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Double jeopardy for North Korean defectors
By Aidan Foster-Carter

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.

Korea 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 for democracy.

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

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 NK well?

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.

It's an 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 chaotic".

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.

No, 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 se.

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 University, UK.

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May 18, 2004

Pyongyang Watch: Aidan Foster-Carter's page

N Korea chooses guns over butter  (April 1,  '04)


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