Korean Activist, Ex-Supporter of North, Plots His Next Move

SEOUL — In the 1980s, Kim Young-hwan was a legend among South Korean student activists. His widely read pamphlets converted legions of students into firebomb-hurling agitators against the U.S.-allied military dictatorship in the South. They celebrated the North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and his “juche,” or self-reliance, doctrine and helped make anti-Americanism a centerpiece of the student movement — a legacy that continues to resonate in South Korean politics today.

By 1991, the world was changing: the Soviet bloc was crumbling and South Korea was evolving into a democracy. But Mr. Kim clung to his belief that North Korea remained a bastion of ideological purity and the guiding light for Korean unification. So when, in violation of South Korean law, he secretly visited North Korea to meet Kim Il-sung, he had exalted expectations of the man he had lionized as a guerrilla fighter during Japanese colonial rule and a postwar nation-builder.

The reality was crushing.

“Kim Il-sung was gregarious and very good at making people feel at ease,” Mr. Kim said in a recent interview, recalling his two meetings, totaling five and a half hours, with the North Korean leader at his mountain villa. “But, however much I tried, I couldn’t engage him in any serious discussion of juche. It finally hit me that the old man didn’t know very much about the ideology created in his own name....

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