[VIEWPOINT]Laugh at the communists, don’t jail them

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[VIEWPOINT]Laugh at the communists, don’t jail them

So is the Roh Moo-hyun administration really trying to turn this nation into a communist dictatorship? Some horrified conservatives seem to think so, although they appear to be more passionate than logical.
We are in a trough right now of periodic waves of angst about the anti-communist National Security Law, but the furor will surely crest again before long, and might do so rather quickly if it turns out that the general public is not tired of the adventures of Kang Jeong-koo, my favorite Red, who was just convicted of violations of the security law and given a two-year suspended sentence.
Mr. Roh’s critics say the law, passed decades ago, is necessary to protect Korea, its democracy and its market economy; if that’s true (and I don’t believe it is), then Korea is simply not prepared for democracy, is vulnerable to whatever nonsense the North Korean regime puts out ― and somebody should be grooming the next strongman to save the nation.
Laws against treason or subversion or protection of military and security secrets are one thing, but the most extreme provisions in the National Security Law criminalize speech far beyond the reasonable test of decreeing that a false shout of “fire” in a crowded theater is a criminal act. If a few people are foolish enough to believe that North Korea is a worker’s paradise and that its social system is a sparkling model for the real world, that’s their problem. If large numbers of youth believe that is true, well, it’s like the saying attributed to Mark Twain: “When I was 18, I thought my father was the stupidest man on earth. When I was 21, I was amazed at how much the old man had learned in the past three years.”
Forbidden fruit is the sweetest, and with the tendency of youth to reject the wisdom of its elders, it is no wonder that there are a lot of budding communists running around campuses.
Even at my staid university in the heart of the American Midwest in the 1960s, there were plenty of admirers of Mao and Che Guevara. Laughing at them rather than jailing them is the more appropriate reaction.
Even Georges Clemenceau, the French leader before and during World War I, understood that. When an aide told him with alarm that Mr. Clemenceau’s son had become an avowed and vocal socialist, he got something like this reply: “Monsieur, my son is 21 years old. If he were not a socialist now, I would have disowned him. If he is still a socialist when he is 35, I will disown him then.”
And I admit to admiring the joie de vivre of Mr. Kang, the former Dongguk University sociologist who seemed to blossom in the attention he got while he was in full voice attacking Korean right-wing orthodoxy. He is unabashedly pro-North Korean, and based on my five years of residence in the “workers’ paradise,” I can say unhesitatingly that Mr. Kang’s advocacy of its system means he is not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. But I still was amused by his obvious delight in throwing bombshells and watching the reaction.
And some of his critics played into his hands. A good example is the logic behind one “proof” offered by critics of how dangerous he is to society. That point was also offered by the court last week in its decision convicting him of National Security Law violations. He claims, the citation goes, the Korean War was an attempt by Kim Il Sung to reunify the Korean Peninsula. Well, what else could you possibly call it?
In addition to saying the Roh administration is soft on security because of its doubts about the National Security Law, critics also raise questions about Mr. Roh’s allegedly “anti-market” policies.
While I agree with some of the criticisms of some specific policies, there is certainly nothing inherently counter to market principles in attempts to reduce the gap between the rich and poor. An economist who would allow no government intervention at all in the economy is an endangered species these days. Examples of strong welfare states abound in Europe; closer to home, no one doubts the free-market orientation of Singapore even though the People’s Action Party, which has governed since independence in 1965, unabashedly calls itself “democratic socialist” and its members use the term “comrade” as a fraternal salutation.
But redistribution of income is one of the important uses of tax codes, even in the United States. It is controversial, of course, but the debate should be over the extent, not whether it should happen. Too much redistribution and personal initiative is stifled; too little and social strife looms.
Finding an appropriate level of job protection is also difficult, but there is no reason strong protections cannot coexist with the free market. More of the economic costs of dismissing workers fall on the employer when job protections are strong, but decreasing those protections without a good short-term safety net could also be an invitation to revolution.
The equation is simple: More protection equals a more limited number of good jobs and higher unemployment; less protection equals lower costs of adjustment to changed economic circumstances and more jobs, even if they are not as financially rewarding.
It’s a trade-off that every democracy has to find for itself.

* The writer is chief editor of the JoongAng Daily.


by John Hoog
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