Lee Hae-chan goes too far
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Liberty Korea Party (LKP) floor leader Na Kyung-won spoke suitably in her role as representative of the main opposition party. She plainly told President Moon Jae-in to stop acting in a way that invited criticism of him as the “chief spokesman for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.” Her remark drew an immediate backlash from the ruling Democratic Party (DP). DP floor leader Hong Young-pyo rushed to the podium to cut Na off and DP Chairman Lee Hae-chan accused Na of insulting a head of state. Both politicians overreacted.
The ruling party is strenuously trying to protect the president from any attacks on his earnest efforts to bring success to U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. The DP went so far as to attack the Bloomberg reporter who wrote the “South Korea’s Moon Becomes Kim Jong-un’s Top Spokesman at UN” analysis last September which Na was referencing in her speech at the National Assembly. A DP press officer named the writer, a Korean national, and accused her of committing “treachery” by insulting the head of state. The officer later apologized for going too far, but the ruling party lost face in international eyes.
The opposition exists to “oppose” a ruling power. To uphold the values of representative democracy, the opposition and media must play the role of keeping a ruling power in check. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has failed to follow through on his promise of complete denuclearization, which caused the breakdown in the U.S.-North summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Of course, the DP can be angry at Rep. Na’s demeaning tone. But the ruling power is no different from a dictator if it accuses the opposition or anyone else of lèse majesté. In a democracy, even the devil’s advocate should be condoned. A democratic community could be in jeopardy if the voices of the opposition and media are muffled just because they are critical of the president.
Above all, Kim Jong-un must clearly define what complete denuclearization really means in order to put the denuclearization talks back on track. The next time Moon meets Kim, he could tell him that he must act decisively so that he no longer deserves to be called the press officer for the North’s leader. Moon should actually thank Na for enabling him to be more assertive with Kim.
If the ruling power can show an engaging response to criticism from the media and opposition, it can demonstrate to Pyongyang how open and diverse South Korean society is compared to the North’s dictatorial system. Pyongyang could realize it must not just deal with the South Korean government but also with the opposition and media. More broadly, North Korea can learn that it must look beyond U.S. President Donald Trump and take into account a more skeptical Congress, media, and think tanks in the United States. Once Pyongyang becomes more familiar with diverse societies and state mechanisms, future talks with Washington and Seoul could go more smoothly.
Chung Sung-heon, president of the Korea Saemaul Undong Center, has arranged rural development exchanges in the border regions since 1990. He said he has often been asked by North Korean officials about the “injurious” ways of a particular conservative newspaper in South Korea. To that pointed question, Chung answered, “That may be true, but that is the most-read paper in the South.” The North can get the wrong idea about South Korean society if Seoul tries to sympathize with its ways just to keep up an amicable mood. But when it tells the truth, North Korea can perceive how multilayered its counterpart is. In that case, North Korea can realize it cannot underestimate South Korea.
The Bloomberg article did not have the facts to back its provocative title. It could have received a warning or punitive action from the press ethics committee for running a misleadingly subjective and exaggerated title if it had been a local news outlet. Still, the ruling power has overstepped by accusing the opposition and media of treason.
Ruling party chief Lee mentioned the need to file a lawsuit for defaming the president and ordered his party to refer Na to the National Assembly ethics committee. It is unbelievable that such an accusation came from a lawmaker who was brave enough to openly support the 1988 campaign to remove the criminal offense of profanity toward a head of state, which had been established under strongman Park Chung Hee.
Dissident-turned-president Kim Dae-jung was impressed by Lee’s sharpness as a student activist from Seoul National University and groomed him as a politician. Although he had suffered oppression most of his political career in the opposition, Kim maintained a big heart. He would joke with reporters, saying he found them amazing for coming up with meanings and twists to his casual remarks.
Instead of making them enemies, Kim endlessly talked with journalists regardless of their ideological backgrounds. He learned English at a late age, but spoke with the foreign press through his own voice rather than a translator’s. The ruling party must ask itself if it has made any effort at deep communication with the press at home or abroad. If Lee had learned the tolerance and humility of his political guru, he would not have reacted so emotionally to Na’s comment.
The more the opposition opposes inter-Korean issues, the more strength the president can gain on the North Korean front. The ruling power must consider the opposition front a partner. In that case, South Korea can become more united through bipartisanship on inter-Korean affairs. The path toward denuclearization and a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula also can be advanced.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 25, Page 35