On Monday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s ranking Republican, Michael McCaul (Tex.), issued a statement criticizing the new South Korean law, which, he said, could deepen the brutal isolation imposed on millions of North Koreans by the dictatorship in Pyongyang. The law’s critics, including prominent North Korean defectors, believe that smuggling information into the hermit kingdom is crucial to eventual peace and reunification. As happened in East Germany during the Cold War, North Koreans might come to understand that their government is lying to them, and that a better life is not only possible but also within reach just across the demilitarized zone.
“Freedom of expression is a core democratic value,” McCaul said. “A bright future for the Korean Peninsula rests on North Korea becoming more like South Korea — not the other way around.”
The South Korean government of President Moon Jae-in sees these balloon operations as a threat to its efforts to reestablish talks with the Kim regime, which has been complaining about them for years. Moon’s ruling party passed the law, claiming it was necessary for the safety of the South Koreans living along the border, whom Kim has threatened. However, a leading sponsor of the bill argued there was another motivation: to salvage nuclear negotiations with North Korea.
Seoul’s actions affect Washington because the incoming Biden administration will have to act fast to come up with a new U.S. policy on North Korea. Nongovernmental organizations in Washington and human rights groups are also warning that their activities on behalf of North Korean human rights — many of which are based in South Korea — could become collateral damage.
“This bill seems to go well beyond its intended purpose of protecting communities near the DMZ,” Manpreet Singh Anand, regional director for Asia-Pacific programs at the National Democratic Institute, told me. “Criminalizing those who are merely facilitating access to information can do irreparable harm to human rights defenders and will likely embolden the regime in Pyongyang to make more anti-democratic demands.”
The institute is one of several organizations that operate under the umbrella of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a U.S. government-funded network that supports various programs to improve human rights in North Korea. It’s unclear exactly which of their programs could be curtailed under the law, but U.S. human rights groups see this as only the latest example of an ominous pattern.
“For the larger North Korean human rights community, the law presents another attempt for the current South Korean government to weaken the movement in the name of peace negotiations and inter-Korea dialogue,” NED Associate Director for Asia Lynn Lee told me.
One South Korean official told me that the new law would not affect programs that cross the Chinese-North Korean border, though the details of how the law will be implemented are still unclear. He also said that danger to South Korean communities along the border was real, and that the South Korean government had to balance two competing interests, the safety of its citizens and their right to free speech.
Thae Yong-ho, a former senior North Korean diplomat who defected, and who was elected to the South Korean parliament as a member of the opposition this year, told me that it’s a false choice. In fact, he said, by cutting off the North Korean people from outside information, the Moon government is pushing the prospect of peace and reunification even further away.
“It is the first time in the history of the Korean Peninsula’s division that the parliament of the North and the parliament of the South have joined their hands together to ban the movement of cultural content between the two sides,” he said. “They want to close the North Korean people’s eyes.”
The Moon government granted Kim Jong Un a huge concession in exchange for nothing, Thae said, in a desperate bid to bolster its domestic political standing. Moreover, granting Kim even more control over his people’s minds only enables his horrendous repression while reducing the internal pressure on him to move toward peace.
“If the South Korean government is committed to peace, this is going in the wrong direction,” he said.
Thae believes that if the U.S. government and Congress were to make clear to Moon that this new law was a problem, it would have some positive effect. To date, the Trump administration has said nothing about the issue. Sources told me that Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who is also the Trump administration’s special representative for North Korea, privately conveyed the Trump administration’s concerns about the legislation before its passage during a recent trip to Seoul.
The incoming Biden administration will rightly want to repair the damaged U.S.-South Korean alliance and friendship after years of mismanagement by President Trump. But a good friend tells you when you are making a mistake. And if Joe Biden wants to engage North Korea from a position of strength, he should encourage South Korea to avoid undermining the drive for freedom, human rights and peace.