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Profile : Making a Career From Dissent : Lee Bu Young was on his way to becoming a journalist. But a government crackdown in South Korea landed him in prison and made him one of the country's top protesters.

June 18, 1991|SAM JAMESON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — Look at Lee Bu Young's life and you can see why South Korea has developed a seemingly permanent "dissident class."

He started out majoring in political science at the elite Seoul National University and then joining the country's most prestigious newspaper, the Dong-A, after graduation. Had fate not intervened, Lee mused the other day, "I might have been an editorial writer by now."

But fate--in the form of government repression--cost him his newspaper job and landed him in prison for more than seven of the last 16 years. Today, at 48, he is one of South Korea's best-known dissidents, a "profession" he took up when he found no regular jobs open to him.

Lee's story is about South Korea's political rigidity. It has been repeated for hundreds of journalists, labor activists, disgruntled farmers, religious leaders and alienated intellectuals--all forced out of the mainstream of society and blacklisted after criticizing the government.

Even today under President Roh Tae Woo, who has instituted widespread democratic reforms, Korea's dissident class continues to grow.

More than 1,500 teachers were fired between December, 1988, and December, 1990, for attempting to form a labor union, for example. According to newly appointed Prime Minister Chung Won Shik, who ousted them while serving as education minister, the teachers are now "turning into a political force, mounting offensives to discredit the Roh government."

The language sounds familiar to Lee. He was initially branded a radical by the government of the late President Park Chung Hee, who ruled following a coup in 1961 until his assassination in 1979. Nowadays, the onetime journalist can be found out on the street in nearly every demonstration, bellowing diatribes against government repression or its alleged neglect of the poor and underprivileged.

Early this year, Lee expanded into organized politics, becoming vice president of a new opposition group, the Democratic Party. It's his first regular job since 1975.

At the moment, the party is but a tiny splinter force in Korean politics, but elections that will be held this week for legislatures in all nine of the country's provinces and assemblies in six major cities could give it more clout.

And in next year's elections for the National Assembly, Lee himself is likely to become a candidate, he said.

It's a big change for a man who, while a high school student, said he was completely disinterested in politics. Intent on entering the engineering college of Seoul National University, he steered clear of demonstrations against a rigged vice presidential election staged by the late President Rhee Syngman in 1960.

Then one of his best friends, a classmate, was shot to death during a demonstration.

"The pain of the loss of my friend was so deep that I decided to change the course of my life and major in political science, instead of engineering at college," Lee said. "I felt ashamed that I had not participated in the demonstrations."

His first run-in with the government came many years later, after he served in the Korean army, graduated from college and joined the Dong-A newspaper. It was during a pre-Olympics tournament held in Sapporo, Japan a year before the 1972 Winter Olympics there, and Lee was a sports reporter at the time.

The South Korean Olympic Committee had claimed that one competitor on its team was the niece of a North Korean athlete--a claim the North Korean woman athlete denied. Park's propaganda organs immediately depicted her as a heartless Communist robot, typical of North Korean society--so cold she would even deny the existence of a relative in the south.

Lee managed to upstage the government's propaganda campaign, however, when he located the North Korean athlete's brother living in the south and arranged a phone conversation between the long-separated siblings. The conversation was taped and Lee had the heart-rending telephone reunion broadcast over the Dong-A's radio station.

It was one of the first such reunions between divided Koreans--reunions that remain rare even today. It created an emotional outpouring throughout South Korea and destroyed the government's smear campaign.

"It was the biggest story I ever covered," Lee recalled--big enough for the Korean CIA to earmark him as a troublemaker. In those days the KCIA--which is now known as the Agency for National Security Planning--spent much of its time manipulating domestic politics.

An assignment to the cultural section of the newspaper put Lee on course for a decisive fallout with the government. That came in 1972--the year in which Park usurped dictatorial powers, made himself president-for-life and banned all criticism of his government.

Dong-A's cultural section was in charge of covering universities, poets, playwrights, drama, movies, the bar association and religious circles--"and these intellectuals began to speak out," Lee recalled. As a result, "the cultural section became the political section."

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