Is South Korea Still Free?

I knew that the South Korean government took some extraordinary measures to shield its visiting Northern bretheren from pesky free speech, but things have apparently gone further downhill than I had realized. Listen to what the new dissidents are reporting:

Doh Hee-yun, the head of the Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights for Abductees and North Korean Refugees, said Thursday two inspectors from Mapo Police Station followed him from morning to night during the celebrations. He said the inspectors tailed him by car and even followed him into a restaurant but when challenged would only say it was an order from Seoul Metropolitan Police. Choi Sung-yong, the head of an activist group for families of South Koreans abducted by North Korea, said officers from Songpa Police Station followed him all the way into the countryside, where he was visiting his mother in hospital.

Park Chan-sung, who chairs the Citizens Coalition to Stop the Nuclear Development of North Korea, said two-man police teams kept a tight watch on six or seven of the group’s leaders, conducted body searches and confiscated pamphlets and picket signs. He said police confined some to their homes, and on Monday police cars blocked both alley entrances to the group’s office. The head of the Free Citizens Alliance for Korea, Kim Gu-bu, said after the group demonstrated against the North Korean delegation’s visit to the National Cemetery on Sunday, police tailed some 50 of the group’s members until Wednesday, with five or six plainclothes officers loitering near the group’s office all day.

Park Chan-sung demanded, “Can one permit leftists to take their metal pipes and head to Pyeongtaek for a demonstration at a U.S. military base” as happened in July “but prevent us from going to express our opinion without even a single weapon?” He said he would lodge complaints against the officers responsible.

One need not speculate about the state’s motivations:

The groups planned to demonstrate at places visited by the North Korean delegation, including the National Cemetery, Gwanghwamun, the World Cup Stadium, Jangchungdan Park and Incheon Airport. Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan on Aug. 8 announced zero tolerance of groups attempting to desecrate or burn the North Korean flag.

And if you think we’re talking content-neutral restrictions on flag-burning or damage to international relations, then just take a gander at these photos from another demonstration that took place just weeks ago.

So what is the party line on this authoritarian behavior?

[A] police spokesman said the measures were taken to ensure the success of the joint Liberation Day celebrations. He denied they constituted detention or surveillance, saying they only aimed to prevent clashes between conservative and progressive groups at protest sites or places the North Korean delegation was visiting. He said the police had no legal mandate to tail or watch the groups and sought only to make sure the events went ahead smoothly.

Needless to say, this constitutes a major step backward for free speech and free assembly in Korea. Now, I’m not suggesting this rises to Kwangju levels of bad ally behavior, but the valid argument about the U.S. role in Kwangju, and about supporting the Park and Chun dictatorships, is that the United States failed to fully apply its influence to stop a government from repressing its citizens’ free expression. The same principle applies here, where a government protected by U.S. troops (who are paid by U.S. taxpayers) is taking mighty chomps out of its citizens’ freedoms and sliding back to something substantially less than pluralistic democracy.

Exactly what kind of example does this set for North Korea? What kind of message does it send to its people? Not only are human rights in the North clearly off the table, we now learn that human rights in the South are negotiable. One can only imagine what would happen if Kim Jong-Il were to visit Seoul. Can we expect to see similarly thuggish tactics when Freedom House brings its North Korean human rights conference to Seoul?

It just shows you what can happen when a few wacky human rights activists end up with the power of the state in their hands.

The United States ought to put the Korean government on notice that this is not the kind of government our troops will continue to defend. Our other policy objective, including our diplomacy with North Korea, will not suffer from the rapid reduction of the number of nuclear hostages on South Korean soil.

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