In the NYT: N. Korea, extortion, freedom of speech, and freedom of information

Professor Lee and I are published in The New York Times today, expressing our disappointment at the South Korean government’s failure to stand up for freedom of speech for South Koreans and freedom of information for North Koreans, something the Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks to quite clearly:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

It’s one thing to say that Park Sang-Hak’s balloon launches should be moved away from populated areas as a prudent precaution in the interest of public safety. It’s another thing entirely to say–as South Korea’s left-wing opposition is building toward arguing–that the launches should be censored entirely to appease Pyongyang:

South Korea’s main opposition party will study ways to restrict civic groups’ flying of anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets across the border, its chief policymaker said Tuesday, citing heightened cross-border tensions resulting from the campaign. [….]

“Leaders of defector groups say they will continue to secretly scatter leaflets across the border, but our party can no longer watch the government’s laissez-faire attitude,” Rep. Baek Jae-hyun, the chief policymaker of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), said in a party meeting.

“We will soon study legal measures to restrict the flying of such leaflets.” [….]

The resolution, signed by 25 other NPAD lawmakers, urges the government to block the activity under the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act, swiftly execute a ban on cross-border slander and normalize ties with the North through dialogue. [Yonhap]

Fine, then–so now tell me where North Korea’s veto ends. Balloons are no more violent than radio broadcasting, nor any greater violation of North Korea’s sovereignty, so will South Korea’s left demand that Free North Korea Radio be shut down next? Will it demand the abandonment of policy proposals or actions at the U.N. that North Korea objects to? Will it want to censor newspapers that print things North Korea objects to? Would it ban movies and TV shows North Korea classifies as “slander?” Would it withdraw police protection from the activists North Korea has tried to assassinate, including Park Sang-Hak? If South Korea disregards the rights of North Koreans to freedom of information–despite recognizing them in the ROK Constitution–would it accede to North Korea’s “right” to track down and punish people who use illegal cell phones?

Given the history of the NPAD’s predecessor parties, the Uri Party and the Minju-Dang, those questions are hardly far-fetched. Once you acknowledge Pyongyang’s veto power over whatever it defines as “slander,” you’ve traded away your liberty for security, and you deserve neither.

Certainly the leaflet balloons are a powerful symbol for those of us outside Korea, but I’ve always wondered how much of an effect the leaflets could possibly have. It has to be significant. How else to explain North Korea’s reaction? At least one of the balloon activists claims that one of the leaflets played a part in inducing his own defection. That surprises me.

What doesn’t surprise me in the slightest is that John Feffer thinks the South Korean government should ban the balloon launches (Update: or at the very least, that the activists should censor themselves). That’s a rather illiberal view from someone who has railed against “McCarthyism” in South Korea and argued that the National Security Law suppresses free speech. Now, I’ve been a persistent critic of the NSL for years, and I happen to agree with Feffer that it’s overbroad, has been used to censor non-violent speech in ways that violate the plain meaning of the ROK Constitution, and should be repealed or struck down to the extent it goes beyond prohibiting violent conspiracies, the theft and disclosure of government secrets, and unregistered foreign agency. But it’s never acceptable for governments to censor nonviolent expression–whether John Feffer happens to agree with their viewpoint or not.

The proper response to violent attacks against peaceful expression isn’t censorship. It’s artillery.

2 Comments

  1. I would add that Mr. Feffer’s first point, that the balloon-borne leaflets may hurt the North Koreans who come into contact with them, is ahistorical and patronizing. By this “logic,” one can only draw the following conclusions: that evangelism only kills the converts, proselytization of any kind endangers the very lives of those targeted for deliverance, and benighted people suffering under a dictatorship should be left alone to sort things out by themselves–eventually. Mr. Feffer makes a strong case, for he has 8000 martyrs and 19th century history of Christianity in Korea to support his thesis, not to mention South Korea’s political dissidents like Kim Dae Jung and Kim Ji-Ha whom pesky American human rights activists should have ignored as they faced persecution. And, of course, he has Park Chung Hee on his side.




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