WATCH Double jeopardy for North Korean
defectors By Aidan
In the new South Korea, thuggery
pays. It is here that bullies, enemies of free speech,
of toleration, of democracy are being nourished in the
country's so-called progressive democratization. Not
only are they challenging the values of free speech and
toleration, but now they are attacking the victims who
seek asylum from the tyrannical regime in North Korea.
"I disapprove of what you say, but will defend
to the death your right to say it". That ringing phrase,
widely attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire
[some researchers say the words cannot be found in his
writings but are an eloquent paraphrase of his
sentiments], encapsulates two of the core values of the
Enlightenment, and thus of the modern civilized world to
which it helped give birth.
One is freedom of
speech. In a modern democracy, surely it's axiomatic
that everyone has the absolute right to express and
promulgate her or his opinion. Any restrictions on this
- against hate speech, say - should be minimal and
marginal. We infringe or erode this precept at our
peril. It is not for nothing that Asia Times Online, to
its credit, features a slot titled "Speaking Freely".
The other value is toleration. What is great
about the Voltaire quotation is its grasp of principles.
I may be sure I'm right. I may sincerely believe that
not only are you wrong, but your opinions are offensive
and dangerous. I may wish you would shut up. Yet if I am
true to our shared values, then your right to be heard -
to be wrong, even - is every bit as important as mine.
Besides, argument is a positive good. A society
that not only permits but encourages diversity of
opinion is healthier than one that seeks to impose the
One Correct View. It is also more likely to get things
right - because debate is a better route to the best
ideas than sterile conformism.
All this is
pretty obvious, is it not? One would think these values
of free speech and toleration would be especially prized
in the world's younger democracies - more than a few of
which are in Asia. And that they would be prized
particularly by those brave souls who fought - and often
suffered - to demand precisely these rights, against
dictators who arrogantly thought it was best to deny
their people such elemental liberties.
knows such struggles well. In South Korea, mass protests
finally sent the ruling generals back to the barracks
(and later to jail) in 1987. Since then, a feisty
democracy has thrived. South Koreans in turn elected a
civilian, dissident opposition leader (Kim Dae-jung),
and a political outsider (Roh Moo-hyun, who recently
come bouncing back after being impeached: another test
North Koreans, by contrast, have
not yet had a choice of who to vote for. In this
neo-medieval quasi-monarchy, masquerading as communism,
the Great Leader Kim Il-sung begat - literally - the
Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. Here, there is no free speech
and zero tolerance for dissent. North Koreans who pine
for freedom have no choice but to flee. Most end up
hiding out in China, although a lucky handful find their
way to what they surely imagine is a safe haven and a
new life in South Korea.
You'd suppose that
these refugees, many of whom have suffered terrible
privation and persecution, would be welcomed with open
arms in Seoul, wouldn't you? Don't the hearts of all
good South Koreans go out to their oppressed, starving
Northern brethren? Don't they embrace the few who make
it to freedom? Don't they give them every help and
encouragement, to bring closer the day when all Koreans
can reunite in the freedom and prosperity that the South
now takes for granted?
Well, no. Make that, hell
no. And listen to this: on April 20, North Korean
defectors opened an Internet radio station in Seoul.
(Korean speakers can access it at www.freenk.net).
We're not talking big time here. Free North
Korea broadcasts live for just one hour each evening.
And its start-up costs, a modest 30 million won
(US$26,000), were financed wholly by other defectors;
not South Koreans, much less the government in Seoul.
Its seven-strong staff are realistic about their chances
of being heard inside North Korea, where Internet access
is all but non-existent. But even in megawired South
Korea, they have only 3,000 members so far, with only a
modest 10,000 logging onto the site.
So, for now
Free NK remains a still small voice crying in the
wilderness, seeking to lighten the enforced darkness
imposed on North Koreans by their benighted leaders.
Topics covered include news, literature, and even
philosophy, as well as the often dramatic experiences of
defectors. Bravo. More power to them. What person with
an ounce of human decency could possibly not wish Free
Alas, these are not rhetorical
questions. Fact is, many South Koreans are not
sympathetic - and some are downright nasty. From day
one, Free NK has been hassled and harassed - to the
point where, after less than a month on the air, it now
may have to close down: the building's landlord can't
cope with the pressure, so he's given Free NK notice to
quit by the end of this month.
astonishing and shameful tale. According to the Seoul
daily Chosun Ilbo on May 12, both Free NK and its
landlord, Kim Chang-soon, director of the Institute of
North Korea Studies - once linked to Republic of Korea
(ROK) intelligence but privatized since 1993 - have been
subjected to "continuous threatening phone calls" and
e-mails. Station chief Kim Seong-min gets calls from an
anonymous woman who says: "You traitor, you'd better be
careful," and, "I won't let you get away with this."
Critics get physical, too. A guard at the
building said "strange people" come to protest every
day. Young men arrive and menace the Institute,
objecting to Free NK being given house room. They have
to be driven away, "so the atmosphere has become very
Naturally, the folks at Free NK are
upset. Choi Song-il, an announcer, said he is
disappointed. "The atmosphere in society is getting
strange, and the institute is excessively sensitive to
it," he said.
That's putting it mildly, perhaps
for fear of inviting further retribution from these
thugs. But let's call a spade a spade, shall we? Free
NK's persecutors, open or anonymous, stink.
I didn't forget Voltaire already. They too have the
right of free speech. But bullying, mental or physical,
is a different matter. Make no mistake: Free NK's foes
are enemies of free speech, of toleration, of democracy.
Worse, it sounds like they've won.
Even if the
actual bullies are a minority, their violence - for
that's what it is - has been nourished in a noxious new
soil that is spreading in Seoul these days. I fear I was
wrong about democratization in South Korea. At least
some of those who fought against dictatorship weren't,
and aren't, true democrats. What they hated was the
generals' right-wing politics, not authoritarianism per
Such self-styled "progressives", who rule
the roost in the new South Korea, seem to me merely to
have turned the old values inside out, rather than made
true progress. I sometimes think Koreans don't do shades
of gray, but prefer gestalt conversions: a total switch
of world view. They flip.
In the bad old days,
woe betide you if you said anything good about North
Korea in Seoul. Now it's a mirror image: If you say
anything bad about Kim Jong-il, you're a traitor. Even
if, like the defectors of Free NK, you've suffered
grievously under the Dear Leader - and therefore know
whereof you speak, unlike head-in-sand fellow-travellers
living safely south of the border.
I find this
mentality not only despicable, but baffling. What is
wrong with these people? Why do they not only defend
tyranny, but attack its victims? What's in their minds,
let alone their hearts?
Enter Voltaire. Free
speech and toleration. If the editor permits, I'd like
to challenge any Korean who believes it's right to drive
Free NK off the air to state their case. Asia Times
Online, as mentioned, offers a Speaking Freely slot. So,
let's hear the enemies of free speech state their view.
(We, you see, are more tolerant than you are.) Justify
yourselves. Argue your case. The world is listening.
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior
research fellow in sociology and modern Korea, Leeds
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