Archive for Censorship

AP outraged about free speech in Cuba

Is the AP a cabal of closet Marxist-Leninists or just the supine courtesan of every tyrant who lets it open a bureau in his kingdom? Either way, I really don’t understand what drives its corporate conscience. On one hand, it recently criticized the Obama Administration for “propaganda” photos. On the other hand, it did this not long after putting on an exhibition of actual propaganda photos of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Now, the AP has released a breathless expose of a U.S.A.I.D.-backed program, launched by the Obama Administration, to bring just a sliver of free speech to Cuba, in the form of a Twitter clone called “ZunZuneo.” AP even gave the 60 Minutes treatment to the civil servant who ran the program, following him home and sticking a camera in his face.

Let’s sum this up. The program was completely non-violent and appears to have broken no laws except Cuban censorship laws. It never even got far enough to plant any subversive information (unfortunately!). It was also popular and potentially effective. Before the AP exposed it, it was providing a service that Cubans liked and used. What if they liked and used it even more after it became a safe place to complain about food shortages, nosy block committees, corruption, the persecution of dissidents, and censorship? Is it morally wrong for people living under oppressive governments to be able to complain about those things or organize online?

ZunZuneo’s organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid detection by the Cuban government. Eventually, documents and interviews reveal, they hoped the network would reach critical mass so that dissidents could organize “smart mobs” — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice — that could trigger political demonstrations, or “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” [AP]

I want our government to help people do that! There’s no evidence that anyone was hurt by this program, and had it succeeded, no one would have been hurt except the Castro brothers and their censors. At worst, the program might have been housed more appropriately in the CIA or the Broadcasting Board of Governors, although U.S.A.I.D. didn’t deny its involvement after the program’s exposure. The Cubans who used ZunZuneo were unaware of its U.S. government connections and weren’t endangered (one good reason why U.S.A.I.D. initially concealed its links to ZunZuneo). Why is this a scandal — other than the fact of its public exposure? Is it the AP’s position that the Cuban people should spend their whole lives living under poverty and oppression? How else will those conditions ever change?

Also, note how the AP “interviews” Cuban citizens, almost certainly in the presence of government minders, without telling us whether any minders were present. That fact, however relevant to the viewer, would have illustrated the absurdity of the AP’s argument nicely.

Say, do you suppose the AP has a bureau in Havana? Do you suppose it ever covers stories about dissent in Cuba, or is it pretty much like AP’s bureau in Pyongyang — a lucrative partnership with censors and propagandists? This story is a good example of why, as much as I distrust all news media, I distrust the AP more than the rest of them.

Based on everything in the AP’s report, I conclude that this was actually a great idea that served both the interests of the United States and those of the Cuban people. I wonder how hard it would be for the CIA to hack into Koryolink and bring Twitter to North Korea. I wonder how long it would take for the AP to blow the lid on that.

In South Korea, a political realignment

When President Park speaks of reunification as a “jackpot,” she is seizing an issue that the left had “owned” for at least a dozen years. Ten years ago, the left could draw crowds of candle-carrying thirty-somethings to swoon about reunification, at least in the abstract. The dream was qualified, complicated, and hopelessly unrealistic, but it intoxicated them. The DMZ would have become a “peace park,”* the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea would have become a “peace zone,” and both systems would have evolved toward some sort of neutral confederation. (What a long, strange trip!) In concrete terms, however, the Roh Administration wasn’t so eager for reunification. It certainly didn’t want North Korean people, thousands of whom had a far better grasp on the practical distinctions between the two systems. It didn’t even seem to want North Korea itself, except as a tourist or investment venue, and more generally as a money pit. Above all, it avoided challenging the North’s political system. And as I noted here, it’s all so 2003 now.

You could say that the confederation was already taking shape in some disturbing ways. Maybe the most disturbing was the Roh administration’s willingness to suppress speech that Pyongyang objected to. It muzzled the press and tried to censor reporting critical of North Korea. Activists who protested visiting North Korean officials were followed by police, stopped and frisked, confined to their homes, or had pamphlets seized from them. The political output of the subsidized South Korean entertainment industry was almost monolithically anti-American and sympathetic to North Korea. Government officials reportedly demanded changes to the script of a play, written and produced by a North Korean refugee, and set in a North Korean concentration camp. It arrested activists who attempted to launch leaflet balloons into North Korea. A 2005 survey found that “[n]ineteen percent of [North Korean] escapees who had criticized the South Korean government, the North Korean regime, or Kim Jong Il … received a warning or threat by administration officials.”

Some of the censorship was vicarious or passive. The left-wing government gave financial subsidies to pro-North Korean unions and “civic groups” that engaged in violent protests against the U.S. military presence. In 2005, shortly after Radio Free North Korea began broadcasting, repeated anonymous threats forced its landlord to evict it from its leased space. (With the election of Lee Myung Bak, the end of the subsidies, and a sexual assault scandal, the KCTU’s street power waned.) As late as 2011, leftist union goons disrupted a North Korean human rights film festival in Seoul. There must be many cases of speech that was chilled by these tactics that we’ll never know about. Certainly it had an impact in shaping South Korean perceptions about North Koreans and reunification.

The consequence of this is that South Koreans, despite their physical and cultural proximity to North Korea, are almost a decade behind the rest of the world in their understanding of how most North Koreans really live. It has been a slow awakening, but since 2008, there has been a modest shift in how South Korean society views North Koreans. Cha In-Pyo was already a big star in South Korea that year, when he starred in “Crossing,” a story about a North Korean refugee and his son. The Chosun Ilbo produced “On the Border,” a brave and ground-breaking series of documentaries about North Korean refugees and smugglers, and how they were changing their homeland. The 2012 film “48Mportrayed the wretchedness of life inside North Korea and the brutality of its regime’s measures to prevent escape. Today, “On My Way to Meet You” is a popular variety show featuring fetching North Korean women who sometimes describe their lives in the North or comment on newsworthy events there. This is a change for the better, but with the latter exception, none of these works were popular or had a great cultural impact. More South Koreans still see North Koreans as a ravenous horde of ignorant bumpkins than as human beings and fellow Koreans.

A few die-hards still hold out on ideological islands of their own creation. One of these, Daegu University law professor Yoon Jae-man, recently tweeted, “I hate these North Korea defectors more than pro-Japanese groups. North Korean defectors, who once conspired to destroy liberal democracy, should be put to death just like France killed people who engaged with the Nazis.” Last year, former North Korean propaganda star Lim Soo-Kyung, now a Democratic Party lawmaker, unloaded a drunken tirade on a North Korean refugee in Seoul, saying that “[d]efectors who have no roots should just shut their mouths and live quietly,” and “should not talk back to a Republic of Korea National Assembly lawmaker.” Referring to a fellow lawmaker and human rights activist, Lim said, “You work with that Ha Tae Kyung right, on that North Korean human rights stuff? Ha Tae Kyung that turncoat I’m going to kill him with my own bare hands.”  Lim isn’t part of any fringe party. She represents the “mainstream” Democratic Party (DP), which is now trying to present a more moderate image.

And lately, it seems that another North Korean spy is unmasked in the South every month.

~  ~  ~

It was inevitable that shifts in the information landscape and public opinion would eventually force political changes, even in South Korea’s hyper-polarized and doctrinaire environment. The DP, the successor to Roh’s left-wing Uri Party, is now shifting toward the center to avoid being tagged as soft on North Korea. A few years ago, there would have been no need to worry about that.

The immediate catalyst for the shift was the announcement by politician Ahn Cheol-Soo that he’s forming a third party to compete in elections across South Korea. This has sown panic on the left. The Hankyoreh, its flagship newspaper, recently called the DP “pathetic,” and the DP leadership admits that it is “compet[ing] with Ahn in political innovation” as Ahn targets the DP’s base in Cheolla, emphasizing local autonomy rather than old-fashioned leftist ideology. Ahn flirted with running for mayor of Seoul — a position currently held by the DP — but later denied any interest in the job. More worrisome for the DP are recent polls suggesting that it is “surrendering second place to” Ahn’s party. If that is true, it is almost certainly a short-lived novelty reaction to a new brand. The real danger for the DP is that Ahn’s party will act as a spoiler against its candidates. That is forcing the DP, whose ranks still contain some extreme pro-North Korean ideologues, to back away from extreme views that, not so long ago, were dominant within the ranks of the old Uri Party.

Within weeks of Ahn’s announcement, the DP’s leader, Kim Han-Gill, promised to help create a North Korea policy based on “national unity.” A majority of DP lawmakers polled by the Joongang Ilbo agreed that “its North Korea policy should be upgraded to reflect the times and the changes in the public’s perspective.” Next, Kim did a photo op at a monument to service members killed by the North Koreans on Yeonpyeong. (By contrast, former President Roh Moo Hyun had downplayed remembrances of the six crewmen of the Chamsuri 457, who were killed in a 2002 naval battle with North Korea, to avoid offending North Korea’s sensibilities. This so angered the widow of one officer that she emigrated to the United States.)

Kim even committed his party to supporting a North Korea human rights law. The reversal seemed to end nine years of DP obstructionism, based on a fear of offending North Korea, of a bill that “seeks to improve human rights, political rights and the right to freedom” of North Koreans, and “includes the establishment of a special envoy (for North Korean human rights), a documents archive and a North Korean Human Rights Foundation.” The bill would also provide financial support to private human rights advocacy groups and groups helping North Korean defectors.

A few days later, however, the DP’s floor leader said that his party wasn’t really committing to any of that, it was committing to “supporting South-North cooperation and providing humanitarian aid” — in other words, cash for Kim Jong Un. Evidently, the DP’s hard-left wing had pushed back. GNP floor leader Hwang Woo-Yea, who had exerted himself heroically for this bill for years, responded that a human rights bill ought to be about promoting and improving human rights:

“A bill on North Korean human rights should literally be a bill for the improvement of North Korea’s human rights situation,” Hwang said. “The specific ways of supporting (North Korea) are contained in a separate law on supporting North Korea, so they should be handled by that law.” [Yonhap]

If the DP’s concession does nothing else, it will turn the national debate toward the question of why a human rights bill is necessary at all, and it shows which side of the debate has momentum. The ruling Grand National Party hopes to put the bill to a vote this month, but the two parties show no signs of agreeing on substance. If there is a vote, it will be divided, and it will give us a clearer idea of how much the DP’s rank-and-file has evolved.

~  ~  ~

Part of the DP’s problem is that President Park projects competence. The economy is doing well, and the conservative press can make a credible case that Park has been effective in promoting Korea’s interests abroad, even if only in the largely symbolic contest against Japan. Park also showed toughness and effectiveness in negotiating with the North Koreans to reopen Kaesong (thus, successfully achieving a second dubious objective).

Another part of the left’s problem is that is has been damaged by the excesses of its extreme element. Lee Seok-Ki, a lawmaker for the far-left Unified Progressive Party, was recently stripped of his parliamentary immunity and arrested for leading a Fifth Column group called the “Revolutionary Organization” that plotted violent attacks against South Korean infrastructure, in support of a North Korean invasion — over a tapped phone line, with 130 people (including kids and drunks) in attendance.

In one of the meetings, which lasted till 2 a.m. on May 13 at a religious retreat in the South Korean capital, Seoul, Mr. Lee, 51, said war could be imminent on the divided Korean Peninsula and his followers should prepare themselves for a “revolution” against “the world’s most powerful American imperialists” and achieve “a new reunified fatherland,” according to the National Intelligence Service’s charges against him. At one point, he said the manual for making the pressure cooker bomb used in the Boston Marathon attack was available on the Internet. [....]

Another follower, Lee Sang-ho, suggested attacking South Korea’s communications, oil, train and other crucial facilities in case of war, the charges said. But Mr. Hong also called the idea of buying sniper rifles and using hacking skills to attack military radar facilities “outlandish.” [N.Y. Times]

Here is what one of Lee’s co-conspirators said in a recorded conversation that the prosecutors recently played in court:

“We have our support groups in the country. In an emergency, we must organize them in a timely manner … If we mobilize them to spark a protest just like the massive protests against mad cow disease [in 2008], it will damage the Park Geun-hye government,” he said. “Some important facilities are installed in U.S. garrisons. Not just army bases but radar installations or electric facilities. We need to amass [information about] them.” [Joongang Ilbo]

Prosecutors are now seeking a 20-year prison term for Lee. We haven’t heard the court’s verdict, but some “progressives” insist that Lee’s trial is a witch hunt to restore a right-wing dictatorship. I can believe a number of arguments that Park has an authoritarian streak, but not this one. The UPP had initially offered a dizzying range of explanations, including, “He was just joking.” Eventually, Lee settled on the minimally plausible story that he was really preparing to defend South Korea against an attack by the United States.

The UPP and the DP are two different parties, of course, but it isn’t completely unfair of voters to associate Lee’s ideology with a DP that still includes the likes of Lim Soo-Kyung. The DP’s Chairman, Kim Han-Gill, supported Lee’s arrest on charges of plotting a violent insurrection, but roughly two dozen of its members opposed it.

If the left wanted to make a more convincing argument that Park Geun-Hye is behaving like an authoritarian, it could criticize her for dissolving political parties, decertifying labor unions, or prosecuting people for praising North Korea. Park might be able to justify these actions if those groups — as opposed to certain individuals or factions within them — had conspired to commit violent acts or act as covert agents of a hostile foreign government, but that is not true of any of the cases I linked above. (Lee Seok-Ki’s pro-North Korean faction does not represent the entire UPP. One faction of the UPP holds views similar to European democratic socialists. To dissolve an entire political party because of the actions of some of its members is overbroad and authoritarian.) I was horrified when the Army shot a man for trying to defect to North Korea last September, although I appear to be the only one who felt this way.

You don’t have to sympathize with the targets of these actions to see that the government’s tactics will backfire, eventually. For now, South Korean voters care more about security and economics, and they’re weary of the left’s extreme ideology. It’s also clear that the left has lost its talent for dissent. Yes, it has offered some legitimate criticism of Park’s troubling attacks on freedom of speech and association, but it also squandered its credibility defending Lee Seok-Ki.

The point of which is, isn’t it sad that Korean governments find it so much easier to censor opposing views than to argue the issues on their merits?

(* President Park revived that proposal recently. I’m all for it, by the way. I don’t think Park Geun-Hye is interested in lowering South Korea’s defenses; I think she’s trying to triangulate for the voters, and a “peace park” would effectively become another border North Korea couldn’t seal, and a direct route for north-to-south defections. That’s why North Korea would never agree to this.)

Samsung Tries to Sue Its Way to Mohammunity

Recently, a friend approached me about the idea of writing a column for a South Korean newspaper. I declined on the basis that I’m already overtaxed by the burden of writing this blog, but perhaps I should have added “the defense of personal jurisdiction” as another reason:

In his Christmas Day 2009 column for the Korea Times, Michael Breen decided to lampoon such national newsmakers as President Lee Myung-bak and the pop idol Rain.

Headlined “What People Got for Christmas,” the English-language column also poked fun at global technology giant Samsung Electronics, referring to past bribery scandals as well as perceptions that its leaders are arrogant. [....]

Breen’s column ran as local media reported that President Lee would soon pardon Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee on a 2008 conviction for tax evasion. Chairman Lee, 68, had already received a federal pardon in the 1990s on a conviction for bribing two former presidents while he was with the firm.

On Dec. 29, the day of Lee’s pardon, Samsung sued the freelance columnist, the newspaper and its top editor for $1 million, claiming damage to its reputation and potential earnings. After the Korea Times ran clarifications, the newspaper and its editor were dropped from the suit.

And people wonder why corporate corruption is so common in South Korea. I guess it just goes to show that you never know what you’re not reading:

“In South Korea, it’s considered taboo to criticize the chaebols,” said Kim Ky-won, professor of economics at Korea National Open University. “They hold very close to absolute power.”

Most critical stories run in smaller media less dependent on ads from big companies. Major media reports are mostly limited to breaking news of prosecutions of chaebol leaders but seldom probe deeper, critics say.

“Samsung has financial power over the press. They’re their own sanctuary where no one can intervene or criticize them,” said Kim Keon-ho, an official at the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice.

With special guest appearance by Brendon Carr:

“In South Korea, injury to one’s reputation is the key element, not the truth,” he said. “The fact that a statement is true is not an absolute defense. Satire is not a defense. That’s different from the American definition. America is a free speech society, whereas Korea is not. It has historically been a ‘sit down and shut up’ society.”

Punishment here is tougher if the statement is not true. “But you’re punished in all cases for revealing things that injure someone’s reputation,” Carr said. “If you say, ‘Look out for Jim. He’s a crook. He swindled me,’ that’s a crime in South Korea. And people use it. Defamation may be the No. 1 criminal complaint here.”

Suddenly, Robert Koehler’s hypervigilance about libel suits doesn’t seem so hypervigilant. I wonder if a South Korean judge or lawyer (or Samsung) can now sue Mr. Carr. I wonder where this stops. I especially wonder if any of the many South Korean plaintiffs I’ve criticized or ridiculed would try to assert personal jurisdiction over a U.S.-based blog whose only footprint in Korea is the fact of not being blocked there. Yet.

I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Breen’s writing, even if I often disagree with his views. I find it tasteless of Samsung to persecute him for satirizing press reports that it paid bribes to prosecutors. I find it especially tasteless that my profession is being misused to censor public criticism and suppress freedom of speech notwithstanding the truth of the matter asserted. As a small gesture of solidarity with Mr. Breen, whom I’ve never met, here are some links to other people’s reports on what the scandal is all about, just in case you didn’t really know, either.

* Former Samsung lawyer “Kim Yong-chul claimed that Samsung has a large network of government officials, politicians, journalists and academics in its pay,” a network that doesn’t include one presidential aide who photographed and then refused a W5 million “holiday gift.”

* This NYT blog post notes that Mr. Kim even managed to get Catholic priests to act as his mouthpieces. That’s some trick.

* Someone alleged that Samsung had also paid off Roh Moo Hyun.

If you ask me, the suppression of legitimate criticism is a greater scandal than any of this. Admittedly, I wasn’t a major consumer of Samsung products before this, but I sure as hell won’t be one now.

Who Is Still Free Not to Be Muslim?

Let’s begin by dispensing with the moot question of whether I agree with all that Geert Wilders has said. I don’t, and I specifically disagree with statements by Wilders, such as his call for the Koran to be banned, that are themselves incompatible with the freedom of speech Wilders now defends so articulately. But almost by definition, people who become the state’s first targets for censorship have inevitably expressed views that are controversial, even indefensible.

Wilders is now facing prosecution in The Netherlands, the historic refuge of Europe’s dissidents and free-thinkers, for his words criticizing the intolerance of Islam. Wilders, who I hope has learned a more consistent view of free speech from his own experience with petty despotism, answers a Dutch court this way:

A quote:

It is not only the right, but also the duty of free people to speak out against any ideology that threatens freedom. Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, was right: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” I hope with all I have in me that freedom of expression will prevail in this trial. Not only that I will be acquitted, but that freedom of expression will continue to exist…. This trial, of course, is about freedom of expression, but this trial is also about finding the truth. The statements I have made — the comparisons I have drawn — are they true, as mentioned in the summons? Because if something is true, how can it be illegal?

It would be one thing if the state’s objective was to stultify all discussion of religion and theocracy, but it isn’t. The state is simply betting that it’s easier to silence critics of extremist Islam than it would be to expect Muslim extremists to tolerate free discourse. Wilders’s argument, which I believe paints with too broad a brush, is that Islam is fascist. The state, by prosecuting Wilders for the expression of his ideas, now means to confer protected status not over all religions, but only the one whose adherents — or rather, some of them — tend to react to free speech with stabbings, fatwas, and riots.

Sure, you say, but Europe is far away. Well, Canada isn’t:

That this could happen so close to us suggests that it could happen here, too.

“Chutzpah” in Korean = “막무가내”

North Korea, which is ironically quite fond of accusing South Korea of the “suppression” of its puppets in South Korea, is demanding that South Korea prosecute the activists who’ve resumed showering its countryside with anti-Kim Jong Il leaflets:

The chief delegate to inter-Korean military talks was quoted as saying by the Korean Central News Agency that “South Korean organizations, swept by anti-communism, caused a disturbance by flying tens of thousands of leaflets from Paju, Gyeonggi Province on Jan. 1. “South Korean authorities have to immediately take steps against those conservative groups and punish the main culprits,” he said.

The Chosun Ilbo has some even better quotes:

He said, “The ‘people’s coalition for sending leaflets to the North,’ a federation of far right conservative groups, created another round of commotion by sending hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets to our side from the Imjingak Pavilion” in Paju, Gyeonggi Province on Jan. 1 in an “anticommunist frenzy.”

The North “will never tolerate the slightest acts undermining our leadership’s absolute authority and the socialist fatherland’s dignity, no matter how precious and urgent the improvement of North-South Korean relations is,” the message said. The North “must take a serious look at the provocative leaflet dissemination… instigated by South Korean authorities, which are leading inter-Korean relations to a confrontation behind our back while calling for dialogue and improvement of ties to our face,” it added.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.

And of course, we know that Roh Moo Hyun was willing to do their bidding. During his term as President, North Korean puppets ran wild in the South and intimidated their opponents with violence — and even got government subsidies while they did it — while opponents of North Korea’s dictatorship were harassed and beaten up by state and non-state actors, who were almost never arrested or prosecuted for the actions.

I happen to agree that the South shouldn’t prosecute imbiciles like Shin Hae Chul especially when the marketplace of ideas could address this sort of stupidity so much more effectively with shame, satire, and ridicule. Sadly, people without (a) a sense that government should be restrained, (b) strong logical reasoning skills, or (c) a sense of humor tend to resort to petty despotism in the form of “human rights” commissions, “truth and reconciliation” commissions, national security laws, and anti-blasphemy laws. And if that can happen in supposedly libertine places like Canada, it’s a significant threat to free societies everywhere.

The North Korean Freedom Coalition supports the balloon launches. If you’d like to f^ ©k with Kim Jong Il’s blood pressure a little, you can contribute to them here. I would like to offer this humble suggestion: with the value of a Choco Pie approaching ten dollars on the black market in North Korea, I would propose carpet-bombing North Korea with them. Just imagine the headlines, and I don’t doubt that the Orion people would love to have their product enshrined in Korea’s history as an instrument of unification. It could be the most stunningly effective, legitimately subversive, and liberating guerrilla marketing campaign in human history. Hell, not even the soldiers ordered to gather them could resist eating one … and who could eat just one ChocoPie?

More on Australia’s Denial of Visas to N. Korean Propaganda Artists

In Australia, five artists from the Mansudae Art Studio were invited to the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Queensland state to talk about 15 pieces the organizers commissioned for the exhibition, which includes work from more than 100 artists from 25 countries.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith rejected the artists’ applications for an exception to a visa ban on North Korea, part of targeted sanctions imposed in 2006 in response to the country’s steps to develop atomic weapons.

Organizers first spoke out about the ban as the exhibition opened on Saturday.

Smith’s department said in a statement released Tuesday that issuing visas for Mansudae studio artists would have sent the wrong message.

“The studio reportedly produces almost all of the official artworks in North Korea, including works that clearly constitute propaganda aimed at glorifying and supporting the North Korean regime,” the statement said. [AP]

I have to say that Dan’s points shifted my view of this story to a degree. I would now say that there are two questions here. One is the question of bringing North Korean artists to visit Australia and spend some quality time gazing at the store fronts and the traffic through the windows of their air-conditioned bus (good) and the separate issue of exhibiting propaganda for a repressive state while it publicly executes defectors and dissidents, murders racially impure infants, starves its people, and maintains a string of hideous concentration camps (bad). The visit’s backers insist that not all of the art is propaganda, which may well be true, because I haven’t seen the art itself.

Unfortunately, the government’s ultimate decision appears to be the worst of both: the “art” will still be exhibited, but the artists won’t be allowed to visit. Regardless of what the art depicts, of course, no government should ban it, although I’d oppose government sponsorship of its exhibition, and I’d also question the taste and morals of anyone who would choose to exhibit it without putting it in the context of how North Korea treats its people. We’d expect as much from any TV station that would broadcast “Birth of a Nation” or “Triumph of the Will.”

The accusation of censorship is ridiculous. Here, the Australian government (led by the very liberal Prime Minister Kevin Rudd) had made a decision not to sponsor the only forms of art permitted by the world’s most repressive state. How can it be censorship for one state to refuse to sponsor something that is sponsored and mandated by another state, to the exclusion of all other artistic perspectives? The accusation is hypocritical when coming from the operators of Koyro Tours, who are financial partners of the North Korean regime and therefore sponsors of its repressive system.

A final point on Koyro — the Australian government denied the artists’ visas because of its desire to comply with UNSCR 1874. I’m glad to see governments taking 1874 more seriously than they took 1718 or 1695, although it’s hardly clear to me how granting visas to a few artists violates any of those resolutions. What seems much more clear is that Koryo Tours gives the North Korean government a big cut of its profits by selling overpriced tours to see propaganda spectacles in Pyongyang. Unless — and this seems exceedingly unlikely — Koryo knows for a fact that Kim Jong Il is spending that money on activities not banned under 1874, Koryo itself is in violation of the resolution. I look forward to the day when the British government recognizes this and freezes Koryo Tours’s bank accounts. One self-serving argument we can dispense with is Koryo’s suggestion that tourists gain any useful knowledge of North Korea by watching hundreds of thousands of kids as they’re forced to hold up colored cardboard squares forming juche propaganda slogans.

Update: This looks a bit more like censorship to me.

Henceforth, All Art Must Serve the State

obama-socialism.jpgobamahope.jpgIn a world fully possessed of its senses, Lanny Davis would have marked himself indelibly as a national laughingstock by now.  It worries me that as one, the “artistic community” has wheeled from near-unanimous opposition to the state to near-unanimous opposition to any dissent against it.  And now that I mull it some, it may be the very term “artistic community” that scares and confuses me the most:

Consider the recent flurry of debate over the Obama “Joker” posters that have been appearing in Los Angeles. This image represents the only substantial counterpoint to Obama’s current agenda from the art community. What’s been the response?

One writer from the LA Weekly declared of the image, “The only thing missing is a noose.” Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post stated, “So why the anonymity? Perhaps because the poster is ultimately a racially charged image.” Bedlam magazine, the first to comment on the poster back in April, argued, “The Joker white-face imposed on Obama’s visage has a sort of malicious, racist, Jim Crow quality to it.”  [....]

To give some perspective, remember that the “noose” comment came from a publication that once presented a cover image of George W. Bush as a bloodthirsty vampire.  [Reason, Patrick Courrielche]

It’s time to revisit our usage of the word “liberal” when it becomes associated with ostracizing and suppressing dissenting thought. I can hardly imagine a more pernicious and potentially effective way to intimidate dissenters in our society than to label them as racists for no better reason than the race of the sitting president.  By definition, is the coddling infantilization of the President of the United States ever a necessary thing, notwithstanding the fact that he is of African descent?  If the mandatory infantilization of our president means that he’s above criticism, then we must suspend this acquired reflex.  If we can’t do even this, can we say that his election represents meaningful progress for our society?

The power of art, in combination with the suppression of free speech or a free press, has been used as a tool by authoritarian governments to control their citizens. From Hitler, Stalin, and Mao to Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il, art has been used to deify leaders while preserving the position of the ruling class. Most artists would not want to be referred to as tools of the state, but in the case of Obama’s administration, that’s exactly what they’ve been so far.

“Hope” to me is a modest thing — it means having a president with the maturity to be a heart-breaking disappointment to those who worship him as a post-spiritual deity.  For the record, I’m hopeful that Obama is fundamentally much more practical and self-interested than ideological, and that he knows that embracing this cult’s basest Trotskyist impulses would cost him reelection.

The Jackboot Is on the Other Foot

For years, Roh Moo Hyun’s government funded a host of habitually violent left-wing unions and “civic” groups, and we never heard a peep from the Hankyoreh about that outrage against democracy.  But that was then:

It has been revealed that of the 14.1 billion Won in subsidies for social groups to be provided by the 25 district offices of Seoul City this year, about half, 7 billion won, will go to three major government-initiated community development project groups and 10 veterans groups, including the conservative right-wing Korea Freedom Federation and the Korea Veterans Association, respectively. In particular, criticism has been sparked over improving the screening and evaluation processes for grants to social groups as it has been made known that district offices are paying the management costs of these groups or giving subsidies for unclear projects.  [The Hankyoreh]

Let me be clear:  it’s unhealthy for democracy when governments subsidize political speech in a discriminatory manner to favor sympathetic points of view, and it’s especially dangerous when they fund (and fail to prosecute members of) organizations engaging in violence.  I still wish the Hanky would stop its pretentious grandstanding as though it were the klaxon of liberty.  It certainly took no issue when Roh was funding violent left-wing thugs, when he was using the power of the state to drive money and readership to the Hanky at the expense of the opposition press, or when the government and groups it funded tried to censor free speech critical of North Korea’s regime.  The Hanky was no mere bystander to this.  By passively accepting Roh’s ad money and subscription drive, the Hanky became a part of this conspiracy to stifle freedom of the press.

Yet reading the Hanky these days, you might believe that South Korean democracy is in imminent mortal peril.  But it survived ten years of the government trying to make the Hanky South Korea’s paper of record.  Frankly, I’m not seeing anything dictatorial about President Lee’s media policy, which favors less, not more, government control, regulation, and ownership of the media.  In this particular part of the debate, Lee is absolutely right.  The government shouldn’t be in the news business, because inevitably, government news becomes the state’s propaganda.

Hey DJ, What’s That Big Pink Animal With the Prehensile Trunk? (Updated)

Admittedly, I don’t have high expectations of NPR, but I would expect that even they would at least mention the circumstances surrounding the summit that bought Kim Dae Jung his Nobel Peace Prize.  Instead, NPR lets his grandiose claims go unchallenged:

“The Sunshine Policy has been and still is supported by the majority of South Koreans and the whole world,” Kim says, sitting in his living room. “It’s the reason I won the Nobel Peace Prize. People are telling President Lee Myung-bak to return to the Sunshine Policy, but it isn’t clear whether he will or not.”  [NPR]

Since the point of the interview is to let DJ sell the plausibility of creating a kindler, gentler North Korea by paying extortion money — despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary — honest journalism would seem to demand raising the single most obvious question about DJ’s single most prominent claim of accomplishment.

Update:   DJ calls President Lee a “dictator,” and Kim Young Sam calls DJ a “communist.”   Both charges are baseless and needlessly inflammatory.  President Lee has done some authoritarian things, to be sure, though the one that has the left up in arms is the firing of the managers of government-run media who broadcast the infamous “mad cow” reports that were inflammatory, false, and done with reckless disregard for the truth.  Most on the left who were exploiting the effect of those reports hardly cared if they were false, or whether news media might possibly exist for a higher purpose than the dissemination of anti-American agitprop.

Quite rightly, Lee has been intolerant of the violent demonstrations that Roh not only allowed to run wild and subvert the democratic process, but fueled with government funding.  The sum total of Lee’s departures from the principles of free expression, though deserving of more sincere condemnation than they’re received, still don’t add up to as much authoritarianism as Roh demonstrated against opposition media or North Korean defectors.  So let’s call the Korean left’s hypocrisy about dictatorship for what it is.

Equally, I think Kim Dae Jung’s policies toward North Korea were disastrous for the people of both Koreas, but I doubt that Kim Young Sam, if pressed, could cite any evidence that DJ believes in placing the means of production under the control of a state managed by a vanguard elite and a Supreme Leader.  Maybe DJ and Kim Young Sam are too partisan to see it, but rhetoric like this doesn’t protect democracy, it brings mobs of thugs into the streets to destroy it.

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