What victory looks like from Pyongyang (Parts 1 and 2)

Part 1

David Straub’s “Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea” has resonated with me in several ways, but none of them more than Straub’s deep ambivalence about Korea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a time when I also served there as a young Army officer. Straub admits that in writing his book, he struggled to reconcile, and to show his readers, an honest-yet-fair portrayal of a society that earned his affection, and also caused him much exasperation, even as he was forever bound to it by experience, study, love, and marriage. So it was with me. Indeed, Staub is kind enough to cite this blog in his acknowledgments in his book, and much of what he writes reminds me of my own congressional testimony, from very nearly a decade ago.

What also resonates in Straub’s book is how disturbed he was — as I also was — by the incapacity of so many South Koreans on the political left to perceive the danger North Korea represents to the peace, prosperity, and liberty their parents worked and fought so long and so hard to achieve. Korea is as polarized as we are becoming. Its left is very far left; its right is very far right. The left lives in a Hankyoreh reality; the right lives in a Chosun Ilbo reality.

The Korea I remember then, and the one I continued to read about after my DEROS in 2002, was a place that seemed to find no fault with North Korea and no virtue in America. As Kim Jong-il poured his nation’s resources into developing a nuclear arsenal, Seoul indirectly bought him that arsenal with billions of dollars in cash, no questions asked. (Meanwhile, in cost-sharing negotiations, Korea constantly demanded that U.S. taxpayers subsidize greater proportions of Korea’s defense.) The ever-receding promise that this subsidy to Kim Jong-il’s regime would buy reform and peace was quickly forgotten in a haze of nationalist emotion. Protests against North Korea were suppressed, sometimes forcefully, either by South Korean police, or by far-left activists who operated without official state sanction (but with government subsidies).

Pyongyang’s influence operations had not only opened Seoul’s wallet, but they had also enlisted its government to silence and censor criticism of Pyongyang. By 2005, Pyongyang had effectively silenced Seoul as a diplomatic critic on the North’s crimes against humanity. It had introduced reluctance into Seoul’s legal and moral obligations to accept refugees from the North. It had extracted public statements from Seoul that it was effectively a neutral party — a “balancer” — in any potential conflict between the U.S. and China or North Korea. There were endless demands to renegotiate the countries’ status-of-forces agreement, always to the procedural disadvantage of U.S. military personnel tried in Korean courts. The U.S. began to reduce its forces in South Korea. Although it strongly denied that this represented any diminution of its commitment, it was increasingly difficult to identify what interests and values the two states shared. The alliance was growing apart, and I have little doubt that had Chung Dong-young won the presidential election in 2008, it would have effectively dissolved by now.

No doubt, others who lived in Korea during those years — especially those who harbored more sympathy than me for the Sunshine Policy — may see my view as too apocalyptic. So be it.

The assumption behind most U.S. and South Korean planning and policy is that North Korea’s goal is a military conquest of South Korea. In fact, the situation that existed in South Korea during the Roh Moo-hyun years was far more favorable for Kim Jong-il than a military conquest. War is expensive and destructive, and by 2000, Kim Jong-il knew he could not win it. Rather, he knew that Seoul was worth more to him alive than dead; after all, you can’t milk a cow you’ve slaughtered, and he had already squeezed most of the blood out of North Korea. Surely he must have imagined the effect on his shriveled conscripts from Hamhung and Chongjin to see the cars, skyscrapers, and markets of Seoul, even as occupiers. No rational dictator could harbor the fantasy of occupying a state with twice the population, many times the economy, a vibrant culture, and a much higher standard of living. To dominate South Korea ideologically was the best situation Pyongyang could possibly hope for. During the Roh Moo-hyun years, between 2003 and 2008, that goal that was within sight.

That is to say, I believe Kim Jong-il came much closer to winning the Korean War than most Korea-watchers believe or acknowledge. Indeed, he had everything he wanted from Seoul without any of the costs of war. I still believe Kim Jong-un stands a chance of winning it.

Ironically, just as the North Korean elites and military seem to be losing their cohesion and confidence in Kim Jong-un, the U.S. and South Korean elections of 2016 and 2017 could put Kim Jong-un on a path to winning the Korean War within the next decade. To Kim Jong-un, victory does not look like overrunning the Pusan Perimeter. Instead, it looks like a one-country/two-systems hegemony over the South as the North gradually seizes political and economic control. I’ve said that predicting history is a fool’s errand. Having said this, I predict that within the next five years, one of the two Koreas will abandon its political will to preserve its system of government. It’s just a question of which one will lose its will first. 

Part 2: They will call it peace.

How can an impoverished failed state overcome one of the world’s most prosperous and wealthy nations? Just as a character in “The Sun Also Rises” went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” Rich states have succumbed to poorer, more determined ones countless times since Sparta defeated and absorbed Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Only the strategies have varied.

North Korea has waged a war of skirmishes against the South almost since the end of World War Two, but escalated it again with the 2002 naval skirmishes in the Yellow Sea, the 2010 Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island attacks, the 2015 land mine incident, and a series of nuclear and missile tests. Seoul’s response to each of these skirmishes was constrained by the long leash of a weary American ally, and by its own calculation of North Korea’s capacity to destroy its cities. As Pyongyang’s destructive power grows in the coming years, Seoul’s deterrence will be nullified. Pyongyang will grow bolder, and the scale of the attacks will escalate to an apex within the next five years, when Pyongyang will become a full-fledged nuclear power. Without the capacity to deter Pyongyang, public and political opinion will demand a diplomatic de-escalation. Pyongyang will be ready to offer one, but peace will come at a high price.

Every time Pyongyang has raised fears of a second Korean War, the easy and popular decision for the South Korean government was to make some small sacrifice of its freedom or security to de-escalate a potentially catastrophic conflict. Each compromise, viewed in isolation, seemed like the sensible thing to do at the time. Never mind that Pyongyang premeditated each of these war threats to begin with, apparently with a calculated political purpose. In each of these cases, South Korea’s political left (and more often than not, its political right, too) was willing to make these small, “pragmatic” sacrifices for peace.

Recent history tells us precisely how Pyongyang’s censors will extend their reach over the South to suppress its critics. In recent years, Pyongyang has repeatedly demanded that Seoul muzzle or censor political criticism of it as the price of peace. The second of the 2000 inter-Korean agreement’s eight points required the two sides to “work for mutual respect and trust in order to overcome differences in ideology and system.” Seoul obliged, and used the police forces of a nominally free and democratic society to enforce the point against the few troublemakers — and there were very few of them, most of them defectors — who protested against the North. For the next decade, many of the films that emerged from South Korea’s movie studios — which benefited from preferential government “screen quotas” — were anti-American enough to have been ghostwritten by the United Front Department in Pyongyang itself. Foreign films that offended Pyongyang were sometimes banned from South Korean theaters.

In 2014, Seoul agreed to Pyongyang’s proposal that each state should cease its “slander” of the other, as part of a deal allowing family “reunions” — in reality, short visits with relatives, often people abducted by the North, under the close supervision of North Korean minders. It was never clear exactly how the two sides would define “slander,” or whether Pyongyang would interpret this as an agreement by Seoul to censor criticism of Pyongyang by private South Korean citizens or activist groups. (Pyongyang prefers vague agreements. It can interpret them freely at moments of opportunity.)

As the world learned from the Sony cyberattack later and since then, Pyongyang recognizes no limits to its censorship and no distinction between the speech of governments and private persons. Pyongyang’s new skill in cyberwarfare is its newest and greatest weapon to censor its critics abroad. The greatest impact of the Sony attack may be the films that were never made because the studios submitted to their fears. Pyongyang will deny responsibility for these cyberattacks, of course, but studios, newspapers, and the government in Seoul have learned that it is wiser to avoid criticizing Pyongyang.

There will also be more direct methods of extortion. In the short-lived 2015 agreement after North Korean troops planted land mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers, the South agreed to stop loudspeaker propaganda announcements along the DMZ, and to work toward “dialogue” and “cooperation.” These are not bad things in themselves, of course, except for the troubling circumstances. Pyongyang had walked away believing that it had won a financial payoff from talks that began with an armed and unprovoked attack. At other times, the North has sent assassins to murder its critics in the South, or threatened war to stop activists from launching leaflet balloons — and plenty of South Koreans wanted their government to comply. Television stations and newspapers that broadcast criticism of Pyongyang were hit with cyberattacks in 2013 and directly threatened with artillery strikes in 2012.

Some experts have estimated that North Korea could have road-mobile ICBMs by 2018, or perhaps 2020. At some point in the not-too-distant future, it may also have submarine-launched missiles that can hit America’s coasts with nuclear weapons. It may be able to put a nuke on a medium-range missile now. Its reliable and accurate short-range missiles are the greatest direct threat to the South, especially if combined with large volleys of artillery rockets. It’s difficult to see how a missile defense system can protect Seoul from a large number of accurate and reliable short-range missiles flying at lower trajectories. Even if they can’t carry nuclear warheads, those missiles can probably carry chemical and biological weapons. 

Pyongyang’s goal, of course, isn’t to use these weapons, except in dramatic demonstrations or shocking-yet-limited skirmishes. Its goal is to shift the balance of power and terrorize South Korean society into slow submission. As its nuclear capability rises, so will the stakes, and so will Seoul’s temptation to make small sacrifices, one at a time, in the name of peace — by stopping anti-North Korean broadcasts and leaflet launches, by encouraging studios and financial backers to abandon their support for plays or films critical of North Korea, or by launching tax audits of newspapers that print critical editorials. If these suggestions seem fanciful, they shouldn’t. If you’ve read the links I’ve embedded in this post, you already know that similar occurrences took place during Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency.

Korea’s extreme-left tide has receded since 2008, but the pendulum will swing back, and voters grow weary of one-party rule. South Korea will hold its next presidential election in 2017. Despite some earlier flirtations with moderation, the recent direction of South Korea’s political left isn’t encouraging. The newly elected leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party is Choo Mi-ae, a disciple of Moon Jae-in, who is himself a disciple of Roh Moo-hyun. In 2003, Roh appointed Choo to serve as his special envoy to the United States on the North Korean nuclear crisis, where she “set out a series of bold proposals for promoting peace on the Korean peninsula and for resolving the international deadlock with the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.” 

One of Choo’s most prominent policy positions today is a promise to lead her party’s opposition to American’s deployment of THAAD missile defense batteries. She gives every indication that she intends to steer Seoul in a more anti-anti-North Korean direction and return it to policies like Roh Moo-hyun’s. This would mean a sharp left turn for South Korea’s security policies, diplomatic posture, and its enforcement of sanctions against the North. The foreign policy establishments in both Seoul and Washington are universally — and understandably — terrified that the election of Donald Trump would destroy our alliances in Asia, invite Chinese hegemony and North Korean aggression, and destabilize much of the region.

What no one is saying is that the election of Choo Mi-ae could present just as great a danger.

For years, Pyongyang’s sympathizers have demanded that the U.S. sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. Recently, Pyongyang has raised that demand itself. In reality, North Korea doesn’t really want peace; after all, the perpetuation of conflict with foreign enemies is its raison d’etre, the justification for its oppression and its abysmal standard of living. For the same reason, it doesn’t even want a peace treaty. What Pyongyang really wants is a peace treaty negotiation. It wants the concessions it will demand and get as preconditions to keep the “peace process” moving forward. Above all, it wants to buy time. It needs, if only briefly, the relaxation of sanctions and subversive challenges to its legitimacy while it rushes to complete its nuclear arsenal. With this accomplished, its bargaining power will be greatly enhanced, and U.S. and South Korean options to deter its threats will narrow to a vanishing point.

Would the Clinton administration simply go along with this? I suspect so. In the dozen-plus years I’ve watched Korea policy in Washington, it has never ceased to astound me how much Washington defers to Seoul’s preferred approaches to Pyongyang. A new administration might waste months on policy reviews it should be doing now, and the policy review it should be doing now is premised on the preferences of a lame-duck president in Seoul. Already, we can see the calls for a peace treaty metastasizing from the pro-North Korean fringe into the U.S. foreign policy establishment, through the usual suspects.

U.S. experts and former officials secretly met several times with top North Korean officials this year, and some of them have emerged believing the regime of Kim Jong Un is ready to restart talks about its nuclear program. [….]

“The main thing they are interested in is replacing the current armistice with a peace treaty. In that context, they are willing to talk about denuclearization,” Joel Wit, a nuclear expert with the U.S.-Korea Institute, told me. “They made it fairly clear that they were willing to discuss their nuclear weapons program, that it would be on the table in the context of the peace treaty.”

Wit traveled to Berlin in February with other U.S. experts and met with Ri Yong Ho, who in May was promoted to North Korea’s foreign minister. He said the Pyongyang delegation sent signals that the door was open for resumed negotiations.

Robert Carlin, a former U.S. official and North Korea negotiator, was on the Berlin trip. In July, he wrote an article analyzing a new statement from North Korea in which Pyongyang also talked about denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula as part of a grand bargain with the United States.

Other Americans who have met recently with the North Koreans are skeptical that real signals are being sent or any real opening for negotiations has emerged. Victor Cha, the top Asia official at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, was at the same meetings as Wit and Carlin but came away with the opposite conclusion.

“They don’t seem like they are speaking in a leaning-forward quasi-official capacity,” he said. “They seem to be just spouting talking points.” [Josh Rogin, Washington Post]

It’s not hard to imagine what the North’s opening demands for that peace treaty will look like. It will demand “mutual respect” and an end to all forms of “slander” against its system. Quietly, Seoul will again suppress the criticisms of defectors and activists. Newspapers that “slander” will lose government funding, investors, leases, and tax exemptions. Seoul’s already-considerable internet censorship with tighten, perhaps with friendly technical assistance from China. High-ranking and high-profile defectors from North Korea, already bullied by the far left’s lawfare, will be intimidated out of fleeing to South Korea. Many will choose to take their chances in Pyongyang instead. Seoul will pressure the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights office in Seoul to slow-walk its work and dilute its criticisms of Pyongyang. Seoul’s diplomats would return to abstaining from U.N. resolutions, or quietly lobbying to soften their language.

Pyongyang will demand more aid and “engagement” projects that increasingly amount to transfer payments from South Korean taxpayers to the North Korean elites and military. The demands will grow steadily until the lifestyles of North Korean elites reach parity with South Korea. Instead of leveraging its substantial diplomatic talent toward the enforcement of U.N. sanctions against the North, Seoul would re-initiate “engagement” projects that would refill Pyongyang’s coffers and deprive sanctions of the leverage they would need to disarm Pyongyang.

There will be more demands to suppress South Korea’s capacity to defend itself — an end to military exercises, the cancellation of THAAD and other missile defense systems, and South Korea’s withdrawal from the Proliferation Security Initiative and intelligence sharing agreements. Slowly, its alliances with democratic states will be eroded to nullity. Eventually, Pyongyang will insist that the very existence of an alliance with the United States is an impediment to the peace process. South Koreans would turn from a distant America toward the appeasement of North Korea to guarantee their security, with China as the final adjudicator of its appeals. That will put Seoul on an irreversible course to domination by Pyongyang and Beijing.

The fall of Seoul will not begin with a massive artillery barrage or an armored thrust through Panmunjom. It might begin with a missile attack on an empty mountaintop near Busan, the burst of a single shell at Camp Red Cloud, or an unexplained bombing at Hannam Village, where the families of American soldiers live. World-weary Americans, with their own cities now within range of North Korean submarines, might well decide that an unfriendly, ambivalent South Korea isn’t worth defending. I wouldn’t blame them. We’ll have problems enough of our own once Pyongyang feels no restraint about selling nuclear weapons to any bidder willing to pay the purchase price, and after the global nuclear nonproliferation framework collapses completely.

Once North Korea has an effective nuclear arsenal, it may demonstrate its new capability dramatically, perhaps with a nuclear explosion in the waters off Cheju Island. Then, the North’s attacks — for one pretext or another — will grow bolder. A limited artillery attack might drive thousands of refugees south from Uijongbu and cause a collapse of the real estate market in northern Kyonggi Province. A mine in the Yellow Sea might block a crucial sea lane, or an artillery strike on Incheon Airport might destroy South Korea’s tourist industry and force an evacuation of American civilians. Perhaps North Korean special forces will seize Baekryeong Island, and stage demonstrations by residents welcoming their new “liberators.” Any of these events would trigger capital flight or a market crash, throw South Korea into recession, and leave investors clamoring for appeasement. They would serve the secondary purpose of narrowing the differences between the living standards of the North Korean elites and South Koreans. These things are almost as unthinkable today as the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island were in 2009, but none of them will be cause, by itself, to start a nuclear war, especially if South Korea’s next president believes she can negotiate peace.

The fall of Seoul will not end with the crash of tank treads through the Blue House gates, or by renaming Seoul Kim Il-Sung City, but with signatures, handshakes, smiles, clicking shutters, and the praise of editorialists that two warring states “de-escalated tensions pragmatically” by embarking on a “peace process.” The surrender will be too gradual, and the terms too vague, to be recognizable as such. It will have something like the consent of the governed — that is to say, the soon-to-be-ruled — through the assent of elected leaders who will approve a series of easy, lazy decisions to yield to Pyongyang’s calculated confrontations, embarking irreversibly toward the gradual strangulation of free debate, and then, a slow digestion into one-country-two-systems hegemony on Pyongyang’s terms.

It may or may not involve the dismantling of South Korea’s nominally democratic system, but with no opposition press, and with the South Korean people held hostage to nuclear blackmail, it may not have to. The pendulum might even swing back — a little — but it won’t be able to swing very far. Thus ends the “gradually” portion of our program, and thus begins our segue into the “suddenly” portion. The way in which this portion will play out is, naturally, much harder to predict, although the way this story ends should be clear to everyone.

But at the time, they will call it “peace.”

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Dear President Park: Make Reunification Your Legacy

Last week was a tough week for Park Geun-hye, when her party lost its majority in the National Assembly. The simplest explanation for this is that historically, ruling parties usually take beatings in mid-term elections, particularly when their own voters don’t show up to vote. The ruling party may poll well in the abstract, but a party that enters an election divided is likely to underperform expectations. 

Republicans, take note. And don’t look so smug, Democrats.

Something like this appears to have happened in South Korea this week, but I suspect that economics and quality-of-life issued mattered, too. For decades, South Korea’s economy has been based on a model in which the working classes toiled, sacrificed, and saved to develop its economy into a vibrant and prosperous one. A little research quickly confirms one’s anecdotal observation that Korea’s public policies are still a relic of that era. Obviously, South Korea’s society and economy have changed dramatically since Park Chung-hee was President. Its human development index is now higher than that of France, Finland, or Belgium, yet its average wages are lower, and its disposable income is significantly lower, due to its high cost of living. This, despite the fact that Koreans work more hours than in almost any other OECD country, and despite Korea having one of the OECD’s highest rates of fatal industrial accidents.

As human development rises, people naturally expect more from life. The “Hell Chosun” narrative can sound pathetic and whiney coming from a country that, after all, shares a peninsula with North Korea, but South Koreans who expect more of that thing we like to call work-life balance still have a point. Why, for example, do South Korean companies still expect people to show up to work on Saturdays, especially after staying out late enabling their boss’s drinking habits?

With the probability that the new National Assembly will frustrate Park’s plans for economic and labor “reforms” — and there is no more dangerously misused manipulation in our political lexicon than the word “reform” — Park isn’t going to be able to bust unions and lower trade barriers for the remainder of her time in office. One can reject the repellent political views of some of South Korea’s unions and still believe that as a general matter, unions play an important role in giving workers a voice for better pay and working conditions, things that are very much on the minds of young South Koreans today.

In time, Park may come to see this loss as a gift. Her economic agenda might have been good for South Korea’s economy in the short term, but politically, it would have been a fast drive into a hard wall. Few South Koreans will miss it. Over the long term, ultra-free-market policies also create classes of losers. In this country, they’re currently voting for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in droves, ironically threatening to overturn the very principles that made America great. Park’s policies, too, might have been exceedingly controversial going into the next election. Even in the minority, the opposition would have stood a good chance of blocking them and riding their obstructionism to victory in the next election.

Saenuri leaders who haven’t resigned have been holding crisis meetings about the future of their party, and Park has to be wondering whether her legacy will be the Sewol Ferry disaster. It doesn’t have to be so. American presidents — most famously, Richard Nixon, and most recently, Barack Obama — have historically turned outward when hostile congresses frustrated their domestic agendas. Park isn’t going to have a strong legislative legacy, but she can claim one really significant accomplishment — the North Korea human rights law that passed, just in the nick of time. Park should implement that new law as liberally as her country’s canons of construction allow.

Only this year, we saw the first signs that Park had shed her cautious exoskeleton and shown us some spine. She finally began to pupate into a leader, and her leadership on North Korea has been the brightest spot in her generally lackluster popularity. Koreans don’t find Park very likable, but they liked the way Park handled Kim Jong-un last August, and they supported her when she shut down Kaesong, a scam that remained popular years after it had manifestly failed to achieve its stated purposes. It makes good political sense, then, for Park to spend the remainder of her term capitalizing on her strength—her emergence as a national, and global, leader in responding to a rising North Korean threat.

South Korea’s own unilateral sanctions are important to this symbolically and diplomatically, but they will not be the policy that records Park’s destiny in Korean history. Yes, South Korea’s sanctions can help seal the leaks in a global sanctions regime, and enforcing sanctions gives Park the credibility to ask other states to do the same, but South Korea lacks America’s unique financial power. Its unique power is a far greater thing — the power of nationhood and national legitimacy. President Park is the only elected (and therefore, legitimate) leader of the Korean nation, and the South Korean Constitution claims the entire Korean Peninsula as its territory.

Thus, if South Korea marshals its considerable technological talents and finds a way to open communications directly with its citizens north of the Imjin River, North Korea cannot long resist the changes that its downtrodden have steadily advanced, despite the regime’s efforts to stifle them. Forget loudspeakers — Seoul should open south-to-north broadcasting on the medium wave band, and build a string of cell phone towers along the DMZ to open the channels of direct engagement to Koreans north of the DMZ.

Then, Park should do something truly historic. This year, on the August anniversary of Korea’s liberation from colonial rule, Park should address the people of North Korea. She should tell them that they are her countrymen, too. She should tell them in unambiguous terms how Kim Jong-un has squandered their food, their money, and their sweat to support a bloated military, a system that terrorizes them, and an opulent lifestyle for which no more evidence is needed than His Corpulency’s omnipresent moonscape. She should tell them that even as she sanctions his regime to slow his capacity to terrorize Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, she will also do everything in her power to ease their suffering.

One way to do this will be to ease restrictions on remittances sent by the refugee diaspora to their families back inside North Korea. She can ask churches and NGOs to use these family bonds to fund informal clandestine networks inside North Korea to get food, medicine, medical care, and news to those who need it most. She can continue to push the United Nations and its member states to hold North Korea’s leaders accountable for crimes against humanity. She can urge other U.N. member states to freeze the assets that are misspent for weapons and luxury goods, and increase pressure on the regime to accede to humanitarian reforms.

In doing so, Park can become a leader to all Koreans, and begin Korea’s long-overlooked preparations for reunification by rebuilding the broken foundations of North Korea’s civil society. She can give Koreans north of the Imjin River what they’ve never had — the knowledge that a legitimate Korean government has not forgotten them when their need is greatest. Park would also be building a legacy for her own party. After all, although most Asian-American and Latino voters tend to vote Democratic, Cuban-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans still vote Republican. Undoubtedly, this reflects the sense that in their hour of greatest need, the Republicans stood in solidarity with them.

More than ever, one senses that the current trends in North Korea cannot continue for long. Kim Jong-un has demonstrated ineptitude as a leader, both domestically and internationally. He may be gone in two months or five years, but it’s hard to see how his misrule, with its dependence on hard currency from abroad, survives a growing, self-inflicted international isolation for much longer than this. Reunification could be a moment when South Korea absorbs 23 million traumatized, alienated, and restive people. How much better it would be if instead, reunification begins with the hopeful sense among North Koreans that their new government will lead them toward the things that Pyongyang has so long denied them — rice, peace, and freedom.

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South Korean National Assembly passes human rights bill. Finally.

Last month, I leveled some bitter criticism at South Korea’s opposition Minju Party for blocking North Korean human rights legislation (ironically enough, “Minju” means “democracy”). This week, after an eleven-year battle, the opposition finally gave up its obstructionism, yielded to the tides of morality and history, and allowed the bill to pass the National Assembly. The final vote for 212 for and 24 abstentions (and none against?).

Belated as it was, this victory gives us some reasons to rejoice. First, it’s a hopeful sign that some in the Minju Party are breaking with their tradition of anti-anti-North Korean willful blindness to the horrors in the North. This is fresh evidence that South Korea’s political realignment on North Korea policy goes on.

Second, we finally get to see what the bill does in enough detail to see that it does some useful things, which I’ll discuss in ascending order of importance. It creates committees and commissions studies to keep human rights issues in the government’s policy and plans. As with the American analog to the South Korean bill, it is sometimes necessary to force diplomats not to forget such things. When it becomes law, the bill will also require Seoul “to seek human rights talks with North Korea.”

There will be needed reforms to humanitarian aid programs, prioritizing “children and pregnant women as being the main recipients of government humanitarian aid,” and mandating that aid “should be monitored for transparency in accordance with international standards.” This reflects concerns that, as Yonhap puts it, “past government food assistance ended up in the hands of the North Korean military and the ruling elites instead of helping ordinary people.”

Then there is the weighty question of accountability, which has been much on the mind of Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman and Justice Michael Kirby. One of the bill’s more controversial provisions was its creation of an archive of human rights abuses in North Korea. The opposition objected to the prosecutorial implications of housing this database in the Justice Ministry and wanted it kept in the Unification Ministry. In the end, the ruling Saenuri Party mostly got its way — the Unification Ministry will collect, archive, publish the information, but will also share it with the Justice Ministry.

The goal of establishing the human rights archive, inspired by the post-war German model, is to monitor and document the crimes of the North Korean dictatorship. It is vital to note that no such archive or record has ever existed in South Korea. [Human Rights Foundation]

The bill’s most consequential provisions direct a new human rights archive to collect and publish “information about human rights in North Korea,” to Korean audiences on both sides of the DMZ. That pleases some of us …

“We in the Global Coalition are delighted that the South Korean government will—for the first time ever—finance the defector organizations that send films, e-books, radio broadcasts, and educational materials to the North Korean people.”

The North Korean Human Rights Act also establishes a public campaign to raise awareness about North Korea’s human rights violations and takes steps to ensure that South Korean humanitarian aid is not misused by the Kim regime. The goal of establishing the human rights archive, inspired by the post-war German model, is to monitor and document the crimes of the North Korean dictatorship. It is vital to note that no such archive or record has ever existed in South Korea. [Human Rights Foundation]

… and makes other people deeply uncomfortable.

Some critics say the foundation may assist civic groups that send leaflets or make radio broadcasts to North Korea to provide information to people about their authoritarian homeland. [AP, Hyung-Jin Kim]

As if that’s a bad thing. As if North Korea doesn’t have extensive propaganda and influence operations of its own in South Korea. It’s not like the North Koreans have a legitimate complaint here, but legitimacy has never been an object for Pyongyang. Its state media says that enactment of the bill into law will result in “miserable ruin.”

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, 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.

Of the many heroes in this story, none stands greater than former political prisoner, lawmaker, and Governor of Kyonggi Province Kim Moon-soo, whom I profiled here and here during the Paleozoic era of this blog. Kim sponsored the original form of this legislation back in 2005, near the height of the Sunshine Policy’s popularity.

“While its passage is long overdue, the country can now defect (sic: deflect?) international criticism for not approving a North Korean human rights law,” said Kim Moon-soo, who first submitted the law 11 years ago. “People inside the North will know about the law’s enactment and it will put considerable pressure on the political elite in Pyongyang.” [Yonhap]

One day, Governor Kim will make a fine President of a united Korea. Let’s also remember the hard work of Hwang Woo-yea, who fought for years to get this bill through the National Assembly.

Other proponents, including Kim Seong-min of Free North Korea radio and Park Sang-hak of Fighters for a Free North Korea, both refugees from North Korea who became dissidents in exile — and at least one of them, the target of an assassination attempt by North Korean agents — were more skeptical. Understandably, both complained about the long delay in the bill’s passage.

Kim Seong-min, head of Free North Korea Radio, based in Seoul, said it took too long for the bill to be passed, especially in light of the suffering endured by North Koreans all these years. The defector-turned-activist, who came to the South in 1999, voiced hope that the new law would give civic groups in the South championing North Korean human rights “big momentum” to speed their work and help get outside information into the North. [….]

Others like Park Sang-hak, head of a leading civic group that flies anti-North leaflets across the border, criticized the bill for having a clause that calls for improvement in inter-Korea relations. “I don’t see why the bill encourages dialogue with an evil-natured regime,” said the activist. [Yonhap]

Another reason to rejoice is that the hard work of NGOs like the Human Rights Foundation, among many others, paid off. Thor Halvorssen, Garry Kasparov, and the HRF had joined the push for the bill and were understandably pleased by its passage.

Last September, the Global Coalition visited Seoul to campaign for the Act and hosted a widely-publicized press conference that included Garry Kasparov, Serbian democracy advocate Srdja Popovic, North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, and South Korean lawyer Kim Tae-hoon. Other members of the Global Coalition include Malaysia’s opposition leader Nurul Izzah Anwar, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond, North Korean defector Jung Gwang-il, Peru’s former president Alejandro Toledo, Romania’s former president Emil Constantinescu, and Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yushchenko.

South Korea’s failure to pass the bill had become a global embarrassment.

“The Republic of Korea has taken its head out of the sand and has finally confronted the cruelty and horror of the North Korean dictatorship. It is a victory for all who support human rights and human dignity,” said HRF chairman Garry Kasparov. [Human Rights Foundation]

Oh, and this, via HRF:

Its North Korea program has resulted in multiple threats of violence emanating from the North Korean government including threats of assassination, bodily harm, and missile attacks on HRF staff, members, and associates. [Human Rights Foundation]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list … oh, never mind. Congratulations to all who fought for this soon-to-be law, and please donate your old flash drive to Flash Drives for Freedom.

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Breaking: U.S. Ambassador to S. Korea slashed by guy who really hates bloodshed

Here’s a link to the story, and here’s a picture:

Hat tip to Sung Yoon Lee. More to follow, but initial word I’m hearing suggests a political motive.

~   ~   ~

Update 1: AFP’s report has more details.

Seoul (AFP) – The US ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was injured in an attack by a razor-wielding assailant Thursday in Seoul, police and television reports said. The YTN news channel, citing police sources, said a man with a razor blade concealed in his right hand had attacked Lippert as he was attending a breakfast function in central Seoul. The channel carried a picture showing the bleeding ambassador holding his right hand to his right cheek, with his left hand smeared with blood. Lippert, 42, was taken to hospital, but his injuries were reportedly not life-threatening. The assailant, who was immediately taken into custody, reportedly shouted an anti-war slogan as he lashed out at the envoy, who only took up his post in Seoul last October. The United States and South Korea launched annual joint military exercises this week, triggering a surge in tensions with North korea.

It will be interesting to see if North Korea praises this, although it’s hard to see even them being stupid enough to order it.

~   ~   ~

Update 2: Some of you will recall that in 2006, Park Geun-Hye was also the victim of a similar slashing attack. I never saw it reported that the North was behind that attack, although one of the few things Park ever did to impress me was to react coolly afterward. As for the assailant’s motives, well, let’s just say I’m adding a “Fifth Column” tag to this post. The Chosun Ilbo is reporting that the assailant shouted, “The two Koreas must be reunified.” Yonhap adds:

The suspect shouted his opposition to the annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military exercises that started Monday, police said. The exercises are part of Seoul and Washington’s efforts to better deter threats from North Korea.

I loved the next sentence.

Police said they were questioning the suspect to determine the motive for the attack.

In July 2010, Kim received a suspended two-year prison term for throwing two pieces of concrete at a Japanese ambassador to Seoul. He published a book last year in which he details his assault on the Japanese envoy, Tosinori Shigeie. 

Kim is the head of a liberal organization that protests Japan’s territorial claims over South Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo. He changed the address of his family register to Dokdo in 2006 after the Japanese prefecture of Shimane designated a day named after Takeshima, which is what the islets are called in Japan.

I wish we’d stop calling people like this “liberal.” That’s an insult to conscientious liberalism. Shall we set up a little pool for the first reporter to call the slasher a “peace activist?”

So a serial assailant of foreign diplomats was allowed to run loose on the streets, lead his own organization, and attack again? Look — you can believe that Shinzo Abe is a repulsive human being and a war crimes denier, and still see that this is the sort of conduct you should expect in a society where any political leader can earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy. Or so it has been said.

~   ~   ~

Update 3: This is what’s known as “premeditation.”

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Really? Just 15% of S. Koreans support humanitarian aid to N. Korea?

Yonhap reports that, according to a poll commissioned by the Database Center for North Korean Human rights, 73.1% of South Korean adults surveyed support approval of a human rights law. That would be even better news if the respondents actually knew what the law would do; I can’t say I do.

(While you’re at NKDB’s site, be sure to have a look at their Google Earth Visual Atlas.)

It’s also good news that less than 20% opposed “meddling” in the “internal” issue of North Korean human rights. Sixty-two percent of those surveyed said they were interested in the issue. Asked how to address it, 40% said international pressure, and 32% said dialogue.

The findings fuel my suspicion that nothing has been quite so influential within South Korean society about human rights in the North as peer pressure.

Even assuming that the methodology of this poll is solid, I’m not aware of any base line for those numbers allowing an apples-to-apples comparison showing how the trends have changed. Still, my guess is that these numbers are less sympathetic to Pyongyang than they would have been ten years ago. They also fit with the trends I identified in this post. See also this and this.

By a narrow margin, 50% said that sending propaganda balloons across the DMZ was “not necessary,” while 45.6% said it was. What I wish the respondents had been asked was whether they thought North Korea’s threats of violence were an appropriate reason for the South Korean government to block the launches with the force of law.

The Korea Times, reporting on the very same survey, found that a surprisingly low 15% of South Koreans agree with continuing humanitarian aid to the North, because they don’t believe it’s effective. Can that possibly be right?

Asked whether human rights conditions in the North are getting better or worse, 40% said “worse,” 45% said they’re staying the same, and just 6.5% said they were improving. So much for the Sunshine Policy.

The Korea Times also reports that nearly 40% of South Koreans would like the South Korean government to allow only certain North Koreans to cross the border in the event of regime collapse, and that another 9% would exclude them completely.

The Korea Times spins this as indicative of an unwelcoming attitude by South Koreans toward their brothers in the North, but I might well be among the 9% myself, at least initially. There would be very good reasons to keep North Koreans in place in the event of a collapse. Encouraging hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people to move around an unstable country and across international borders would dramatically complicate the process of providing them with food, clean water, shelter, and medical care. It could spread infectious disease, and would also complicate the reestablishment of security. For more on that topic, read this.

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Can peer pressure do what South Korea’s conscience couldn’t?

Did the U.N. have to care about human rights in North Korea first for South Koreans to care, too? What is it about Michael Kirby that gives him the capacity to move the South Korean government that, say, Ban Ki Moon, Park Geun Hye, and Moon Jae In all lack? Assuming that anything can make a majority of South Koreans give a damn about North Koreans, what would that say about Korean society and its leaders?

South Korea’s unification minister appealed to lawmakers Wednesday to pass a bill on North Korea’s human rights abuse, citing the need for a legal basis for “systemic” efforts to address the problem.

The legislation, if adopted, would give a ray of hope to North Korean people, said Ryoo Kihl-jae, Seoul’s point man on Pyongyang.

“If the North Korea human rights bills are enacted through a compromise between the ruling and opposition parties, the government will draw up a basic plan to improve North Korea’s human rights conditions on the basis of that,” Ryoo said at a forum here on reunification.

The Park Geun-hye administration will also make concrete efforts in cooperation with civic groups in South Korea and the international community to deal with the matter, he added. [Yonhap]

Some day, I’d like to read a coherent and credible description of what the two competing bills actually do, something that Yonhap’s article doesn’t really offer. Here are the passages that really intrigued (and bothered) me:

It would help send a clear message not only to Pyongyang but also to the world that Seoul is not sitting idle over the suffering of people in the North, said Ryoo.

His call came as the National Assembly has launched formal discussions on a pair of long-pending bills — one proposed by the ruling Saenuri Party and another proposed by the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy.

The move was apparently prompted by a U.N. panel’s decision to put a fresh resolution against Pyongyang to a vote at the General Assembly. It calls for a referral of the North’s leaders to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

It would be maddening to think that Koreans need foreign affirmation or peer pressure to act to assist their northern kindred, but President Park—never a strong human rights advocate before—is also climbing on the bandwagon:

President Park Geun-hye called on officials Tuesday to make aggressive efforts to help improve the lives of North Koreans as she made clear that North Korea’s human rights issue is a top priority in dealing with the communist country.

The issue of the North’s human rights had long been placed on the back burner in South Korea where many people, mostly liberals, have shied away from the issue out of fear that it could strain inter-Korean relations.

The issue was also pushed back on the priority list as South Korea mainly focused on diplomatic solutions with the United States and other regional powers to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.

On Tuesday, Park made it clear that the North’s nuclear and human rights issues are “our core agenda in our policy toward North Korea.

“We should not be passive in these issues out of fear of North Korea’s backlash,” Park said in a Cabinet meeting, a comment that marked a clear departure from her liberal predecessors who rarely spoke about the human rights issue as they sought reconciliation with North Korea. [….]

Park also called for efforts to ensure a bill meant to improve North Korea’s dismal human rights record wins parliamentary endorsement.

Park’s comments came days after she used her high-profile address to the U.N. General Assembly to try to galvanize international efforts to improve North Korea’s human rights record. [Yonhap]

For more analysis on the psychology of South Koreans’ ambivalence (or apathy) about the North, I’ll point you to a 2010 Brian Myers op-ed about Koreans’ non-reaction to the Cheonan incident. Although Myers’s observations fit with my own, the data show that after the incidents of 2010, public opinion in South Korea did turn significantly against Pyongyang. Two more recent surveys show that more than 90% of South Koreans don’t trust North Korea, and 70% think reunification is necessary, despite the fact that just one-third think it will benefit them personally. Tellingly, however, respondents picked ethnic identity as the most important reason for reunification.

On somewhat related topics, Stephen Denney analyzes the evolving politics of pro-North Korean activism here (see also my 2006 interview with Han Ki-Hong of the Daily NK; much more here), and The Interpreter talks about the continued anti-Americanism of South Korean films (which I discussed in this post).

Still, opinion is not the same thing as intensity. What I’ve never understood about public opinion in Korea is how it selects the issues it seizes on, clasps close to its heart, and even expects others to clasp close to theirs (for a superb article on this topic, see this article, in The Washington City Paper, by a young Korean-American writer). I can understand the contemporary relevance of the comfort women issue, but only if it’s ultimately about protecting the rights and dignity of women now, such as the North Korean refugee women in China. I can understand how Tokdo might raise real issues of preserving territorial integrity, but only as an issue secondary to reclaiming North Korea (and I certainly won’t hear anything about Tokdo from people who wanted, functionally, to give away Korean waters in the Yellow Sea).

What Koreans must understand is that if they’re going to persuade foreign audiences about the things they care the most deeply about, those issues won’t make sense to any foreign observer if North Korea isn’t among them.

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Are South Koreans always the last to learn facts about North Korea or

… does it just seem that way?

Years after Google Earth made North Korea’s gulags visible to any American with an internet connection, Daum is launching a Korean-language map service covering North Korea. It’s not clear what new information this will provide for English speakers, other than helping us with those pesky problems of spelling North Korean place names in English.

Separately, South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission says “it plans to open a permanent exhibition hall on North Korea’s human rights conditions in an effort to raise public awareness about the issue.” That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that the opening date is scheduled for 2017, which should give South Korean’s left-wing parties, whose human rights policy can be summarized as “die in place,” plenty of time to cut funding for it.

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I love watching North Korean refugees emerging as a cultural force …

to inform the world about life, such as it was, in their homeland. The South China Morning Post covers a North Korean human rights film festival in Hong Kong, and The Washington Post’s new Seoul correspondent, Anna Fifield, covers a young North Korean rapper who doesn’t quite share my taste in music, but does share my outlook about food distribution north of the no-smile line.

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Those who’ve been assigned to Yongsan, or who sometimes went to Itaewon, …

will appreciate this well-researched history of the neighborhood’s sleazy past and present gentrification, although sleaze has been a difficult thing to extinguish from the places where it has put down its roots. During my last visit to Seoul, the brothel district near the former Yongsan Station, now a massive E-Mart, was still plying its trade, just a bit more sedately, and just around the corner from a police precinct. Judging from the link, Hooker Hill still features hookers, despite the new development two blocks away.

My prediction: as long as Itaewon remains within easy walking distance of thousands of lonely, horny Americans, and as long as Korean society continues to view prostitution as a necessary vice for men to patronize discreetly — and as an acceptable service for others peoples’ daughters to provide clandestinely — there will be a sex industry in Itaewon.

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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.)

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Can Park Geun-Hye prepare Korea, and the world, for reunification?

Yesterday, Yonhap reported that an unusual billboard had appeared in Times Square in New York: “Korean Unification would be an immeasurable BONANZA for any nations with interests in the Korean Peninsula.” To most of the Americans who read it, the billboard will seem odd, but Korea-watchers will recall when Korean-Americans took out similar ads in the United States, about things that matter much less. Beneath the paywall, we learn that “[t]he ad was set up by Han Tae-gyuk, a 66-year-old Korean-American man, at his own expense,” because Han “wants to publicize the importance of Park’s recent message on the future of the two Koreas.”

(Update: Here’s an image of the “billboard.”)

We could speculate as to whether the Korean government prompted or encouraged Mr. Han, and that is also remarkable if you knew the Korea I knew just over a decade ago. Lately, President Park herself has taken to promising Korea’s neighbors (read: China) that they will share in a “jackpot” when the day of reunification comes:

South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Wednesday that the Korean unification would be a blessing not only for the Koreas but for neighbors as well, citing investment opportunities in the communist North. Park made the remark during a question and answer session after a keynote speech at this year’s meeting of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos. She said unification of the two Koreas would be a “jackpot” for all of Northeast Asia.

“I think unification will be a great benefit for neighboring countries,” Park said, adding that unification will touch off massive investments in North Korea, mainly infrastructure projects, and revitalize investments in neighboring China and Russia too.  “As unification can provide the Northeast Asia region with a fresh growth engine, I think unification will be a jackpot not only for South Korea, but also for all neighboring countries in Northeast Asia,” she said. [Yonhap]

In case you think Park is talking about some hippie-drum-circle fantasy that preserves the North Korean political system, read on:

Park also said that unification would also be meaningful in that it will free North Korean people from the starvation and human rights violations they suffer under the communist regime. Park also said the best way to predict the future is to map out your own future. She added that she is trying to make unification happen by creating the right conditions for a peaceful unification, rather than just sitting by and waiting for it.

If you didn’t read that last passage carefully, reread it and measure the immensity of all that it implies. Read it as if you were in Beijing, Pyongyang, or Chongjin.

In a possibly related development, the Unification Ministry has just launched a (Korean-language only) portal (http://nkinfo.unikorea.go.kr) to “provide comprehensive information on North Korea ranging from politics and the military to economy and social issues,” including “information on more than 290 high-profile North Korean officials, as well as information on geographic features of the isolated country.” Secretary of State John Kerry also says he will raise the topic of reunification during an upcoming visit to China, something he wouldn’t have done unless President Park had asked him to so.

So who is this woman, and what has she done with the consistently cautious, visionless, and pragmatic Park Geun-Hye we all thought we knew, and for whom a narrow majority of South Koreans votedShe sounds like John Bolton … not that there’s anything wrong with that.

~  ~  ~

Officially, Park Geun Hye’s policy toward North Korea had been something called “Trustpolitik.” (Now there’s a word you haven’t heard for a while.) If you read Park’s “Trustpolitik” manifesto closely, however, it’s tougher than its gauzy label suggests. It isn’t Sunshine 2.0, and it isn’t about taking risks to earn North Korea’s trust. Instead, it puts the onus of earning Park’s trust on Kim Jong Un, because it is his government, after all, that has repeatedly broken its commitments. Trustpolitik is about holding North Korea to its commitments and to international norms, and it is about imposing consequences when the North breaks them. It is a sober, grouchy policy that fits South Korea’s mood today. Above all, it is passive. It isn’t about forcing change. It’s about reacting to change it can’t believe in. Cynical, calculating, hard-nosed, and reactionary — that is the Park Geun-Hye I know, but assuredly do not love.

By contrast, Park’s talk of reunification isn’t passive. It might even be revolutionary, and not in the usual trite way you’re used to hearing in car commercials. It’s selling the biggest change in Korea’s political status since 1945. Depending on exactly what Park has in mind, you could call it “bold,” “ambitious,” “historic,” or “grandiose,” or just a lot of talk. I could be reading what I want to see here. Like any good politician — or psychiatrist — President Park shows us an inkblot and lets us see our own fetishes in it. (If you want an especially cynical view, please see Dr. Foster-Carter’s.)

For years, the conventional wisdom has held that reunification of the Koreas would be immensely costly. This wisdom has persisted because (a) it supports the argument that favors a gradual, negotiated reunification, and (b) because it happens to be trueA declining percentage of South Koreans say reunification will benefit their country, and few think its benefits will be worth its costs. The leader of the Democratic Party, which has recently triangulated toward the political center, must think that Park is overreaching, and that his party can gain an advantage on this issue:

He especially expressed reservations about President Park Geun-hye’s analogy of reunification as a “jackpot,” claiming it painted too rosy a picture of reunification and gave the false impression that it could happen anytime. “For reunification, the process is very important,” Kim said in his address to the National Assembly. “Without consistent cooperation for reconciliation and efforts and steps to improve ties, the ‘reunification is a jackpot theory’ can easily be misunderstood as an impending sudden change.” Kim stressed that his party is against reunification by absorption due to the enormous costs and confusion it would bring to society. [Yonhap]

But what that really means is more indefinite preservation of the status quo, at an incalculable cost to North Koreans, and to the security of both South Korea and the world.

There is no question that reunification will be costly and painful in the short term, although the South would be able to impose a degree of gradualism if the Kim Dynasty falls tomorrow by controlling the movements of people, money, goods, and property until the two economies reintegrate.

In the long term, however, Park is right — reunification promises to be an engine of spectacular growth, prosperity, and power for both Koreas. Once the overburden of the North Korea’s dysfunctional political system is stripped away from its natural and human resources, its wealth will be unlocked by the South’s economy, capital, and legal system, and North Koreans will be able to earn a living wage. And also, to live.

How can President Park expect to win votes campaigning for something that scares more South Koreans than it inspires today? She certainly hasn’t communicated any specific plans for achieving “peaceful” reunification or economic integration recently, except as small throwaway ideas. So what is Park thinking with her talk of reunification? Are these her first cautious steps toward beginning a national conversation about reunification, in the hope that she can make South Koreans think differently about it? Is she preparing the diplomatic and political ground for something she believes is inevitable, and that will be revealed to us in due course?

~  ~  ~

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it would be presidential malpractice to fail to prepare for what expert opinion sees as increasingly likely, whether South Koreans are mentally prepared for it or not.

Uncertainty about North Korea’s regime has grown since the downfall of Jang Song-thaek, who was the country’s second most powerful figure, a U.S. congressional think tank said. Jang’s demise in December indicates the “boldness” of young ruler Kim Jong-un, which could lead to more provocative and unpredictable actions in the future, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

“The chilling effect on the elite in Pyongyang could lead to internal unrest as those who considered themselves secure look for reassurance from other potential power bases,” it said in a recent report, titled “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation.” The CRS pointed out the sudden purging and execution of Jang, Kim’s uncle by marriage, was unusual because of his elite status and top-ranking posts. It completed “nearly a total sweep of late ruler Kim Jong-il’s inner circle, signaling Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of authority in Pyongyang,” said the CRS. [Yonhap]

The U.S. military says that it is “updating its contingency plans for a possible regime collapse in North Korea,” and ordering “detailed planning” for “a rapidly changing situation that would require stabilization of the peninsula,” but not all of the plans are so passive. Robert Beckhusen points to this fascinating article in “Special Warfare,” a publication of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, about last year’s joint “Balance Knife 13-1” exercise, between U.S. and ROK Special Forces, which tested their readiness to act “if tasked to conduct unconventional warfare in the Korean Theater of Operations.” And by “unconventional warfare,” the Army means “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt overthrow an occupying power or government by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.

The exercise included “a reassessment of infiltration methods and the various risks the [Korean Theater of Operations] poses to each,” and examined such practical problems as evacuating wounded, traveling in mountainous terrain, finding food in a starving country, and communicating without a communications infrastructure. It also discussed the tactical and logistical challenges of supporting an insurgency inside North Korea. A small sample:

Many ROKSF soldiers still have family in the north that they may or may not maintain contact with. These divided families provide strong relationships that transcend NK ideology and can serve as a foundation for the development of a loyal resistance organization.

The Balance Knife exercise was held within the context of the big annual exercise called Foal Eagle, which also stressed readiness for “combined unconventional warfare.” The willingness to acknowledge and talk about supporting a (still hypothetical) North Korean resistance is essential to preparing ourselves to support one, should one emerge. (And when one does emerge, it’s almost certain to emerge suddenly.)

All of this planning and training is still in its infancy. It should be viewed as nothing more than prudent contingency planning for events we can’t anticipate. In other words, U.S. and ROK forces are preparing for what we weren’t prepared for when events in Libya and Syria took us by surprise. In both cases, the length of the conflict was inversely proportional to the quality of the outcome. If there is some low-risk alternative that can influence the outcome of a North Korean civil war, we won’t be able to do it if we haven’t planned and trained for it.

For now, of course, there is no North Korean opposition of real significance, so any discussion of whether and how to support one is entirely speculative. But if you still haven’t read Bruce Bennett’s RAND study of the problems we’ll face when the regime collapses, you’ll understand why we can’t afford to ignore the question. Simply put, South Korea doesn’t have enough manpower to reestablish order in the North. (I’ll add that America may well decline — and probably should decline — to contribute that manpower.) Enabling indigenous forces to resist the regime and reestablish order in “liberated zones” could make the difference whether Korea is re-stabilized under a unified government or becomes a source of chaos and great-power conflict. The only plausible way to stabilize North Korea is to enlist the North Koreans themselves. We are far more likely to form those alliances if we being to “engage” the North Korean people, and persuadable demographics within the security forces, now. The decisions North Koreans make within the first 72 hours of a crisis could determine the course of Korea’s history. For example, the emergence of a strong, pro-South Korean opposition in the North would reduce the risk of a Chinese intervention and great-power conflict dramatically. It would also reduce the odds that South Korea asks the U.S. to help occupy the North.

Certainly there is room for argument about how Korea reunifies. That argument may soon begin in earnest. But there is no higher objective for the Korean nation-state than to form one free Korea — reunification under an independent and representative government. For the sake of her nation, I hope President Park will undertake this campaign as carefully and methodically as she undertook her campaign for the presidency. If she manages it, she will easily eclipse her father’s place in history.

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Post-Sunshine South Korea is sober, pragmatic, and grouchy.

In this post last week, I cited polling data showing how South Koreans’ views of North Korea have hardened in recent years, representing a dramatic swing since the fervent anti-Americanism and pro-appeasement sentiment of the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun years. I reckoned that the 2010 Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks were the tipping point in this shift, but a wealth of polling data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project changes my mind about this. I wish the data directly measured South Koreans’ views of North Korea, but they do measure other indicators that turn out to have a logical relationship to them.

In the decade between 2003 (the height of the anti-American wave) and 2013, the polls tell us that South Koreans’ views shifted steadily toward what we usually associate with “conservative” views — their opinion of the U.S. became 32% more favorable, unfavorable views of the U.S. fell 30% to just 20% in 2013, and 15% more South Koreans believed that the U.S. considers their country’s interests “a great deal” or “a fair amount” in making international policy decisions.

Between 2008 and 2013, the percentage of South Koreans viewing the U.S. as a “partner” as opposed to an “enemy” rose 18%, from just 51% to 69%. Between 2002 and 2013, favorable views of China fell 20%, to 46% (up from the 2010 nadir of just 38%). Very few South Koreans see China’s growing military power as “a good thing.” About a quarter of South Koreans view China as an enemy, but that figure has hardly shifted since 2008, when it was first measured.

The results I had really hoped to show you come from a poll by the Asan Institute, which I’d picked up as a paper booklet at a conference last summer. The poll gave a detailed generational breakdown on South Korean attitudes toward the North, and showed that Koreans in their 20’s were the most conservative age group in two generations. That’s immensely relevant; unfortunately, I’ve managed to lose the pamphlet in one of my stacks of paper, and I can’t find the results online, so you’ll have to settle for the next best thing — this report from Asan’s Kim Jiyoon, which shows us the same image in lower resolution:

When examined by age group, there is an interesting but consistent tendency. The young generation of South Korea exhibits conservative attitudes toward national security issues. They are quite a different species from the young generation ten years ago. Conventionally, a conservative South Korean tends to be hostile and assertive toward North Korea and friendly toward the United States. Much like those who are in their sixties, a disproportionate number of the youngest generation of Korea chose to support the United States (64.8%) in the hypothetical match against North Korea. This is the second highest proportion following the oldest generation’s support 72.8 percent. The most ethnically bound generation was in their forties—the so-called 386 generation. 

Surprisingly, most of this shift occurred between 2007 and 2009. The trend was underway before the election of Barack Obama, the Cheonan Incident, the Yeonpyeong Incident, the killing of Park Wang-Ja and the closure of Kumgang, or any of the events Americans might be tempted to think catalyzed this trend. It’s more likely that a steady stream of evidence gradually undermined the grandiose and wishful unifictions of the Korean left. The incidents of 2010 were not the cause of the shift, but probably solidified it just as people were growing tired of Lee Myung Bak, and prepared to listen to criticism of his policies.

There is also evidence that the Yeonpyeong attack shook off many South Koreans’ disbelief that North Korea sank the CheonanThis report by the International Crisis group cites a poll showing that Yeonpyeong attack convinced 17.7% of South Koreans that North Korea sank the Cheonan.* It’s human nature to view evidence as self-affirming, and I suppose plenty more South Koreans who were at least willing to entertain Cheonan conspiracy theories before Yeonpyeong decided, after the event, that they knew all along that North Korea did it. And overwhelmingly, they wanted to hit North Korea back.

The data suggest a zero-sum ideological contest between North Korea and the United States. The good news is that the contest has shifted away from North Korea lately (I care much less whether it shifted toward us). The bad news is that the shift is more a withdrawal of interest, of investment, of hope, and of fear. It does not look forward to reunification and has no desire to hasten it. It is the grouchy hangover that follows intoxication. I have no quarrel with pragmatism; it’s the selective apathy I can’t stand. And young Koreans are as blindly nationalistic as their elders, despite their immersion in the global culture.

The rejection of appeasement in its most masochistic forms, in a favor of a more rational, interest-based calculus, should not be confused with a complete rejection of inter-Korean exchanges or dialogue. It especially should not be confused with affection for the United States, or for the young, libidinous, and occasionally drunken American soldiers gallivanting around Seoul, Pyongtaek, and Uibongbu.** What it means is that South Koreans think they need us, and that the Sunshine fad is over.

Later this week, I’ll examine how South Korea’s changed media environment may have contributed to these changes, and why, even if the Democratic Party wins the next elections, it will be on a far more moderate platform than that of its predecessor, the Uri Party. It all sort of fits together. Trust me.

~  ~  ~

This particular study also makes the mathematically impossible finding that 83.6% already believed that North Korea did it. The study concluded that South Koreas were moving to the left, but based this conclusion on a snapshot of public opinion during the second and third years of the Lee Administration, a point in the political cycle when voters usually grow disenchanted with the party in power. No wonder the study wrongly predicted a DP victory in the 2012 election.

** Except me, of course. I’m sure I was a lot nicer than the other drunken, libidinous young soldiers.

Update, Feb. 10:

Many thanks to Steven Denney for providing two links to studies relevant to this post. The headline is that ethno-nationalism is on the decline in Korea, but when I read the actual texts, I’m more inclined to think that the character of Korea’s ethno-nationalism has changed from generation to generation. Nationalism is no longer seen in explicitly political terms that militate union with the North. Instead, the younger generation invests its national pride in the South Korean nation, rather than in the Korean race. Says CSIS:

Koreans have begun to view themselves and their republic in a way that reflects political, social, and economic realities. Korea’s new nationalism is based less on 

ethnicity than previous strands of nationalism, views the state with an increasing level of confidence, and presumes that South Korea is on the rise in East Asia and the world. …

The 2013 data makes it clear that the South Korean public judges North Korea on its actions, with public opinion turning sharply against the North following tensions in early 2013. Of course, if North Korea can become a responsible neighbor, attitudes would improve. The question is if the North can achieve this before the youngest South Koreans decide that they, and their country, are better off seeing the Republic of Korea as a completely separate political and national entity. In 2012, while 11 percent of those in their 60s expressed no interest in reunification, 23 percent of those in their 20s stated the same. Notably, it was those in their 20s (60 percent) who were most in favor of reunification on South Koreans terms, indicating a less accepting and less tolerant attitude toward the North. …

The most important point to make is how sharply South Koreans in their 20s have broken in their views of North Korea with those in their 30s and 40s. In 2011 and 2012, those in their 20s were the least likely to identify the North Korea as “one of us.” Indeed, in 2012 this cohort was more likely to define the North as an enemy (24 percent). Following heightened inter-Korean tensions in the first quarter of 2013, the response “one of us” decreased by 9 percentage points.

I suppose if push came to shove, it would still be a case of “my brother and me against my cousin, my cousin and me against the stranger.” And I would hesitate to conclude that we’re seeing the emergence of a post-racial Korea. Still, we’ve at least seen the decline of an explicitly political racism in South Korea, something that disgusted me enough to inspire the very creation of this site. That is good news, because political racism never ends well.

Young South Koreans were also more confident in their country than their elders, and more resolute in the face of North Korea provocations. I can’t help thinking that insecurity is often the root of nationalism in its most extreme forms.

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A Quick Thought on this Psy business

My ten year-old can already tell you that one of my life’s newer objectives is to die an old man without having heard “Kangnam Style” even once. Pop culture has never been my thing, but I sure did get tired of all the forced Kangnam-Style allusions and cliches in just about everything written about Korea during Psy’s 15 minutes.  Anyway, if you’re wondering whether I’m even a little bit surprised that Psy once sang, “Kill those fucking Yankees …. Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law, and fathers …. Kill them all slowly and painfully,” well, no, I’m not surprised.  Not even a little.  In fact, I’m sure there was a whole mob cheering those applause lines when he sang them. Some of the rhetoric in South Korea in those days would have made Hamas blush.  It also enjoyed a significant amount of encouragement from — and exploitation by — South Korea’s ruling party. If you doubt me there, then you haven’t read that last link.

You know who made a lot of good points about this? Someone I disagree with more often than not, The Metropolitician.  I agree with him that Psy’s apology was certainly insincere, and the fact that Psy’s “art” has as much to do with Korean culture as a Samsung knockoff. (I allow that Psy may have been just one more ambitious person who exploited the popularity of anti-Americanism for his own selfish reasons, but that excuses nothing.) Having served as a soldier in Korea at the time when Psy was spewing his hate, I don’t deny my feelings of satisfaction that Psy, unlike me, was capable of making millions of Americans aware of the depth of many South Koreans’ hate. I worry that he may also make South Korea as a whole infamous for hate. Like many other things in life, including South Koreans’ own views of America and its soldiers, this would be unfair.  Psy’s promoters must be awfully thankful that their client shares a peninsula with an even more repulsive individual, who provided a timely distraction.

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Flower Indeed: Lim Su-Kyung and the Bigotry of the Korean Left

For several days, I’ve hoped to find time to write about the new hit TV show in South Korea, “Now on My Way to Meet You,” featuring (and humanizing!) photogenic North Korean women:

Each woman also entertains, some by singing and dancing. Others perform comedy skits, including several who mimic North Korea’s iconic, stern-faced female TV newsreader.

But the ending turns sad as the women send video messages to family members back in the North. Everyone in the studio sobs as one woman tells her father, held in a North Korean jail, how she can’t forget the way he smiled when she visited.    [….]

The emotional public response has taken them by surprise.  One guest, Shin Eun-ha, even has her own fan club.  “I wept for the first time in 10 years, along with my husband,” wrote one female viewer. Another said the show had persuaded her and her husband not to divorce.  [Reuters]

More here, video here.

I love this story on several levels (my wife also does a wicked impression of a North Korean anchorwoman).  So often, South Koreans perceive North Koreans in the way Europeans perceive Roma (aka Gypsies) — as feral vagabonds who can never quite be brought into their circles of trust, whether socially or economically.  The greatest barriers to reunification will be psychological  — mutual stereotyping, tribalism, and exploitation.  And when we see the views of some in Korea’s political left — including one who was elected to the South Korean National Assembly by a majority of one district’s voters — you get a sense of how difficult unification will be.

Allow me to introduce Lim Su-Kyung, who in 1989, before it was routine for South Koreans to visit the North, defied the warnings of her own government to attend a youth festival in Pyongyang.  The North immediately made a propaganda superstar out of her, dubbed her the “flower of unification,” and even granted her an audience with Kim Il Sung.  Last April, Lim got herself elected to the National Assembly as a representative of the main left-wing opposition party, the Democratic United Party.

In Seoul recently, Baek Yo Sep, a 28 year-old a North Korean defector, university student, and human rights activist recognized Lim in a restaurant, where she was drinking with some advisors.  Baek asked Lim to pose for a picture, Lim agreed, and all seemed to be cordial until one of Lim’s advisors insisted on deleting the pictures.  Somehow, the soju set free Lim’s inner Mel Gibson, and showed us the worst of the Korean Left’s bigotry toward their oppressed brothers and sisters:

According to Baek […] Lim made the comments to him on the 1st at a restaurant in Seoul, saying, “Defectors who have no roots should just shut their mouths and live quietly in the Republic of Korea. Defectors with no idea should not talk back to a Republic of Korea National Assembly lawmaker.”


In the process, Lim also heavily criticized Saenuri Party lawmaker Ha Tae Kyung, who used to be a pro-North activist himself, saying, “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.”  [Daily NK]

Different papers offered different accounts of the incident, all of them ugly:

According to the North Korean student who happened to meet Representative Lim in a restaurant last Friday, Lim began to lash out at him when he told her that a waiter had deleted photos taken with Lim from his cell phone, as ordered by Lim’s aides. (See story on Page One.) Lim allegedly responded to the defector by saying, “You are doing the weird things, dubbed a fight for North Korean human rights, with Ha Tae-keung, right? Ha is a son of a bitch betrayer and I will kill him with my hand .?.?.” Ha is the president of Open Radio for North Korea, who became a lawmaker for the ruling Saenuri Party in the last April legislative election.

When the defector rebutted Lim’s violent language by saying, “Who betrayed whom? Do you mean Representative Ha and us, North Korean defectors, betrayed the murderer Kim Il Sung [founder of North Korea], whom you called ‘your father’?”

Lim reportedly kept shouting, “You stupid turncoats!”  [Joongang Ilbo]

Full disclosure:  Ha Tae-Kyung is a friend of mine.  Ha, a disaffected ex-leftist, was imprisoned by the old right-wing regime for possession of pro-North Korean literature.  He later became disgusted by North Korea’s human rights abuses and oppression, and by the willful blindness of his fellow leftists toward those abuses.  He became a human rights activist, founded Open News, which publishes clandestine reports from North Korea and broadcasts them back into North Korea, and was also recently elected to the National Assembly.

Baek quoted Lim as denouncing North Korean defectors as traitors and having “no roots.” She also vilified Rep. Ha Tae-kyung of the ruling Saenuri Party, who had once worked with Lim in the 1980s, as a traitor for his conversion to an anti-Pyongyang activist, Baek said.

Lim was also quoted as saying she will “kill the traitor (Ha) with my hands.”


As the traitor remarks drew strong criticism, Lim offered an apology Sunday, claiming in a statement that she was referring to only Ha as a traitor for joining the conservative ruling party, and that she never meant to describe defectors as such.

On Monday, Ha accused Lim of lying and demanded she sincerely apologize again.

“Rep. Lim holds hostility toward North Korean defectors and thinks of defectors as traitors,” Ha said. “But she said in the statement that she never called North Korean defectors traitors, but she said I am a traitor just because I joined the Saenuri Party, not because I engaged in a human rights movement helping defectors.”  [Yonhap]

Lim later apologized.  Her own party took no disciplinary action against her, although her party’s leader said that lawmakers should be more careful about what they say (as in keep their bigotry hidden from view lest it embarrass other politicians).

Oddly enough, Lim seems to have escaped the current scandal over two other alleged North Korean sympathizers in the National Assembly.  Unlike those other individuals, Lim appears to have been duly elected, and Lim is a member of a “mainstream” political party.

Maybe when Korea finally does unify, some sympathetic South American dictator will allow people like Lim Su-Kyung to live out their wretched lives in an isolated compound on some remote scrap of unused farmland.  Maybe Venezuela.

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President Lee Leases Tokdo to Japan for 100 Years to Build Porn Studio

islands.jpgOh, wait — that’s not it. It was North Korea that actually leased two islands to China to build (what else?) casinos. Yes, casinos. File that one under “stuff Chinese people like.” It might also go under “stuff that North Korean money launderers like.”

The difference being, the islands of Hwan Geum Pyong and Ui Hwa Do actually consist of arable farmland. Not that North has any shortage of that, of course.

I eagerly await the Hankyoreh’s reaction and the impact on North Korea’s impeccable nationalist credentials.

Correction: The Global Times, a not-all-that-well-loved ChiCom broadsheet, citing the Hankook Ilbo, says the islands will be the site of a “free trade zone.” Hat tip, Chris.

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Once Again, South Koreans Prove Exceptionally Prone to Mass Hysteria

There are times when I wonder if South Koreans will ever learn anything from the entire Mad Cow fiasco, when all it takes to spread mass hysteria in a prosperous, technologically advanced, industrialized society is a 16 year-old with high speed Internet:

Police said yesterday that the boy, resident of Yeosu, South Jeolla, identified only by his surname, Yoo, sent 15 friends an online message that South Korea had decided to “make a pre-emptive military attack on North Korea” because it was “only a matter of time” until the North, fully prepared for war, invaded.

“All males over the age of 17 should take part in the battle and all schools will be shut down,” read the message sent at 11:23 p.m. on May 26.

Yoo allegedly sent his message as military tensions between the two Koreas made headlines after Seoul blamed Pyongyang for sinking South Korea’s Cheonan warship. Yoo reportedly told police he wanted to “fool people.

Yoo’s friends soon started relaying the message to their own friends, police said. The spread of the message increased exponentially as teenagers in South Chungcheong, Gyeonggi, Gangwon, Seoul, Busan and Incheon passed it to their own friends on in the following 48 minutes, before one of them, a 12-year-old elementary school student, posted it on the online board of a major Internet portal site.

And to think they’ll all be voting in just a few years!

In what must be one of the great ironies of our time, a society known for technological Luddism is proving to be exceptionally capable at stealing online ID’s to circumvent South Korea’s lame internet restrictions, spreading conspiracy theories, and posting propaganda videos that become viral hits in South Korea. And the best response the hub of LG and Starcraft addicts can muster is … a couple of loudspeakers blaring K-pop to bored North Korean soldiers? Are you kidding me?

Why do the North Koreans have such a pathological fear of the free flow of information? My guess is, they’ve seen how gullible and easily manipulated South Koreans are, and they suspect that the same is true of their own subjects.

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