which spawned a rumor that she was a North Korean spy. She said Korean students at UC Berkeley told her that they were warned by the South Korean consul general in San Francisco to not take her classes "because I was a North Korean spy."

During the Kwangju Uprising in 1980, which was largely not reported on in the United States, Kim said she ran images of bodies in coffins on "Asians Now," a monthly Korean bilingual program she hosted on KTVU. Kim said the South Korean consul general immediately went to KTVU and demanded equal airtime to rebuke the images, then offered an all-expenses paid trip for the program's executive producer and a cameraman to "show how wonderful South Korea is." After Kim informed the San Francisco Chronicle that there had been an attempted bribe at KTVU, she was fired, she says.

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