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The number of arrests of pro-North Korea activists in the South has surged in the last couple years.
SEOUL — Most of the time, South Koreans are assumed to be either hostile or indifferent to North Korea.
The two countries are, after all, officially still at war. And recent aggressive acts — the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan come to mind — haven't exactly painted a picture of friendship.
So it wasn't surprising that many South Koreans appeared unfazed by the passing of Kim Jong Il in December 2011. Instead of mourning the eccentric leader, most were preoccupied with what might happen next, now that their nuclear-armed neighbor was suddenly leaderless.
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What's more surprising, however, is that amid the uncertainty there were actually some South Koreans who were genuinely sad to see the Dear Leader go.
Kim Dae Hee, 45, who has longish hair — rare for a middle-aged South Korean man — and a steely gaze, attempted to hold a mourning ceremony in central Seoul with a group of activists on the day Kim Jong Il's death was announced. Kim was arrested that day, and is currently on probation.
Kim is a part of a small group of South Koreans who openly praise the North, many of whom hold the goal of reuniting the Korean peninsula. They do so despite the fact that expressing pro-North views is illegal in South Korea under the country’s National Security Law, and despite the fact that in recent years the number of those arrested under the law has risen.
Some pro-North Korea activists in the South are motivated by the ideology of the North, while others dream of one Korea. And then there are those for whom the issue is freedom of expression itself. For them, it's less about North Korea and more about the fact that they should be able to speak their minds, no matter what they have to say.
Dreaming of a united Korea
Kim says his warm feelings toward North Korea stem from his dream that Korea would once again stand united.
The Korean peninsula was occupied by the Japanese from 1910 until the end of World War II, when Soviet troops occupied north of the 38th parallel and US troops took over south of it.
“The main problem is that our country was divided by an outside force. We need American forces to withdraw from this country to gain true autonomy. That is the most important thing, not freedom or democracy. Those are secondary,” said Kim, who speaks effusively and uses many old-fashioned Korean honorifics.
On his lapel, he wears a pin of the Korean peninsula shaded entirely in blue, a color associated with integrity.
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Kim draws inspiration from the philosophy of North Korea's founding father, Kim Il Sung, who preached the notion of self-reliance and said that Koreans were the masters of their country's development. Much of the North’s propaganda is based on the idea that the country must resist the corrupting influence of the outside world and boldly forge an independent path.
To activists like Kim, this is paramount. “North Korea has its own final say. It doesn’t have to follow the direction of outsiders. I don’t believe freedom exists in this colonized nation,” he said, referring to South Korea.
Getting behind North Korea's ideology
For Hwang Seung Ho, who manages a pro-North activist group, Victims of the Korean National Security Law (VKNSL), it's all about ideology.
“I admire and cherish the ideology of North Korea. That is the most important thing in this globalized world,” said Hwang, who once trained to be a Catholic priest but didn't complete his studies.
“I find the Christian ideals of universal love and compassion in North Korea," he said, explaining that he finds North Korea to be the world’s only true democracy. In other countries, he says, when leaders are elected they only have part of the population’s support.
In North Korea “all of the population supports one leadership, one goal,” Hwang said.
Police raided Hwang’s home early February and all his materials on North Korea were confiscated. He was fired from his previous job as a tutor for his political activities. Hwang appeared stoic, and seemed to accept the raid as the price to be paid for his beliefs.
“That’s what happens,” he