[VIEWPOINT]Win a friend, lose freedomsA private remark by a government official from South Korea during the inter-Korean reunion of separated families at Mount Geumgang caused an “incident” there; a reunion under way was stopped suddenly.
This incident again led a forced apology by the minister and the vice minister of unification as well as the chief delegate of the South’s delegation to the reunion. It was not until they handed over to the North a message expressing their “regret” over what happened and promising to “prevent a repetition of such happenings” that they managed to settle things down. But its aftermath remains.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration is threatening to “strictly censure” the Unification Ministry official who made the remarks. Here we have a couple of fundamental problems to think about.
It was reported that the problem arose from the official’s remarks about the phrase “Kim Jong Il, the great commander sent from heaven,” carved into a rock at Mount Geumgang. While having lunch with officials from the North, the Unification Ministry official in question reportedly said something to the effect that if the Korean phrase “sent from heaven” is written in Chinese script, it can be written in two ways, either meaning “sent from heaven,” or meaning “a man born an outcast.”
There could be nothing wrong with that remark. Nevertheless, the North found fault.
From listening to the impressions of people who have been to Mount Geumgang, all parts of the resort area are covered with all kinds of engraved “scribbling” that idolizes Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il, the hereditary dictators of the North.
These engraved slogans post a serious problem not just from a political perspective ― how to handle them after reunification ― but also from the perspective of environmental protection.
Right now in South Korea, non-governmental organizations are actively protesting against the construction of a nuclear waste storage facility in Buan, North Jeolla province, and the construction of key transportation links, including the Seoul-Busan high speed railroad, on the grounds of environmental pollution.
But these same non-governmental organizations are raising no issue about the environmental pollution caused by defacing Mount Geumgang.
A more fundamental problem lies in freedom of expression. During the ongoing controversy over the impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun, non-governmental organizations have carried out illegal candlelight demonstrations against the impeachment on the grounds of freedom of expression.
But none of these groups, which oppose the impeachment and highly value their freedom of expression, have tried to see the incident at Mount Geumgang from the perspective of that freedom. They are not applying that perspective to South-North Korean relations.
The current incident shows that the North-South relations the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations have pursued continuously are lopsided ones, in which the North calls things into question and the South settles the problem by unconditionally accepting the requests for “corrections” from the North.
The Roh administration says that it can’t help doing so because it wants to preserve the 2000 South-North Joint Declaration and promote dialogue, exchanges and cooperation between South and North Korea.
But because of this attitude of the South, the North can espouse some strange views about South Korea. North Korean propaganda organs spread distorted views of the South to North Korean residents, saying, “Since the June 15 Joint Declaration, there have been great changes in South Korean society, where anti-communist, conservative forces were pushed back while liberal activist forces emerged as the mainstream, and politicians with activist backgrounds grasped the sword of power.”
Pyeongyang also asserts, “These changes are the result of the historic June 15 North-South Joint Declaration that was arranged by Marshal Kim Jong-il to give more room for the activity of liberal forces in South Korea and thoroughly isolate anti-communist conservatives.”
Should we, indeed, pursue such inter-Korean dialogue and such inter-Korean exchange and cooperation eagerly?
Is this inter-Korean dialogue and inter-Korean exchange and cooperation worth “eagerly” pursuing at the cost of restricting a wide range of values of liberal democracy ― in particular, basic freedoms and human rights?
On the threshold of the legislative elections on April 15, voters should ponder these points when they go to the polls.
* The writer is a former legislator and representative to inter-Korean prime ministers’ talks. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Dong-bok