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The World

S. Koreans Turn Out Forbidden Flag

Politics: For the Asian Games, one factory gets leave to ignore Seoul's ban on North's banner.

September 28, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TAEGU, South Korea — The first time Kim Ho Gyung touched the North Korean flag, his hands were shaking and his breath was labored.

When he was growing up in South Korea, it wasn't just a violation of the national security law to possess the flag of his country's sworn enemy. It was more like blasphemy, Kim said, struggling for words to describe the enormity of the sin.

Now, not only does Kim have a North Korean flag, but he made it. And in a factory built by his father, a staunch anti-Communist and Korean War veteran.

"Unthinkable!" Kim said. "In broad daylight, we're making the North Korean flag!"

The occasion for the breaking of the taboo is the Asian Games, which will open Sunday in the South Korean city of Pusan. North Korea is sending its largest delegation ever to South Korea to participate in the sporting event.

After much tortured debate, the South Korean government decided that it would permit the North Korean flag to be flown with those of the other participating nations.

The ongoing dialogue between the Koreas notwithstanding, it is still a violation of South Korean law to possess a North Korean flag. But the South Korean government gave an exclusive, one-time waiver to the Taegu-based Hyopshin Special Dyeing Co. to manufacture 122 North Korean flags for the games.

The flags are allowed only inside the stadium and at the hotel where the North Korean athletes are staying. And the polyester screens used to manufacture the flags were destroyed at the end of the job to prevent any further, illegal flag production.

Choi Hyung Ju, an official of the Olympic Council of Asia, said it had asked the South Korean government to allow the North Korean flag in keeping with "the basic principle [of the Olympics] that no nation or people should be discriminated against because of beliefs and ideology."

But the Kim family of the Hyopshin factory has mixed feelings about its role in the march of history.

Kim, 43, describes himself as a "right-wing conservative" whose hatred of North Korea was well honed by his experiences as a young man patrolling along the demilitarized zone between the two countries.

The company was selected to make 30,000 flags for the Asian Games in May, when it was unclear whether the standoffish North Koreans would participate. When North Korea announced last month that it would come, and the South Korean government approved the use of the flags, Kim was contractually obligated to supply them.

"I know that I should be proud that our company is making history, but frankly I would have rather somebody else do the job," said Kim, unfurling a roll of North Korean flags, which feature a red star in a white circle against broad bands of red and blue.

"We were tempted to try to import the flag from a third country--Switzerland or China. But the procedures for importing North Korean flags were very complex," he said. "We would have needed special customs clearance. And the quality would have been different from the other flags. We decided ... we'll just make it."

Flag-making is a delicate business that requires not only steady hands for applying dye but also the tact of a diplomat. Errors almost always prompt official complaints from embassies.

The flags for the Asian Games were already a headache: Afghanistan's flag was evolving along with changes in the country's government, and Kim could barely keep track of its progress. And to avoid objections from China, the flag of Taiwan had to be replaced by a special flag incorporating Taiwanese symbols with Olympic rings.

But nothing was as difficult as making the flag of the enemy.

"Everybody was terrified. Our hands were shaking.... The speed was 50% slower than making other flags," Kim said.

During the height of the Cold War, South Koreans could be arrested for as little as owning a book that contained a picture of the North Korean flag. Even wearing too much red could raise suspicion that one was a Communist.

The taboo over red has long since been shattered--in fact, fans of the South Korean soccer team wear it as their team color. But the flag remains strictly forbidden under Article 7 of the National Security Law, which subjects "those who praise, encourage or propagandize for anti-state organizations" to prison terms of as many as seven years.

Lee Sang Hyon was only 20 when he was arrested in 1992 for participating in a demonstration at Seoul's Konkuk University at which students used hand-painted North Korean flags in support of Korean reunification. He served 2 1/2 years in prison.

"We wanted to break the taboo back then," said Lee, who says his conviction caused his family great anguish and cost him his dream of earning a doctorate in history. He hopes the decision to fly the flag during the Asian Games will lead to an overall lifting of the ban.

The countries technically remain at war, having ended the Korean War in 1953 with a cease-fire but not a peace treaty.

Polls show that 60% to 70% of South Koreans approve of their government's decision to allow the North's flag to be used during the Asian Games but that they are more closely split on permanently lifting the ban. Younger Koreans tend to be more in favor of the flag--or at least less opposed.

"People my age aren't allergic to the flag in the same way as the older generation," said Choi Jong Hyuk, who at 28 is the youngest employee at the Hyopshin factory. "A flag is a flag. What's the big fuss?"

Even Kim's father, who established the factory 20 years ago, seems not to be as perturbed by the flag order as the family expected.

The 72-year-old war veteran can no longer speak, the result of a stroke. But when his son told him that the factory was printing North Korean flags, "he could have made a face or pointed a finger, but he didn't do that," Kim said. "He had an expression on his face as though he was saying, 'Oh, how the world has changed.' "

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