Moon’s Nixon moment
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
President Moon Jae-in slammed the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) for accusing the government of trying to build a nuclear plant in North Korea. He demanded legal accountability for PPP leader Kim Chong-in’s accusing him of treason and vowed zero tolerance against the “outdated relics” and distorted facts.
The Blue House and the ruling front have ratcheted up their criticism of the conservative party for resorting to its campaigning strategy of stoking the “North Korea scare.” Media have once again been bundled up as the “outdated evils” along with the prosecution and opposition party. Ruling Democratic Party (DP) Chairman Lee Nak-yon pledged to pass reform bills on press organizations calling “malicious reporting and fake news” an “antisociety crime” for spreading confusion and distrust as if trying to send a warning to the press for attacking the government.
According to Moon’s former Chief of Staff Noh Young-min, the president scrupulously reads news articles and comments on the internet. If so, he would be aware of the public sentiment toward the controversy over the government’s alleged project to construct a nuclear reactor for North Korea.
We wonder why the energy minister reportedly threatened working-level officials, asking “if you wish to die” for questioning orders, and why they had to sneak in during the middle of the night to delete hundreds of sensitive files before inspectors from the Board of Audit and Inspection were due to raid their office.
We also wonder why former Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae attempted to suspend Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl from duty on the very day when the prosecution was to file for an arrest warrant for the officials involved in deleting suspicious computer files.
The so-called “internal file” on a North Korean nuclear construction project was codenamed pohjois — a Finnish word for “northern” — as if it was a spy operation. Why did working-level officials boldly review building a reactor in North Korea under a government bent on shutting down nuclear reactors in South Korea to embody the president’s campaign promise? There are too many questions.
The controversies surrounding former justice ministers Choo and Cho Kuk seemed to suggest that those who had fought for democracy during their student days could act beyond reason. Their bizarre behavior raised the suspicion that there could be a darker story behind the destruction of the many reactor files.
The government simply dismissed it as conspiracy. DP head Lee even hinted at the possibility of punishing the media for challenging government announcements.
The fiasco over the destruction of reactor files and an attempt to curb freedom of speech could be compared to the U.S. Pentagon Papers, a report on military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, which was handed over to the New York Times. The paper exposed how Washington had deceived and lied to the public to justify its engagement in Vietnam starting with the fabrication of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
The Richard Nixon administration sought to stop the reports by claiming that they threaten national security amidst escalating anti-war protests.
Charges were raised with the whistle blowers for conspiracy, espionage and stealing government property.
But the federal judge backed the freedom of the press guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution with a famous ruling: “In the absence of the governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry — in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government.” The charges were dropped and the case discredited the U.S. war in Vietnam as well as triggering Nixon’s resignation.
In her book “Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers” (1971), Hannah Arendt, a German-born American political theorist, found the quicksand of lying statements of all sorts, deceptions as well as self-deceptions feeding the nation to avoid being the first U.S. president to lose a war.
A nuclear reactor project for North Korea and the manipulation of the economic report on the Wolseong-1 unit to close it off and waste 700 billion won ($623 million) are serious problems involving national security and tax spending. The people have the right to know and the press the duty to find out if the government ignored procedural justice to ensure the success of the inter-Korean summits and materialize North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s visit to Panmunjom in the South.
If the Blue House and government indeed feel they are being framed by fake news and slander, they must follow up with real legal action. Whether it be the spread of fake news, defamation or leaking confidential government documents, the issue has to be judged by the law.
A court battle should be a historical one to set a milestone in a war between the government and freedom of expression.
I recommend the documentary series “The Vietnam War” and film “The Post” to watch over the Lunar New Year’s holiday.
The 10-part series exposes the deceptive infrastructure of nearly a decade of U.S. foreign and domestic policy, and the film portrays the victory of the press in a fight to uphold justice.