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North’s leader can expect warm Seoul welcome

Dec 11,2018
Though it remains unclear if or when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will make good on his promise made last September to visit Seoul, he may be surprised by a warm welcome already being readied by pro-Pyongyang civic groups.

On Sunday, as temperatures dropped well below zero, crowds in Daehangno - one of Seoul’s artsiest entertainment districts - gathered to watch a most unusual performance.

In the middle of a square were dozens of youths in military uniforms, half looking North Korean, the other half looking South Korean. The two sides faced off tensely and then suddenly started tap dancing. In their hands were unification flags, possibly the most recognizable symbol of Korean unity.

The event, entitled “100 Youths in a Unification Flag Dance,” was hosted by an organization that calls itself the Seoul Citizens’ Welcome Committee, which was formed late last month to rally support for Kim’s visit.

“We prepared this event to show that youths will lead the way to making the inter-Korean summit in Seoul a ceremony of peace and festivity,” said one of the event’s organizers.

In a major square in the center of Suwon, Gyeonggi, people of all ages took to a soap box on Sunday to deliver speeches welcoming Kim Jong-un to Seoul. Suwon was the latest city in which such speeches were made. The Paektu Praise Committee has held a series of such events in Seoul, Busan, Daegu and Gwangju since last month.

Groups promoting Kim’s possible visit to Seoul are sprouting up across the country. The Korean Progressive Student Alliance and the Baekdu Sentinels have staged rallies all over Seoul since November. The groups use social media to promote their events and have large followings.

The Paektu Praise Committee coordinates many of the smaller groups. It is now an umbrella organization for 13 other organizations including the Korean Progressive Student Alliance and the intriguingly named Group to Greet a Great Man, in reference to Kim Jong-un. The last group has received a lot of attention recently. Last week, the group’s head, a 35-year-old pro-Pyongyang activist named Kim Soo-geun, led its members in the chant “I love the Communist Party” - a twist on an old anti-communist slogan taught to elementary school students in South Korea’s authoritarian past.

The public has mixed reactions to such fulsome praise for the totalitarian leader of what remains South Korea’s primary military foe. But Kim Soo-geun - a former politician belonging to the far left Unified Progressive Party (UPP) - only made matters worse for himself last week when he came on a KBS TV show hosted by a well-known progressive entertainer and called Kim Jong-un a modest and able leader.

South Korea’s controversial National Security Act forbids any form of behavior or speech in favor of the North Korean regime, and many left-leaning groups want it repealed.

Yoo Dong-ryul, a former researcher at the Korean National Police University and head of the right-leaning Korea Institute of Liberal Democracy, said such groups are run by people linked to the now-disbanded UPP, a party that was dominated by leftists who made no secret of their affinity for the North.

BY JEONG BUM-CHUL AND SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]