Justice for defectors

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Justice for defectors


Bae Myung-bok
*The author is a senior editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

“Men cannot live without going out into the square,” Choi In-hoon wrote in the preface of his modern-classic novel “The Square.” “But at the same time, men are animals that cannot survive without retreating to a secret room.”

Humans need both the public and private sphere where they can pursue social values and personal happiness at the same time. When the square and the secret room are in balance and harmony, humans can enjoy their lives.

In the novel, Lee Myung-joon, a South Korean, becomes a North Korean military officer and fights in the Korean War. He becomes a prisoner of war, and upon his release, he chooses a third country instead of South or North Korea.

But aboard a ship to India, Lee realizes that keeping a balance between the public and private sphere is impossible in his reality and jumps into the South China Sea.

“The Square” is a rare masterpiece depicting the intense agony of an intellectual in a divided country oppressed by ideologies. The author was born in the North during Japanese occupation, moved to the South on a retreating U.S. transport ship during the Korean War and settled there. His experiences became the basis of his novel, but it is remarkable that he wrote the masterpiece at the age of 25.

“The Square” brings to mind Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to the South from the United Kingdom, and 12 North Korean waitresses who defected via China. Inter-Korean relations were going smoothly after the summit meeting between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on April 27, but they are quickly growing icy because of the defectors.


North Korea claims that it cannot continue dialogue because the South Korean government violated the Panmunjom Declaration by letting Thae criticize the North in lectures and publications. It accused the South of neglecting demands to repatriate the waitresses who were “kidnapped” against their will. Pyongyang demands Seoul keep Thae quiet and send back the waitresses if South Korea wants progress in inter-Korean relations.

Natan Sharansky, a Jewish Soviet dissident, proposed the “town square test” in his 2004 book “The Case for Democracy” as a standard for determining whether a society is free or not. “If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society,” he wrote.

Regardless of circumstances or motives, Thae came to the free society of South Korea on his own free will and became a citizen. His words and writing are obstacles to inter-Korean relations, but his mouth cannot be shut and his pen cannot be broken. When he is restrained, it means we are not a free society.

There is no room for negotiation on Thae’s behavior, but he should take responsibility for his own words because the validity of his claims will be verified in time. The agony of the square and secret room that Lee had is shared by Thae, a high-profile defector now living in South Korea.

However, the defection of the waitresses is a different matter. Then-President Park Geun-hye’s administration announced the defection and released their photographs to the media five days before a general election. If the government had cared about the safety and human rights of the defectors and their families in the North as it claimed, it wouldn’t have released their identities in the first place.

It is reasonable to suspect that the Park administration wanted the public to think its North Korea policies have stirred up North Korean society. It’s likely that they wanted to score points during the election. A recent JTBC investigation brought up the issue again. The manager and some waitresses who interviewed with JTBC suggest that they did not defect fully voluntarily.

The Moon Jae-in administration is in a dilemma, and the harder the challenge, the more it should keep the right path. An accurate investigation is necessary. This is not about being liberal and conservative. It is a matter of human rights and justice, the very basic values of a free South Korea. Prosecutors must conduct a thorough investigation on the case filed by the Lawyers for a Democratic Society.

When the former administration’s wrongdoing is revealed, the government should ask for forgiveness, and those involved must be strictly punished. At the same time, the free will of the 12 waitresses need to be verified through the United Nations’ human rights agency, and those who wish to return to the North should be sent back.

The North Korean waitresses came to a free society, but they are not free. They don’t have the privilege of the square, only their secret rooms. Society should not neglect their tragic lives with a broken balance between the public and private sphere. They should get back to a harmonious life after a swift investigation.

Lee Myung-jun’s extreme choice should remain in the novel. The waitresses are asking South Koreans to show their conscience and common sense.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 22, Page 27
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