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June 24, 2017

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SK anthem talk draws disloyalty claims

SEOUL, South Korea -- 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.

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