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Politics

Moon under fire over plan to give benefits to democracy activists

Many members of ruling party have ties to South Korea's 1960s-80s protests

Students clash with riot police at Yonsei University in Seoul on July 6, 1987, as they protest the death of a student who died of head injuries 27 days after being hit by a tear gas canister during anti-government demonstrations.   © AP

SEOUL -- When Min Kyung-wook thinks back to his days as a student activist in the late 1980s, he remembers the fear he felt walking past clusters of gun-toting soldiers near the campus of Seoul National University.

Min was the student council president of his university's College of Humanities. He knew students had been beaten by police at protests, and one who was tortured to death while under interrogation. He knew his activism could cost him his life, but he stayed on the streets until the government agreed to hold democratic elections.

"Looking back, it was a brave and beautiful moment, and I'm proud of what our generation accomplished," Min said.

That era, when Min and thousands of his peers nationwide protested against the heavy-handed military regime that ruled the country, is back in the news. Twenty lawmakers in President Moon Jae-in's liberal ruling party have proposed a bill that would entitle around 800 former activists and their children to special state benefits in education and employment.

Participants in past protests against military regimes, starting with the 1964 demonstrations against the establishment of diplomatic relations with Japan, are eligible to receive state support for housing and healthcare. Their children can receive extra points when applying for coveted spots at universities and state-run enterprises.

The ruling party argues the measures are fair recognition of activists' sacrifices made in the name of achieving democracy in South Korea, after the country had for decades been ruled by military dictators who squashed civil and political rights.

However, the opposition conservatives have called it a veiled attempt at pork barrel politics. Many members of the ruling Democratic Party, including Moon, have ties to or participated in the democratization protests of the late 1980s.

Though Min participated in that movement, he has been a vocal critic of the bill, saying that it is inappropriate for the government to confer material rewards on activists.

"Activism isn't a self-interested thing. We didn't do what we did as a way of getting benefits for ourselves," Min told Nikkei Asia.

The bill, proposed by Democratic Party lawmaker Woo Won-shik, is the latest in a series of moves by the government that have led to accusations that Moon's party is working to build power and privilege for itself, while making empty claims about fairness.

The ruling party currently holds 177 of the 300 seats in the legislature. Critics have accused Moon's party of abusing that majority to push through legislation without reaching out to the political opposition or the public.

"The ruling party's attempt to pass legislation that would give preferential treatment to past pro-democracy activists and their families is to me another example of structural abuse of power," Kim Hyung-A, an associate professor of Korean Politics at Australian National University in Canberra, told Nikkei.

"This issue essentially raises questions about fairness and equity which Moon promoted as his governing principles," Kim said.

In a post on her Facebook page, opposition lawmaker Her Euna tied the proposed law to a series of ruling party politicians pulling strings to procure advantages for their family members, most notably Cho Guk, a prominent leftist who was forced to step down as justice minister amid various allegations of corruption. His replacement, Choo Mi-ae, has been plagued by claims that she used her influence to get special treatment for her son while he was serving in the military.

She mocked the proposed bill, calling it an attempt for Woo 's generation of activists to "prepare for their retirement and leave a silver spoon for their children."

On Oct. 9, Woo went on KBS Radio to address the controversy. He said the bill is meant to assist activists, or the descendants of activists, who died or were injured in protests, and had their ability to care for themselves diminished as a result.

Woo said around 800 people qualify for the benefits, all of whom were recognized by a government committee as having taken part in the democratization movement. He said that all current Democratic Party lawmakers, himself included, and their families are ineligible for the support.

He pointed to South Korean civil law, which stipulates that anyone who serves prison time and is later exonerated can claim financial compensation, and mentioned that similar legislation is already in place for participants in South Korea's movements against Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule.

"It's a huge distortion to say this bill is meant to benefit ourselves," Woo said.

Min, the former activist, long ago ceased participating in any kind of politics. He now operates a mathematics study institute in Seoul.

He feels that, instead of underscoring their own achievements, it is now his generation's time to prioritize improving South Korea for the nation's youth.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit South Korea's export-led economy, young people were already locked in fierce competition for stable jobs, and Min worries that by granting a leg up to former activists' children, the proposed bill will appear unfair to young job seekers.

"Our consideration for the next generation has disappeared," Min said, adding, "we shouldn't exaggerate the importance of what we did and we shouldn't become some vested interest in society."

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