The Safety Dance

In my scrapbook from my Army days in Korea, I still have a leaflet, courtesy of “the protector of our race’s destiny,” declaring that “North and South shall bask together in the glow of General Kim Jong Il’s embrace.”  That leaflet was given to me by a sergeant in my unit, who found it outside Gate 7 of Yongsan Garrison in Seoul found one day after morning PT formation.  Where in the Armistice agreement does it say that only one side gets to drop leaflets on the other’s territory?

My possession of this small scrap of paper is a useful illustration of North Korea’s audacious hypocrisy in theatening to turn Seoul into “debris” over a few leaflets being floated into its territory, in large part by South Koreans whose family members the North Koreans stole from them in their own country or its waters.

Yet rather than demand the return of these hostages or stand up to the North’s terrorism, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak is going forward with plans to find some legal basis — whatever it may be — to legally bar activists from launching leaflet balloons into North Korea.  If this is the best basis they can find, they really need to find better lawyers:

He said the government is seeking legal grounds since the leaflets “are harming inter-Korean relations. It is apparently investigating whether it can prevent the civic groups on charges of violating gas safety laws — the leaflets are typically attached to hydrogen balloons and then float across the border. But experts say the law should not apply to those involved in sending the propaganda leaflets since it only temporarily prohibits use of high-pressure gas when it is feared it might cause damage. [Chosun Ilbo]

Here’s what still makes no sense to me:  surely thousands of North Koreans must be able to hear Open Radio and Radio Free NK, to say nothing of the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.  What about these leaflets — whatever small number of them are actually found and read by North Koreans, that is — could be more subversive, destabilizing, or offensive than the content of those broadcasts?  If the answer is “nothing,” it’s reasonable to suspect that the true reasons for North Korea’s present tantrum are (a) the convenience of the timing, because they have other reasons for wanting to scale back relations with the South, and (b) this is a test, and they will soon ask the South Koreans to ban other kinds of speech that threaten their totalitarian rule.

Odder still is Lee’s motive for betraying principle this way:  he seeks to preserve the privilege of pouring South Korean won into the money pit called Pyongyang, despite knowing that much of that money will assuredly be used to build deadlier weapons to terrorize his country.

Park Sang-hak, head of the Fighters for Free North Korea, said, “We’ve been sending leaflets to the North since the Roh Moo-hyun administration. It’s strange that they said nothing at the time but suddenly made an issue of it today. And it’s also strange that the Lee Myung-bak administration, which is advocating human rights for North Koreans, is trying to ban us from doing it.”

I’m not so simplistic as to suggest that all speech is worth the risk of lives in every circumstance — for example, the busing of missionaries, who turned out not to want to be martyrs after all, to the middle of Talibanistan.  Some reasonable weighing of risks and rewards must be done.  The rewards here are hard to argue with.  If the leaflets really have managed to shut down Kaesong and deprive the regime of a multi-billion-dollar source of South Korean money — though I admit to having some doubts about this — one can say that these balloons have been more effective than a few dozen J-DAMS.  (Send your tax-deductible contributions to the North Korean Freedom Coalition!)   The activists have also brought much publicity to their cause.

Lee’s actions, on the other hand, are a disgraceful and preemptive surrender of South Koreans’ freedom to speak in the face of terroristic yet patently empty threats.  But if South Korea is unwilling to defend the freedom of its citizens to speak and to engage with the North Korean people, he’s surrendering principles for which many good men ostensibly fought and died.

It won’t end with leaflets, either.  The precedent this sets won’t have to extend far before North Korea demands the end of defector radio broadcasts, too.  As the brilliant and insightful Brian R. Myers reminds us, the North Koreans long ago managed, through Kim Dae Jung, to get South Korean TV anchors to refer to His Porcine Majesty as “National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong Il.”  Who believes that this regime will be satisfied at keeping free speech from the eyes and ears of its subjects, when it claims South Korea as its territory, too?

How should the activists react to this?  By seizing on the opportunity this creates.  I admit to having my reservations about launching these leaflets from the sea when the Pueblo incident taught us all how creatively North Korea interprets the limits of its territorial waters.  A North Korean seizure of a leaflet boat won’t endear those activists to South Koreans and would probably result in a ransom demand.  A safer and more effective answer would be to start launching these things from South Korea itself, inviting reporters to clandestine launches and playing a well publicized cat-and-mouse game with the South Korean police.  That would have the advantage of making Lee pay a political price for his cowardice.  If activists were arrested and put on trial, the activists would have another venue to generate publicity for their cause.

A few leaflets, after all, aren’t going to overthrow the rule of the Cult.  They may, however, modify the behavior of governments through humiliation, help derail policies that amount to appeasement, and capture the attention of the press — and the publc — through imagination.


  1. I think the leaflets demonstrate a tangible threat that radio broadcasts never can. Leaflets can be stored. They can be passed from hand to hand. Money is often attached to the tracts. Radio is much more difficult for North Koreans to access and hide from the thought police.

    Particularly precious are the leaflets with writings from the New Testament. I promise you these leaflets are guarded like gold by the fortunate claimants who discover the one thing North Koreans are starved for, even more than food. Truth.

    I agree that Pres. Lee Myung Bak is taking the exact wrong position as Joshua poignantly asserts – and this is a troubling action seeing the cowing and intimidated posture the ROK government assumes when threatened by its bellicose neighbor.

    Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was instrumental in ending slavery in the US. Perhaps the pen is mightier than the sword after all. There is a God in heaven, and his name is not Kim il Sung. He will judge justly in Korea, and even the Neville Chamberlain-like timidity of Lee Myung Bak cannot derail that imminent come uppance.


  2. the regime is going to fall soon. very very soon.

    of course everyone knows that SK is not what the NK has been advertising their whole lives. when they watch the illegal VCD’s of SK dramas and movies that have come through china they see flourishing life with cars, computers, new clothes, and no starvation.

    after KJI dies…the sooner the better, these leaflets are just a source for the commoner to say, ‘hey, this piece of paper is right. KJI, the supreme god who is the gift to the world was sick.’ it will be the catalyst for the people to question the government.

    the elites/military rulers in NK know that and they are scared.

    and actually LMB is scared too. he knows that if there is a massive refugee crisis, SK will have to help pay for it in this economy which won’t let up for the next few years.

    that is why he’s taking a different stance towards NK.

    if KJI dies, it will be massive hysteria in that country. and it’s happening a lot quicker and sooner than he ever expected.

    you know the balloons are making a difference when, as the daily nk reported, the government is telling the people the leaflets are toxic.

    but hopefully it will just be pandora’s box. when the government explicity tells you not to do it, everyone will want to read it.


  3. I think the ROK government is trembling behind closed doors. They know that USFK is still in the driver’s seat and that occupying NK will mean confronting Big Brother the PRC. Not a happy thought for most SK politicians.

    This is why we may need a (*gag*) UN mandate to occupy a collapsed NK state – we will need a regional solution with actual teeth.