In this photo taken on Tuesday, a farmer grabs Lee Seok-ki, right, a lawmaker of the Unified Progressive Party during a rally to oppose the free trade agreement, or FTA, with the China in Seoul, South Korea. Lee's suggestion to replace the national anthem with a folk song popular in both Koreas has ignited a political and media firestorm from conservatives who are demanding that he be tossed out of parliament. (AP/Yonhap, Park Ji-ho)
A South Korean lawmaker's suggestion to replace the national anthem with a folk song popular in both Koreas does not at first glance seem like an act of disloyalty.
The folk tune, "Arirang," has no mention of socialism or glorification of North Korea's ruling family. It is a song of longing, of the sorrow of separation, heavy on images of sunsets over mountains and stars shining in clear skies.
But the comments by Lee Seok-ki, a politician in a minor opposition party who has been hounded by claims of pro-Pyongyang views, have fed a media and political firestorm about the possibility that some lawmakers are secretly loyal to the North. Critics say he should be kicked out of parliament for his views.
"Commie!" screamed farmers protesting a South Korea-China free trade deal when Lee showed up at their rally this week. Some grabbed his collar, tried to smack him with a red balloon stick and yelled, "Why'd you come here?"
The controversy highlights the unusual way North Korea is talked about in the South, where it's illegal to praise Pyongyang. Even oblique statements that fall well short of outright support for the North can bring accusations of disloyalty.
Lee's suggestion has also created an uncommon, and probably short-lived, point of unity among ruling conservatives and mainstream opposition parties who are scrambling to voice their indignation and patriotism ahead of crucial presidential elections in December.
"When you criminalize the discussion, you get all kinds of weird behavior, and recently it's been stepped up," said John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies in South Korea.
The dispute is difficult to separate from election jockeying and from the contentious atmosphere that lingers over the Korean Peninsula.
The Korean War ended in a 1953 truce, leaving the peninsula in a technical state of war. Many South Koreans remain jittery from two 2010 attacks blamed on Pyongyang that killed 50 South Koreans. In April, North Korea unsuccessfully launched a rocket that it said carried a satellite. The United Nations called it a cover for a banned test of long-range missile technology. Pyongyang has since threatened to attack its rival, accusing Seoul of insulting its leadership.
In his comments to journalists last month, Lee championed "Arirang" over the current national anthem, which dates to South Korea's creation in 1948 as an anti-communist, pro-U.S. bastion. Lee's office confirmed his comments but denied interview requests from The Associated Press.
Being forced to sing the anthem, which can be translated as "song of love for the country," amounts to "totalitarianism," Lee said. He did sing the anthem Monday when parliament opened, but his comments have been seen by many as a denial of South Korea's foundations.
Lee has been called an "anarchist," and some conservatives say his views about the anthem mean he should be tossed out of parliament as a threat to democracy. The main opposition Democratic United Party, distancing itself from the controversy as the election season heats up, says North Korea sympathizers have no place in politics, though its members have also criticized conservatives' enthusiasm for singling out such lawmakers in "witch hunts."
South Korean media and analysts — both conservative and liberal — say Lee is a leading member of a pro-North Korea faction within the United Progressive Party, which has 13 seats in the 300-member National Assembly.
UPP members deny support for North Korea in their ranks.
But Lee's comments can often seem provocative. In a May television interview, Lee said that being pro-U.S. is a more "serious problem" than being pro-North Korea. The United States stations 28,500 troops in South Korea as a deterrent against North Korean aggression.
Lee's comment about the U.S. was nearly identical to one made by last month by North Korea's Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland. That group also accused South Korean conservatives of ruining ties by oppressing "progressive patriotic groups."
Lee was sentenced in 2003 to 2 1/2 years in prison for playing a part in a pro-North Korea organization, a violation of the National Security Law, which makes it illegal to praise, sympathize or cooperate with the North, a Seoul High Court official said. Lee's office says he was among thousands of people granted amnesty by the president several months later.
Over recent decades, the views many South Koreans hold about their government and the North's have changed greatly. Many leading lawmakers here, both liberal and conservative, got their start as student activists who took to the streets in the 1970s and 80s, when the North's economy was comparable to the South's and Seoul was ruled by military-backed strongmen.
Now South Korea is a vibrant democracy and among Asia's strongest economies, while North Korea faces international condemnation over its nuclear weapons program and is unable, according to the U.N., to adequately feed millions of its people.
Only a tiny fraction of South Koreans now support pro-North Korea ideologies, according to Shin Yul, a politics professor at Myongji University who says most voters know their country is far better off than North Korea.
One pro-North Korea activist, No Su-hui, plans to return to South Korea after a three-month stay in the North, according to Pyongyang's state media. South Korean police say they plan to arrest No when he crosses the border.
The reaction to Lee's comments points to a real fear some South Koreans have about the existence of lawmakers who may feel more allegiance to Pyongyang than Seoul.
Moon Jin-mook, a 37-year-old accountant in Seoul, supports kicking any pro-North Korea lawmakers out of parliament, saying their presence could lead to North Korea getting national security secrets that only lawmakers have access to.
Despite the political rhetoric attacking Lee's alleged North Korea views, however, it might be persistent vote-rigging allegations that end his time in parliament.
South Korea's ruling and main opposition parties have agreed to discuss ousting Lee and another UPP lawmaker from parliament over an internal UPP investigation that found primary improprieties that included more ballots cast than voters who showed up.
Lee's own party is pressuring him to resign from the UPP, but he calls the vote-rigging scandal "exaggerated and not based on facts."
Some South Koreans see the frenzy as just another in a series of long ideological battles.
"I feel that conservative politicians and media are exaggerating the issue to distract people's attention from other issues," said Lee Dai-geun, a 34-year-old computer programmer in Seoul. "If a lawmaker told me about what a great place North Korea is, I'd just ask: 'Why don't you go live there yourself?'"