How censorship is leading Korea to ruin

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. [Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19]

Last year, I wrote a post, which I fear is already becoming prescient, about how North Korea could plausibly win the Korean War. In condensed form, the strategy involves Pyongyang leveraging its nuclear, cyber, and chemical weapons supremacy and the South’s political divisions to provoke a series of crises, force Seoul into “peace” talks, and extort it, crisis-by-crisis and negotiation-by-negotiation, into unilateral disarmament, de facto editorial control over its media, the silencing of Pyongyang’s critics, the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and effective domination through a one-country, two-systems confederation. Given the strength of the nationalist faction now vying for control of U.S. foreign policy and the calls from other quarters for peace at any price, all of this could be a fait accompli before most Koreans even knew what had happened, especially if most journalists and editorial writers celebrated a de facto capitulation (as they certainly would) as the end of tensions and a new beginning for peace.

If it all sounds alarmist or even paranoid, consider that humans are accomplished at rationalizing their fears away, especially when the other surroundings of life still seem just as “normal” as they did the day, month, or year before. Although a sympathetic foreign press corps hardly noticed, former President Roh Moo-Hyun (whose Chief of Staff is the current President) had already gone far down the road of subsidizing friendly media and suppressing hostile media. There is also a published road map for this paranoid delusion of mine. The June 15, 2000 Inter-Korean Declaration called for, among other things, a confederation as a predecessor to “to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country.” (Update: which sounds much like how B.R. Myers translates the word “juche.”)

Pyongyang already has plenty of ways to enforce its censorship in the South now, including libel suits in which the truth is no defense, attacks by state-subsidized hard-left goon squads, the occasional assassination or threat of assassination, military provocations, and preemptive censorship by South Korean authorities who would (as Park Geun-Hye did) ban “slander” of the North Korean political system to avoid provoking it. To these instruments, Pyongyang recently added nuclear blackmail. 

“President Moon has expressed concerns regarding propaganda leaflets to North Korea as a matter that could prompt accidental clashes,” the official at the presidential office told Yonhap News Agency over the phone. “(The president) ordered aides to find ways for clashes to not occur,” the official added.

The remarks were reportedly made during a meeting with senior aides last month after Pyongyang announced it test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, in an apparent effort to minimize the risks of an inter-Korean conflict amid heightened tensions.

“The president explained past situations in which the North fired anti-aircraft guns towards balloons from the South carrying leaflets and then our military fired return shots,” the official explained, adding that Moon expressed a “considerable amount of concern” towards accidental conflicts.

For years, North Korean defectors in the South and conservative activists have flown the leaflets to the North via balloons to help encourage North Koreans to rise up against the Pyongyang regime. South Korea has said there are no legal grounds to prevent the activists from sending the leaflets, citing freedom of expression. [Yonhap]

This is how free people are tempted to trade liberty for security: Kim Jong-Un’s censorship knows no limits or borders. To submit to it is to forfeit one’s freedom. And if Kim Jong-Un will not disarm peacefully, and if we cannot live with a nuclear North Korea, and if we can neither talk nor bomb nor wait our way out of this crisis, then only spreading the truth to North Korea will set us free from the fear of war.

If Moon moves forward with this, he’ll probably do what authoritarians usually do when they want to censor inconvenient speech — disguise it as the enforcement of some politically neutral regulation, such as against littering, or as some kind of safety regulation. In the U.S., and probably in other legal systems, our courts are alert to this tactic and do not allow state regulations to burden “fundamental” constitutional rights unless they show that the regulation is narrowly tailored to advance a “compelling governmental interest.” And as Professor Lee and I conceded in an op-ed in the New York Times three years ago, moving the launch sites away from populated areas may meet that test and would certainly be prudent. But to ban the launches entirely would be yielding to a particularly flagrant and implicitly violent use of the “heckler’s veto.” It would, in effect, sacrifice a right to nonviolent free speech, which some states recognize as customary international law, in the face of a state’s threats of politically motivated violence against noncombatants (read: terrorism). One need not even ask if Moon would at least demand a reciprocal cessation of North Korea’s leafleting in South Korea.

[A friend of mine found this one on the way home from morning PT formation.]

It is not difficult to see how a series of accommodations like this one could evolve into a dual political system like that in Hong Kong, supervised by a Control Commission of strident North Koreans and pliable South Koreans, steadily rolling back the limits of what speech is permitted, what speech is subsidized, and what speech is verboten. Once Seoul is disarmed (in both a political and a martial sense), events would progress quickly. Of course, the last thing Pyongyang wants right now is to send its impoverished soldiers to occupy a prosperous (or recently prosperous) South. But with sanctions lifted at “peace talks,” the Commission would quickly implement “balanced development of the national economy through economic cooperation,” a South-to-North subsidy of the Pyongyang elites and the North’s “wavering” classes, and the relative impoverishment of the South, to achieve material parity across the DMZ. The two systems would be on a path to become One Slave Korea.

One reason why South Korea is relatively defenseless against this threat is that both the “left” and the “right” censor each other, at the expense of debate, discourse, and the pursuit of objective truth. I’ve tried to be just as strident in criticizing the right when it censored a professor for expressing pro-North Korean views, when soldiers shot and killed a man for trying to swim to North Korea, and when Park Geun-Hye’s government both justifiably prosecuted Lee Seok-Ki and unjustifiably dissolved his entire political party. Politicians on both sides have used libel suits to censor and even jail their political critics — Park Geun-Hye did it, Moon Jae-In did it, and both were illiberal and undemocratic when they did it.

But when “libel” amounts to “you hurt my feelings,” the practice of competent journalism risks professional and financial ruin, and it is safer to wage politics by planting rumors on Naver and MissyUSA comment threads than by making and defending charges against your political opponents openly. Thus, most of the news that’s fit to print is unverified, unverifiable, or simply fake. No wonder foreign journalists complain about standards of Korean journalism (though they seldom identify the causes of this). No wonder political discourse is dominated by rumor and innuendo. No wonder the courts are effectively rubber stamps for trial-by-protest, where crowd counts mean more than rules of evidence or forensic analysis. A society that is unable and unwilling to adjudicate truth is defenseless against the manipulations of its enemies. And when the prevailing view in Korean society is, as Nat Hentoff summarized it, “Free speech for me, but not for thee,” why does Pyongyang’s censorship sit on a lower plane than anyone else’s? 

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I concede that what I’m presenting as plausible seems facially fantastic and conspiratorial. Moon certainly doesn’t seem to fit the part of a Manchurian Candidate; he doesn’t radiate the angry delusions of grandeur of a Jeremy Corbyn and displays none of the boisterous, power-drunk inanity our own president does at times. His very niceness clashes with what his record suggests, and with the evidence of what some of his closest advisors certainly are. Admittedly, Moon is still in his “honeymoon” phase, but press coverage of him gives KCNA’s adulation of Kim Jong-Un a run for its money. Even so, Moon knows that his voters are wary of the North. As Moon supporter Duyeon Kim argues, he is waiting for the right moment to reveal and implement his actual North Korea policy, which is both probably true and profoundly terrifying. Certainly few of the academics and journalists who cover Korea want to believe that what I’m suggesting here is plausible. Nor do I suggest that any of the small limits Moon would put on free speech necessarily means that Korea is careening to the bottom of the slippery slope. All I am saying is that if my worst fears come true, it would all look a lot like this in the beginning.


  1. Even if this did come to pass though, would the citizens in what is the ROK eventually wake up to that? Democracy is a bit of a game, in that the citizenry get to choose who, and what ideas they want to move forward with again and again. I believe this flexibility is what makes this kind of system a little more resistant to the concentration of too much power in too few hands. The real problem is apathy. It is not that they might fall into the hands of KJU, but that they might not care. That is what we should fear most.


  2. Control commission? Kim Il Sung went on record at the Sixth Party Congress calling for a pan-Korean parliament composed of equal numbers of Northern and Southern representatives when reunification comes. One need not be clairvoyant to see how such a parliament would work in practice.


  3. Another big issue is the tremendous “SELF-censorship” now being exercised by the ROK media. This is one aspect in which there is
    no symmetry between the Park and Moon administrations. During the Park years, there was no comparable SELF-censorship on the part of the Korean left and far-left in any way approaching what
    is now transpiring among Korean conservatives and those on the right. It has come to the point that even stridently anti-North Korean media outlets have become very reluctant to use the Korean terms for “pro-North” to describe people who are in fact quite demonstrably pro-North. Some of this is based on heavy government pressure on corporations to cease their funding of conservative groups, some of it is based on threats of lawsuits
    by pro-North groups, and it is also due to an apparently newly emerging legal standard, bizarre even by the standards of Korea’s much-criticized libel laws, which implies that only those who publicly admit to being pro-North may legitimately be labeled as such. In spite of the so-called “horrors” of the NSL, as the situation now stand in the ROK, a pro-North professor can
    publicly praise Kim, Il-sung without fear of running afoul of
    that supposedly “draconian” law, but the the website which
    characterizes a well-known US pro-North activist as actually
    being pro-North is slapped with a 10 million won fine for


  4. On the supposed “symmetry” of Park vs Moon censorship, please keep this in mind….

    Chun, Doo-hwan’s book has been banned from sale, but Roh, Kil-nam’s may be freely purchased in Kyobo bookstore today,
    just as it was throughout the Park years.

    The “6.15 Committee,” which was ruled by ROK courts to be an “enemy-aiding” entity before Park became president, still
    functions quite freely and openly in the ROK, whereas the major free market-oriented and conservative think tank the
    “Center for Free Enterprise” was essentially pressured out of existence by the Moon camp.


  5. Your suggestion is not paranoid as NK has told the US straight its nuclear weapons are a sword of damocles to wield forever over SK. Unfortunately the answer is now clear: a medium term cold war in the region to bring China to its senses. Ring NK/China with missile defences from every possible vantage point from land and sea, reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons to the south, and Japan to be explicitly permitted to build its own nuclear arsenal. And a message to Beijing is that any doomsday conflagration subsequently started by Pyongyang would automatically involve Beijing, Shanghai etc but also Xian and Kunming. Short term purpose is to avoid war. Medium term, SK and Japan would be willing to remove and dismantle completely their arsenals and the US could stand down its missile defences in return for NK denuclearising in some semi face saving process at China’s behest. China is currently undertaking a grand historical bait and switch to lessen US influence through a proxy wild dog. It must feel the negative consequences of that risk before it will act in proper faith.