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
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".
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".
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.  (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. 
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".  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. 
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.  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
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.
4. This can be read by all at the aptly named http://www.warning.or.kr/
7. See several articles at Japan Focus, eg
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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