Pro-North activist group in South Korea dissolves itself

Kim Jong-un at the ninth plenary meeting of the eighth Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea on Dec. 30, 2023 | Rodong Sinmun

A prominent civic group in South Korea dedicated to reunification and with counterparts in North Korea and overseas, announced its dissolution after a general meeting in Seoul on February 17.

The decision came in the wake of Kim Jong-un’s new year decision to abandon unification and redesignate the South as an enemy foreign country. 

This strategic shift, which overturned a founding national imperative established in 1948 by Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, threw groups in South Korea dedicated to unification into disarray.

As their aim is reunification, they may have been expected to come out and strongly condemn Kim. Certainly, in the past they haven’t held back in their criticism of Seoul’s policies which they believed to be in the way of reconciliation.

But the Southern Headquarters of the Pan-Korean Alliance for Reunification (PKAR) quietly threw in the towel and dissolved itself. 

To explain this odd move, we should take a closer look at the roots of this particular group. 

PKAR, or Beomminryeon as it is known, was formed in August 1990. At the time, the South had become a democracy and, following the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, was pursuing a “nordpolitik” rapprochement with the communist allies of North Korea. Soviet communism was collapsing, the Germanies were reuniting and eastern European communist states turning to liberal democracy. Campus activists in Korea were protesting for reunification. 

Initially led by the Rev. Moon Ik-hwan, a dissident Protestant minister, who was jailed after an unapproved visit in March 1989 to North Korea, where he met with Kim Il-sung, the Southern Headquarters (ie, South Korean branch) of PKAR appears to have been directed by the North Korean regime itself.

This may seem like an unreasonable echo of old anti-communist accusations against government opponents. But it was Moon himself who revealed it. In 1994, he argued that the progressives running the PKAR should replace it with something new. 

“Beomminryeon has become a tool of the North Korean Espionage Operations in the South,” he said.

At the time, a member of another group which was in broad agreement with Moon’s organization complained to me, asking, “Why does North Korea only deal with the Southern Headquarters of the PKAR?”

PKAR was in fact favored by North Korea. The reason was that the power behind it was the United Front Department (UFD) of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang. This is a department of the party’s Central Committee which is tasked with relations with South Korea. It is responsible for propaganda, espionage and the management of front organizations.

I should point out that the term “unified” in its name does not refer to inter-Korean unification. Rather it refers to its umbrella function bringing together individuals and groups with different ideologies, beliefs, religions, and interests that nevertheless share a common goal. In its South Korea operations, the UFD emphasized that groups and people under its direction respect their differences in the interest of unity. 

It appears that the Southern Headquarters of PKAR operated according to the directives of the UFD right up to its dissolution. 

After his declaration, Kim ordered a restructuring of the various organizations in the North itself dealing with South Korean matters. Not least among these was the UFD and its Department of Espionage Operations in the South. 

The North Korean Committee for the Implementation of the June 15th Joint Declaration, the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation and the Dangun Reunification Council were all dissolved on January 12. So was the Northern Headquarters of the PKAR.

This left the PKAR’s Southern Headquarters branch high and dry. 

“The first reason for the dissolution of the Southern Headquarters of the PKAR was that the relationship between North and South Korea has gone beyond total collapse to a state where reunification is not only impossible but the relationship has become one between two hostile belligerents,” Won Jin-wook, its secretary general wrote in Tongil (unification) News

“With the dissolution of the Northern Headquarters, the PKAR movement, which had been conducted as a tripartite solidarity between North Korea, South Korea and overseas, lost the basis for its existence,” he said.

Given it was Kim Jong-un who turned hostile and belligerent, Won might have pointed out the obvious and said that PKAR’s dissolution was done under orders from Kim.

The reason for this omission is rather obvious. PKAR’s mission in promoting reunification was to promote it on North Korea’s terms. 

At the dissolution meeting, it was decided that the activism would continue under another name. 

“As our main future activities, we will prioritize practical endeavors for the independence of Korean society, focusing on urgent tasks such as the abolition of the National Security Law, disbanding of the ROK-US-Japan alliance, withdrawal of US troops from South Korea, and opposition to any US-led war,” he wrote. “We will actively participate in and stand in solidarity with the movement for the impeachment of Yoon Seok-yeol.” 

As for the name of the new organization, “It will be provisionally called the Union of the Korean Independence Movement (KIM), and the final decision will be made when the preparatory committee is formed.” 

The words “reunification” and “nation” will be dropped from the name of the new organization. In this, as with other things, they seem to be toeing Kim Jong-un’s line.

As the North Korean saying goes, “As the mullet (Kim Jong-un) jumps, so does the goby (PKAR).”

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