Once again, North Korea threatens free speech here in the United States

On December 19, 2014, in response to the FBI’s conclusion that North Korea was behind the threats against audiences for “The Interview,” President Obama said, “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” After all, the President reasoned, “if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like or news reports that they don’t like.”

Or, he might have added, a human rights conference put on by an N.G.O. in downtown Washington, D.C., where current and former U.S. diplomats were in attendance.

North Korea says it will respond “very strongly” to a conference in Washington on Tuesday about its widespread human rights abuses and says the United States ignored Pyongyang’s offer to attend and defend itself. Puzzled conference organizers said the event was open to the public.

North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador Jang Il Hun told reporters Monday his country has asked the U.S. government to “immediately scrap the so-called conference” hosted by the nonprofit Center for Strategic & International Studies. Speakers include Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues. [AP]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

You can debate what Jang meant and exactly what he was threatening, if you care to. I have no doubt that Jang’s masters chose exactly the words they did so that they could preserve a modicum of deniability, while allowing the rest of us to put his words into the context of North Korea’s recent actions and draw the obvious conclusions. What’s beyond dispute is that Pyongyang is trying to censor debate right here in Washington, D.C., by purporting to tell Americans what they can meet and talk about. Pyongyang now believes it can enforce its censorship writs on Rhode Island Avenue. It must be disabused of that notion.

If the President of the United States believes in defending our freedom to debate issues that are important to public policy, his first response will be to expel Ambassador Jang for activities incompatible with his diplomatic status. His second response will be to put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. His third response will be to get on with that “proportional” response he promised, after North Korean hackers threatened to attack American moviegoers. Those threats successfully suppressed two major films, and they have done incalculable harm to our freedom of expression. The President’s response ought to be premised on the determination that if North Korea forces us to choose between our freedom of expression and North Korea’s existence, then North Korea must cease to exist. A policy of imposing incremental inconvenience would no longer do.

Few Americans would describe President Obama as a particularly good president, particularly when it comes to foreign policy, although I’d still argue that with respect to North Korea, President Bush’s combination of empty tough talk and appeasement was even worse. Yet for some reason, fair or unfair, the North Koreans have made the calculation that Obama is a lightweight, and that he won’t offer a serious response to this sort of thing. That means we’re sure to hear more like this from them.

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