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    Korea
     Oct 26, 2011


McCarthyism, South Korea-style
By Aidan Foster-Carter

Joseph McCarthy was a sorry specimen. An alcoholic, he was dead at 48. Yet like Captain Charles Boycott, his name lives on. So, alas, do his bad habits - and I don't mean the booze.

For five years (1950-1954) before the United States Senate finally came to its senses and censured him, the senator from Wisconsin mesmerized and terrorized Washington with wild accusations that the US government, especially the State Department, was riddled with communists.

Almost none of this stood up, but a climate of fear was created. Those who resisted saw their careers destroyed; some even fled

 
their country. My own university gained from this. One of the bully's victims, the distinguished Mongolist Owen Lattimore, was founding professor of Chinese at Leeds University, where it was my privilege to know him, from 1963 until 1975.

As even right-wing Americans eventually grasped - though latterly they've forgotten again, with the misconceived notion of a "war on terror" - this is no way to run a country. Granted, the then USSR was a hostile power which did infiltrate some agents. Vigilance was required.

But you also need a sense of proportion about what is a threat and what isn't. And crucially, words are one thing, deeds another. The old proverb about sticks and stones still holds good.

Not coincidentally, McCarthy's years of influence coincided closely with the duration of the Korean War (1950-1953). As no Korean needs reminding, this was a real, bloody conflict between rival systems. Nobody won, and half a century on its baleful legacy still remains.

That includes the peninsula's continuing division, and the malevolent monstrosity which is North Korea. The South, by contrast, has worked wonders to become a wealthy democracy.

Yet scars remain, even in Seoul. To be clear, South Korea has every right, indeed a duty, to protect itself against what 2010's two vicious attacks - sinking the corvette Cheonan, and shelling Yeonpyeong island - proved remains a malignly aggressive regime in Pyongyang.

What the South should not do, though, is forget the two principles above: proportionality, and the word/deed distinction. Alas, the current Republic of Korea (ROK) government is muddying these waters.

On October 19, the South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that about 40 people, public officials and soldiers among them, were under police investigation on suspicion of producing or circulating pro-North materials on the Internet, thus breaking the National Security Law. Specifically, they are "suspected of making or posting materials that extol or propagandize [the North's] virtues on a pro-North website or their personal Internet homepages". [1]

The 40 include a Korean Air pilot, named as Kim - that narrows it down! - who allegedly loaded some 60 pro-North posts on a website disguised as being about science. His airline promptly suspended him - for "fear that he would fly northward to defect", said the police.

At this point I burst out laughing. Others are not amused. An editorial in the JoongAng Ilbo - the leading Seoul daily, conservative but usually level-headed - on October 21, shrieked: "We now have to fear for the safety of passengers whenever they get on a plane as the pilot may head to North Korea at his discretion at any time with all the passengers on board." As a result, South Koreans "are questioning just how safe they are when they take to the skies". [2]

Really? Are the merry queues of travellers, who daily throng Incheon and Gimpo airports in their tens of thousands, quaking in their designer boots for fear of winding up in Pyongyang rather than Los Angeles, Shanghai, or wherever they were headed? Should they be scared?

Confused as well as paranoid, the writer cites a 1970 hijacking to Pyongyang by Japanese radicals. (They're still there; you almost feel sorry for them.) A better comparison would be a 1969 case from Seoul, which again was a hijacking. But no South Korean commercial pilot has ever flown his plane North, ever. This is sheer McCarthyite scare-mongering, of the kind one expects from the rabidly right-wing Chosun Ilbo. I had thought better of the JoongAng.

Ironically, the same article concludes that "it is important to keep the North Korean threat in perspective". Yet perspective and proportion is what the writer sorely lacks, when he avers: "[South] Korea cannot see its society turn into a breeding ground for North Korea loyalists."

Breeding ground? South Korea has 50 million people. 6,500 of these - that's 0.013% - are registered members of a pro-North Korea website called Cyber Command for National Defense (CCND). Of those, the core numbers 70: barely 1 in 100 of that 0.013%.

And who are the 70? The JoongAng tells us that they include "an official from the Military Manpower Administration, a lawyer, a public servant at Korea Rail, home-visiting teachers, employees of large corporations and college students. They are also being questioned."

As Asia Times Online readers know, I am no fan of North Korea. In my view, if what the police say about CCND is true, then its members are indeed guilty - of being idiots. This is a defect of judgment, and character. But in a society with good laws, to be a bloody fool is not a crime.

That's a distinction which the National Security Law (NSL) notoriously blurs. Drawn up by military dictators, who abused it to persecute democrats like the late Kim Dae-jung, the NSL criminalizes words as well as deeds. It's so vague and catch-all that even such core allies of the ROK as the US and United Kingdom have called for its repeal, as this United Nations document bears witness. [3] (Citizens of either country might care to remind their governments of paragraphs 37 and 47.)

Under the NSL, no South Korean may touch anything North Korean with the proverbial barge pole. The liberals who ruled in Seoul for a decade (1998-2007) failed to repeal this, so strictly the entire "Sunshine" policy of engagement could be deemed illegal. So could the recent outreach towards the North by the current President Lee Myung-bak - even as his police are cracking down on Kim Jong-il's tiny fan club in the South. It doesn't add up.

If a bad law can't be binned, the best course is to apply it with discretion. Instead, the Lee administration has opted for zealotry - and it even has the gall to target foreigners.

Koryo Tours, a well-known Beijing-based British company which runs trips to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), was astonished to find its website banned in South Korea earlier this year. Koryo contacted the ROK authorities, and even made changes to its site. No dice. Try to access it in South Korea, and there flashes up a menacing notice in Korean from the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC), warning you that you risk breaking the law. [4]

Having tried to meet Seoul halfway but been rebuffed, in August Koryo revealed all. Many mass media around the world picked up the story. It didn't make South Korea look good.

But foreigners are safe, unlike befuddled members of CCND who are being questioned and may yet face trial and jail. KAL's Captain Kim, whom the JoongAng Ilbo interviewed, complained that "my family and I are in the middle of chaos after prosecutors swept through my home". [5] That was on October 18, when they seized his computer and ten DPRK books.

Serve him right, do you say? Shame on you. Shame on him too, mind, for gullibility. Asked if "you don't believe that the North is a dictatorship", Kim replied "in an angered voice": "No one knows what the truth actually is in North Korea. I don't believe things that I haven't seen. We only hear news from the media, but who their sources are isn't clear." Oh dear.

Yet actually, and making no excuses for Kim's credulity, this neatly shows why censorship is a Bad Thing. It creates an aura of forbidden fruit. If only the ROK authorities trusted their own people to read KCNA, Uriminzokkiri et al, with their absurd hagiographies of the Kim clan and general air of coming from another planet, then South Koreans could enjoy a good laugh like the rest of us. From the horse's mouth: That's the best possible aversion therapy.

But instead, Lee and co are marching back into the past. Martyn Williams, who tracks all things DPRK-cum-IT related on his indispensable website, found an article in the Dong-A Ilbo (Korea's oldest daily paper) which quantifies this, and he's added a useful graph. [6]

As this shows, police applications to KCSC to delete online content deemed to be pro-DPRK used to be fairly steady at 1,000-1,500 per year. Even in 2008, Lee Myung-bak's first year in office, there were only 1,793 such requests. In 2009 the number soared eightfold to 14,430. In 2010 it jumped more than fivefold again, to an astonishing 80,449.

What is going on? Two things, at least. A lot of last year's activity was about the sinking of the Cheonan - and is yet another reason why a democracy should not engage in censorship.

As readers will recall, this tragedy was also - and remains - contentious. The official ROK account has some oddities. [7] However distasteful to some, it is not disloyal to raise these. A democratic state has no business trying to stifle legitimate debate by its citizens on any topic.

But it's not just the Cheonan. The Dong-A - another right-wing paper, like almost the entire print media in Seoul except the Hankyoreh and the Kyunghyang; online, it's a different story - alluded frankly to "Seoul's crackdown on pro-Pyongyang content under the ... Lee Myung-bak administration". It quoted a police spokesman: "Another reason is that [we] can now crack down on online postings, which were once left untouched due to limited resources."

So the cops have not only been told to go after pro-North talk, but given the resources to do it. What a waste of money and manpower. South Korea should focus its fire on the real foe, which is the North Korean regime, and not its tiny band of misguided Southern supporters - provided that the latter confine their activities to talk and not hostile action.

Sure, there's a grey area here - and the NSL makes it all the greyer. Any South Korean who actively abets the North in hostile action against the ROK is a traitor. No argument there. But speech as such, and possession or dissemination of words, should not be a crime. That is the difference and glory of democracy, and why it is far superior to dictatorships of any hue.

This is a matter of principle, but pragmatism points the same way. What on earth are South Korean hard-liners so afraid of, to have so little confidence in their own system? The afore-mentioned JoongAng Ilbo editorial declares, "While freedom of expression and belief must be respected ... we should not confuse liberty with a license to jeopardize democracy."

But if anyone is jeopardizing democracy in South Korea, it's not CCND. On the contrary, they are exercising democracy. No, it's the censors who are the ones creating the jeopardy.

Lee has barely a year left before his successor is elected - and then he's toast, or at least history. Having already performed one volte-face on the North by belatedly trying to start engaging it, then for consistency another u-turn now beckons - while there is still time.

Call off the cops, Mr President. Don't make martyrs of idiots like CCND. Let them, and all South Koreans, read everything online, including DPRK websites. You have nothing to fear.

I'll go further. In the lurid fantasies of Seoul's hardliners, South Korea is awash with North Korean spies and agents. I don't believe a word of it - but in any case, so what if it was?

When East Germany fell, West Germans were surprised and a bit shocked to discover how thoroughly they had been penetrated. There were indeed hundreds if not thousands of GDR secret agents, some surprising and highly placed, all busily reporting back to the Stasi.

But so what? The point is: Who won? One Germany was rotten, and in the end it crumbled. The other was vibrant and sturdy; it survived the maggots, and it triumphed.

Korea is no different, except the chasm between virtue and vice is even wider. Why can't Southern conservatives grasp that? O ye of little faith. Let the fools wallow in their folly.

Notes
1. See here.
2. See here.
3. See here.
4. This can be read by all at the aptly named http://www.warning.or.kr/
5. See here.
6. See here.
7. See several articles at Japan Focus, eg here.

Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he has followed North Korea for over 40 years.

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