[Viewpoint] The truth will set you free

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[Viewpoint] The truth will set you free

It’s good to see the world is beginning to acknowledge my wisdom. Frankly, it’s about time.

Last spring after the North Koreans destroyed - oh, all right: “allegedly” destroyed - the South Korean submarine, there was much hand-wringing on this page and in other Korea-centered fora about the impossibility of dealing a condign punishment to those beastly good-for-nothings.

And I wrote (May 27, 2010): Drive them bananas. Tell the truth about them. Not with propaganda speakers at the DMZ but by sailing balloons over the North to drop leaflets, radios, DVDs, bags of rice, dried seaweed or whatever we think might impress North Koreans.

At the time, my suggestion may have been taken as tongue-in-cheek. But the world is catching up with me. The Korean and international press have carried several articles lately suggesting that a propaganda offensive - including a balloon barrage - is the only feasible way to undermine North Korea.

I can only agree, though it is a bit daunting to think of trying to outdo the masters of propaganda at their own game.

Many of us recall the lovely North Korean cheerleaders at the Busan Asian Games in 2002 who had South Koreans, or at least South Korean men, swooning and panting for unification on any terms. Then a rain shower dampened poster portraits of the North Korean Great Leader and Dear Leader, and the women dissolved into panicky howls.

At that moment we all - South Koreans and foreigners - realized that the DMZ is much more of a psychological than physical barrier. Still, as a journalist my credo is: Truth will set you free. Let’s unleash the truth and see how long the Kim dynasty in the North can withstand it.

This seems so elementary as to hardly justify the newsprint to publish it. But Seoul’s previous two presidents went to great measures to ignore - and sometimes deny - the truth about North Korea.

They did so for noble reasons. The years from 1998 to 2008 were the heyday of the “sunshine policy,” when it was imagined that cooperation and friendly words might coax the Northern Hermit Kingdom into a fruitful relationship.

Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to pursue a politics of reconciliation, and despite later portrayals of Kim as a cynic who purchased the prize with payoffs into shadowy, Pyongyang-controlled bank accounts, I honor him. If it took bribes to get Kim Jong-il to sit down face to face, it was money well spent, considering the goal.

The goal so obsessed the Blue House that for many years it was government policy to lie or deny rather than acknowledge truths about North Korea that might thwart the process of reconciliation. When North Korea precipitated a naval skirmish during the soccer World Cup in 2002 Kim Dae-jung remained in Japan pretending that nothing important had happened.

I recall a spirited discussion that I had with a close counselor of President Roh Moo-hyun about Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. There was no proof, he insisted, that North Korea had all these rumored centrifuges, and even if it did, there was no proof that they were being used to enrich uranium. So what are they used for, I asked. That’s up to you, he riposted; you’re the one who says they have centrifuges.

And we should not forget the German activist, Norbert Vollertsen, who endeavored, too soon, to implement my idea of telling the truth to North Korea. He tried to launch balloons carrying radios across the DMZ. But his activities complicated Seoul’s “sunshine” policy. South Korean police confiscated Vollertsen’s balloons and beat him severely enough that he ended up in the hospital.

We have learned now that there is at least one place where, as they say, the sun doesn’t shine. To remain darkened was North Korea’s choice. It is time now to shine a ray on the truth about the North.

Of course, propaganda is not the only weapon at our disposal. The United States and United Nations have imposed numerous sanctions that are sometimes criticized for hurting the long-suffering North Korean people more than their overlords.

I have an idea for a sanction that will hurt the overlords. Kill the Benjamin! “Benjamin” is slang for the U.S. $100 bill because it bears a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. But in America you rarely see a Benjamin, and many businesses won’t accept any denomination larger than $20, fearing that the bills might be counterfeit.

Indeed they might. North Korea counterfeits Benjamins, and very effectively. It has been estimated that Pyongyang’s skillful engravers produce as many as $250 million worth of the “super-notes” annually, and $1 billion worth are in circulation.

Who uses them, if U.S. consumers don’t? People who don’t want their transactions tracked - tax evaders, criminals, donation-happy politicians. And about 65 percent of Benjamins are held outside the United States, chiefly by drug lords, kleptocrats and other unsavory malefactors.

What if the United States should stop printing Benjamins? A boost for law enforcement and a blow to Kim Jong-il’s purse. What’s not to like?

*The writer is a former chief editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

By Harold Piper
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