[OUTLOOK]Freedom is the best defense

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[OUTLOOK]Freedom is the best defense

For people inclined to sympathisize with the Uri Party and its apparent desire to see greater economic and social equality in South Korea, there is a good deal that is hard to stomach.
Uri leaders are presiding over what is perhaps the greatest period of freedom Koreans have enjoyed in the entire history of the country. Yet instead of celebrating the hard-won triumph over authoritarian rule with expanded openness, the party is confronting the public with ideas and actions that can only be called attacks on freedom of expression and outright censorship.
The Uri legislation on “reforming” the press ― meaning, damaging the nation’s major dailies ― has been chewed over and exposed as simple retribution against conservative newspapers for their sharp critiques of government policy and their clear distaste for the Roh administration.
But there is another case that has recently pointed to a dangerous fear embedded in the country’s psyche.
Last week, the Ministry of Information and Communication moved to cut off access to a Web site set up by North Korea’s Kim Il Sung Open University. There is no debate but that the university is pumping out pure propaganda, serving the interests of the communist state. There is also no question but that South Koreans and the Korean diaspora are the targets, since the Web site is written only in the Korean language.
The real question is: So what? Where is the menace? Are South Koreans so malleable that they are unable to stand up to this?
Part of the “Miracle on the Han” has shown up in the enormous sums of money South Koreans now plow into education. If anything, people here could be considered overeducated, ranking as they do among the world’s leaders in spending on learning. By this time, they should be able to think for themselves.
Here’s an opportunity for all political parties and the government to simply say: “We’re not afraid.” But that’s not the attitude.
In recent days, the government has blocked access to more than 30 Web sites established by the North, including the link to the Central News Agency, the source of the often hilarious diatribes issued against capitalism, the United States and anyone who is not a lapdog of the North’s leader, Kim Jong-il.
The request to the Information Ministry to cut off the Web sites came from the police and National Intelligence Service after Grand National Party lawmakers beat representatives from the security agencies around the ears for not protecting South Koreans from the fulminations coming out of Pyeongyang.
But then, isn’t the Uri Party running the show here?
Giving credence to the notion that the drivel issued by Kim Il Sung University and KCNA is a threat lowers South Korea’s image. The truth is that fearful control of information is more associated with communist regimes than democracies.
A laugh and a shrug about North Korean propaganda would be a way for the Uri Party and the government to say that no matter how preposterous the political discourse might be, South Korea is a grown-up place where thought has free rein.
This is the sort of attitude that would go far in fostering confidence in a democratic society.
It works in odd ways.
North Korean defectors who once lived in towns and villages near the inter-Korean border have reportedly complained about South Korean television broadcasts that they were able to see on their cheap, Chinese-made TV sets.
According to academics who interviewed hundreds of defectors, South Korean soap operas have become wildly popular in the North. But the interviews revealed that North Koreans became unhappy and confused when a drama series ended. This inadvertent fresh air from television could be stimulating the eagerness more and more North Koreans are displaying in their desperate efforts to flee the benighted country.
Meanwhile, whatever Kim Il Sung University and KCNA have to say is unlikely to cause a tide of refugees in the opposite direction. For a democracy, limiting the press and closing down nasty Web sites are self-defeating policies. The government and Uri Party leaders ought to be thinking the country can be defended without muzzling expression.

* The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Charles D. Sherman
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