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 “48M” portrayed 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.
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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.
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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.)