S. Korea Dissident’s Surprise Trip to North Stirs Furor

Times Staff Writer

The unauthorized visit of a South Korean dissident leader to Pyongyang, the capital of Communist North Korea, has sparked an uproar here and threatens to destabilize an already tense political situation.

The Rev. Moon Ik Hwan, 71, shocked officials in Seoul by appearing in Pyongyang over the weekend after making a clandestine journey via Tokyo and Beijing. By Monday, news of his bold, free-lance attempt to promote the cause of Korean reunification had aroused the indignation of the media and the disapproval of opposition parties.

Government authorities were irate and vowed to arrest Moon on his return for violating the National Security Law, which bans unauthorized contacts with the North Korean enemy. The reaction was in sharp contrast to the exuberant mood that greeted a trip to North Korea in January by Chung Ju Yung, founder of the Hyundai conglomerate, who undertook a private trade mission with the blessings of the government.


Moon’s gambit came on the heels of a controversial decision by President Roh Tae Woo to cancel an anticipated midterm referendum on his first year in office, ostensibly because he and his mainstream political opponents agreed that the vote might cause social unrest and provoke a confrontation between the radical left and the extreme right.

Roh recently has been beset by hard-liners in the military and in the ruling circles who are expressing displeasure over the president’s relatively tolerant approach to unfettered--and unfamiliar--democratic dissent.

Roh canceled the referendum March 20 with a pledge to get tough on the “violent leftist fringe” that he warned was attempting to overthrow the government.

Moon’s challenge to the government’s rigid control over contacts with North Korea appears to have generated enough confusion to provide Roh with a broad pretext to crack down on dissent for national security reasons.

“Whatever (Moon’s) motive for his unauthorized trip, either from romantic nationalism or idealism, it can only be damaging,” declared an editorial in today’s edition of the Korea Herald, a state-owned daily. “His impractical attempt will only play into the deceptive and masterful stratagem of North Korea.”

Much to the consternation of authorities here, Moon addressed North Korean President Kim Il Sung as “respectable chairman” and made a passing reference to “dictatorial forces” in South Korea in his arrival remarks Saturday. The remarks were reported in a dispatch by Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency.

The Presbyterian minister attended an Easter service at a Pyongyang church Sunday, and he reportedly described a vision of Korean reunification as the “resurrection of the nation.”

Moon, a veteran dissident and former political prisoner who was educated at Princeton University, had been invited to Pyongyang, along with two other dissident leaders and the heads of South Korea’s four political parties, by Kim Il Sung in the North Korean leader’s most recent New Year’s address.

Minister for Unification Lee Hong Koo told reporters Monday that Moon’s trip would only serve to strengthen the North Korean position in government-to-government negotiations. Talks on fielding a joint sports team in the 1990 Asian Games are set to resume today at Panmunjom, the peace village in the demilitarized zone. A third session aimed at arranging prime ministerial-level political dialogue is scheduled for April 12.

“Rev. Moon’s personal visit is feared to hamper our sincere efforts to have closer dialogue with the north, adding confusion to official talks,” Lee said.

Opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, speaking to diplomats and reporters at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club on Monday, said Moon’s visit should be seen in the context of Roh’s own policy of north-south reconciliation, which the president unveiled, with much fanfare, last July.

“He declared that North Korea is our partner, not our enemy, and we should regard them as such. In this spirit, the exchange of people of all walks of life would be helpful to ease tension,” Kim said. “I do believe, however, that it might have been much better if Rev. Moon consulted with the government before he went.”

Local press reports suggested the government was particularly miffed that its intelligence apparatus, which has a reputation for formidable efficiency, failed to detect Moon’s plans to go to Pyongyang. The Korea Herald quoted an unidentified government source as saying authorities were studying plans to increase surveillance. Roh had promised to curtail spying on South Korean citizens as part of his democratic reforms.