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Kim Moon-Soo: The Making and Re-Making of a Radical Thinker, Part I

Kim Moon-Soo is the man who may yet break the drought that has fallen on the bleak political landscape of South Korea, one that for too long seemed to have been divided between opportunistic appeasers and opportunistic reactionaries, each with its own dubious connections to Korean dictatorships that the nation’s history will not view kindly. Charismatic, fiery, and proficient in the use of new media, Kim has emerged as the standard-bearer of the New Right, a new political grouping largely formed from former leftists and labor leaders who fought South Korea’s dictatorship of the past and North Korea’s dictatorship of the present.

Like its neoconservative counterpart in the United States, Korea’s New Right is idealistic and intellectual, retaining its liberal values despite rejecting some of the solutions most commonly associated with them. Their Internet magazines, such as DailyNK, fill a role similar to that of publications like The Weekly Standard in the United States (full disclosure–the DailyNK prints my screeds).

Kim’s biography is that of the New Right itself: a former student radical, labor organizer, and political prisoner, Kim emerged from prison to a democratic South Korea, joined the Grand National Party, converted to Christianity, and now seeks to unite both Koreas under democracy while keeping Korea out of the Chinese orbit. Beyond his persuasive skills, Kim’s life story speaks of a deep character, a powerful intellect, an occasionally explosive temper, and a profound attachment to ideas rather than an allegiance to ideology. Kim is no ordinary shop-floor demagogue. The man is also capable of serious thought on matters of statecraft.

This week, Kim introduced South Korea’s counterpart to the North Korean Human Rights Act in the National Assembly. It is the latest in a series of provocative jabs at the governments of North Korea and China, and follows a lifetime of confronting authoritarian regimes.

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There is something circular about yesterday’s story–the replacement of the Old Right with the radical left as the most dynamic force in Korean politics. In its most dynamic era, the rule of General Park Chung-Hee from 1961 to 1979, the Old Right was rebuilding rural villages, putting loudspeakers up to broadcast morning calesthenics and political propaganda, and using state funds to build gargantuan steel mills and shipyards. The Old Right, like the failed model favored by the radical left, believed in an authoritarian state managing the economy, politics, labor relations, and the individuals who participated in them.

At least until Park isolated himself behind his police state in the mid-70s, Park and his Old Right policies of free trade, parastatal-corporate supremacy, and reflexive opposition to communism enjoyed considerable popularity. But political movements feed on their triumphs against old problems and the appeal of their new ideas to wield against new ones. Lacking either, they wither from failure, as in North Korea, or experience the toxicity of success, as was the case with newly industrialized South Korea. After that, the movement must find new directions for its energy or fall under the control of small-c conservatives whose specialty is the careful husbanding of assets, not the inspiration of masses.

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Kim Moon-Soo was born in the village of Young Cho in South Kyongsan province in August 1951, in a country with an intinerant population that has been bulldozed up and down the peninsula by war. Politically speaking, Kim Moon-Soo was born into the degrinolade of an Old Right that had outlived its usefulness. In 1970, Korea was prosperous, educated, and mostly stable, but for the objections of those who were deprived of full participation in its markets of ideas, politics, labor, and capital.

In 1970, Kim graduated from Kyongbuk High School in the city of Daegu. The following month, he entered the College of Economics at Seoul National University, indicating exceptional academic potential in a nation obsessed with academic achievement. Kim was quickly drawn to the radical left and joined a group called Minchonghanryon. He was expelled from college by the military government in October 1971 for denouncing corruption by government officials.

By the early 1970s, it had become a political fad for leftist students and intellectuals to disperse themselves to the farms and factories to see life from a more proletarian perspective, and to agitate and organize. Perhaps to follow this trend, and almost certainly in part because he had nowhere else to go, Kim Moon-Soo returned to his home village, where he spent 1971 and 1972 living and working among the farmers. Kim went back to college, but was again expelled in April 1974 for involvement in anti-government activities.

In 1975, Kim Moon-Soo left academia for what was to become a twenty-year hiatus, and went to work in a textile factory as a fabric-cutter’s assistant. He quickly became involved in union organizing and soon worked his way into a position of leadership at the unfortunately named Dorco company (which makes perfectly fine disposable razors, among other things). If proletarian work was slumming for some intellectuals, manual work and labor organizing must have suited Kim, because he stayed at both for years. His success was sufficient to attract the attention of the authorities.

In February 1980, Kim Moon-Soo was arrested; he claims to have been tortured as well. This did not deter Kim, who continued to gain prominence in the labor movement throughout the 1980s. In May 1986, he was arrested again–this time, for calling for constitutional changes, including a directly elected presidency. He spent the next 2 1/2 years in prison.

The reasons why Kim joined the Grand National Party not long after his release, in September, 1990, are not clear, but by this time, South Korea had nearly completed its transition to democracy. It was a new start for Kim as well as for his country. In August of 1994, he finally graduated from Seoul National Univerity, 25 years after his acceptance. He then moved to the small town of Buchon, in Kyonggi-Do, near Seoul. Today, Kim calls himself a devout Christian as well.

Kim first won office in April 1996, when he was elected to the National Assembly, representing Buchon. Kim acquired a populist reputation in his home district and was well-regarded for supporting his poorest constituents. Whatever the reason for his mysterious change of ideological alignment, the one accusation that would never stick on Kim Moon-Soo was that he forgot the downtrodden and oppressed.

This set the stage for Kim to take on the issue that has propelled him to national–and increasingly, international–prominence: his impassioned advocacy on behalf of the North Korean people. Kim’s advocacy is particularly remarkable for the fact that he took it up at a time when it was an unpopular cause for all of South Korea’s major political parties.

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