At my comments section, also known as The Diplomat, two recent articles take opposing views on ideas I’ve written about at length here. The first piece, by Zach Przystup, entitled “Pyongyang’s Poverty Politics,” argues that the regime in Pyongyang deliberately keeps large segments of its population hungry. It’s a question I’ve struggled with for years, but the more I know, the more difficult it becomes to avoid that conclusion.
Then, Steven Denney posts a “respectful riposte” to my criticism of the South Korean left for its illiberal authoritarianism, particularly when it comes to ideas that challenge the totalitarians in Pyongyang. Denney agrees with my post in part, conceding the existence of censorship during previous left-wing governments. His principal criticism is that my argument wasn’t nuanced enough to catch the vibrancy of the NPAD’s intra-partisan debates.
Please note, however, that in the post that is the subject of Denney’s riposte, I linked (but chose not to rehash) a previous OFK post that described the battle for the NPAD’s ideological soul in depth, even expressing my hope that moderate views might finally prevail in the NPAD. I don’t believe I’ve ever characterized the entire Korean left as authoritarian, but it’s fair to say that I generalized. It’s also evident which faction has won the argument, at least for now. When the leaders of the “mainstream” left-opposition NPAD introduce legislation to censor leafleting — without any apparent opposition — I think it’s fair to generalize the views of the NPAD as favoring censorship of anti-North Korean speech.
I would agree (or at least hope) that Lim Su Kyung doesn’t represent the NPAD’s future. Now, would Denney deny that Chung Dong Young or Moon Jae In might? The latter came within a few percentage points of winning the presidency in 2012, and both men represent continuity with the Roh Moo Hyun years, which were marked by troubling censorship, among other forms of appeasement.
Like my old friend Assemblyman Ha Tae Kyung, who I would describe as a classical liberal, I have my own tactical disagreements with the leafleters, even as I insist that a civil democracy must defend their right to speak freely. In the New York Times op-ed that Prof. Sung-Yoon Lee and I recently co-wrote, we suggested that the launches should be moved away from populated areas as a precaution to protect the safety of local residents. Of course, if the South Korean government gave financial support for radio broadcasting, allowed activists to broadcast on the medium wave spectrum, or (imagine this!) did its own broadcasting, crude (if telegenic) methods like balloon launches wouldn’t be necessary. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Not that any such change in medium would satisfy North Korea, which, not so long ago, threatened to shell the offices of South Korean newspapers for printing criticism of its regime. Pyongyang’s latest threat is timely for purposes of this discussion. It has threatened war over South Korea’s vote for a U.N. General Assembly resolution criticizing the North for its crimes against humanity:
We would like to question the Park Geun Hye group busy billing the adoption of the above-said “resolution” as a sort of a significant event. Does she think Chongwadae will be safe if guns roar for aggression and a nuclear war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula? Can she prolong her remaining days in America after leaving south Korea?
The article doesn’t portend well for the thaw in North Korea’s relationship with Japan, either.
Japan, political pigmy, would be well advised to behave itself properly, cogitating about what miserable end it will meet.
Once a sacred war is launched to protect the sovereignty of the DPRK, not only the U.S. but the Park Geun Hye group and Japan will have to be hit hard and sent to the bottom of the sea.
We probably aren’t far from the day when Pyongyang can make good on that threat.
The UN also can never evade the responsibility for the catastrophic consequences entailed by what happened there. All this is the DPRK’s response to the “human rights” racket of the U.S.-led hostile forces. [KCNA, Nov. 23, 2014]
I’ve posted KCNA’s entire missive below the fold, along with grafs from two other KCNA rants that accuse the South of a “a declaration of an all-out war” and threaten to attack the South for supporting the General Assembly resolution condemning the North’s human rights record.
President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.
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Denney, I think, sanitizes the view of the Korean left a bit too much when he summarizes it this way: “Do not engage in acts that could unnecessarily provoke or offend the North Korean regime, because this will only make genuine engagement and possible rapprochement harder, if not impossible.”
Leaving aside the question of whether genuine engagement and rapprochement with Kim Jong Un are remotely plausible, isn’t the word “unnecessarily” an example of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy? One struggles to find examples of even mild criticism of Pyongyang that Uri and Minju-led governments weren’t willing to censor when they were in power. Under their leadership, South Korea repeatedly abstained from General Assembly resolutions on human rights in the North. We can be fairly certain that had Moon Jae-In won the last election, South Korea would not be supporting action in the U.N. today.
For years, the NPAD and its predecessors blocked a human rights law that would fund some of the civic groups that oppose Pyongyang’s abuses … maybe even civic groups that want to broadcast to North Korea, over the radio. The Saenuri Party, possibly shamed that the U.N. is showing South Korea to be a passive bystander to the brutality of its kindred in the North, is again trying to force the issue:
The National Assembly has been slow to handle bills addressing North Korea’s human rights situation due mainly to opposition parties’ concerns that they could anger Pyongyang and worsen the already strained cross-border ties.
In their deliberations, the rival parties are expected to clash over the issue of giving assistance to civic groups engaged in flying anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets across the border. [Yonhap]
More recently, the NPAD has shifted strategy, supporting an alternative “human rights” bill that would amount to another aid giveaway for Pyongyang.
The point being this: this argument is about much more than leaflets or balloons. It’s about North Korea’s deliberate state policy of using the threat of violence to shut down any form of criticism in South Korea, and Pyongyang’s refusal to coexist with even nonviolent criticism, regardless of the medium, and without regard to whether the speaker is a fire-eating activist, the President of the Republic, the United States, or the United Nations General Assembly.
That is, it’s the message, not the medium. If the NPAD thinks that censoring free expression to shrink from those threats is appropriate at certain times, it should say where the censorship would end, and when it would finally stand firm and defend the rights of Koreans on either side of the DMZ to speak, print, read, and think freely. The question is whether South Korea chooses to remain a free society.
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Correction: In my haste to promote Steven Denney to his rightful station in life, I assigned him the title “Professor,” prematurely, as it turns out. Mr. Denney writes in to note that he’s still working on his doctorate.