A law that backfires
The author is an columnist writer of JoongAng Ilbo.
Vincent Brooks, a retired U.S. Army general who commanded the U.S. Forces Korea and the ROK-U.S Combined Forces Command, is highly intelligent and eloquent. He was the first African-American Cadet First Captain when he graduated from the West Point Military Academy long ago. He can sing the Korean national anthem in Korean. During a seminar at the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies on Dec. 29, he proposed a “top-down” rather than “bottom-up” approach to the North Korean nuclear conundrum through engagement along with sanctions. He proposed that approach because North Korean leader Kim Jong-un simply does not trust his subordinates.
Given U.S. President Donald Trump’s unconventional, off-the-cuff policy on North Korea, many would disapprove of the top-down approach. To security experts, the one-on-one dealmaking between Trump and Kim itself was nightmarish. The flighty and egocentric ways of Trump made it hard to predict what would come next, as he preferred to say, “Let see what happens.” Joe Biden’s presidency is expected to stick to a “bottom-up” and pragmatic approach when addressing North Korean issues. Still, the veteran soldier well-versed in inter-Korean issues thinks direct deal-making between the leaders of the United States and North Korea could actually be more effective.
Forgetting about Trump for a minute, top-down decision-making itself is not a bad idea. The world would be appreciative if Biden and his choice for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, can achieve a satisfactory resolution to the North Korean nuclear problem. But that is only possible through tight cooperation between Seoul and Washington based on mutual trust.
However, the Moon Jae-in administration has lost the confidence of Washington by passing a law banning the act of sending propaganda leaflets across the border so as not to annoy Pyongyang. The railroading through of the controversial bill was motivated by the Moon administration’s obsession to revive a relationship between the two Koreas.
The law has stoked protests from the international community, including the United States. Everyone has the right to know and tell the truth. But the new law in South Korea authorizes a jail term up to three years if anyone dispatches anti-North materials. Once considered an enthusiastic advocate for human rights and democracy, Moon finds himself in the role of a dictator censoring freedom of speech.
Apart from the human rights issue, the United States had been ramping up a strategy to infiltrate external information into the isolated country to help trigger internal changes. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a U.S. government-aided nonprofit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world, increased its spending on private programs for North Korea to $4.82 million last year from $2.06 million in 2016. Washington is apparently upset by the Moon administration’s authoritarian approach to the freedom of speech within its own society.
The most outspoken critic has been the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives. The 50-member bipartisan commission wields great influence over U.S. foreign policy as human rights is a crucial part of Washington’s foreign policy. Rep. Chris Smith, co-chair of the powerful commission, wants to hold a hearing next month on South Korea’s law. He has threatened to demand the State Department re-evaluate South Korea’s contribution to democratic values.
The hearing will be held a few weeks ahead of a Summit for Democracy Biden plans to host as U.S. president. The South Korean president must take advantage of the summit to coordinate his North Korea policy with the Biden administration. But South Korea will lose dignity in any discussion of democracy if it neglects human rights violations occurring in North Korea. The Moon administration must stop executing a new law that, from the very start, has greatly damaged our relations with the United States for the sake of immediate political gains.