Successive U.S. presidents and Congresses claimed the Republic of Korea to be a close ally. Candidate Joe Biden made improving alliances a key plank in his campaign. Yet Washington has never treated the ROK as a full partner. That remains the case today.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) announced that he intends to hold a hearing in March on South Korean legislation that bans leafletting into North Korea. A member of the GOP minority in the House, Smith no longer can direct committee action. However, he still co-chairs the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which shames rather than legislates.
In December Smith targeted the South Korean National Assembly’s passage of a law, which takes effect next month, prohibiting the release of propaganda materials, money, and goods into North Korea. He criticized the “inane legislation criminalizing humanitarian outreach” which he said was “frightening in its implications for democracy and liberty.” He explained: “I am troubled that legislators in an ostensibly vibrant democracy would contemplate criminalizing conduct aimed at promoting democracy and providing spiritual and humanitarian succor to people suffering under one of the cruelest communist dictatorships in the world.”
At the same time, Rep. Michael McCaul, the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, denounced the South Korean measure: “Freedom of expression is a core democratic value and bipartisan majorities in the U.S. Congress have long supported efforts to make outside information available in North Korea’s closed dictatorship.’ He added that “A bright future for the Korean Peninsula rests on North Korea becoming more like South Korea—not the other way around.”
Criticism of the Moon government, which backed the legislation, and the ruling party, which pushed it through the National Assembly, has been widespread. In the ROK human rights activists, North Korean defectors, and conservative politicians denounced the legislation. It also drew opposition from international and foreign groups, such as Human Rights Watch and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Finally, then-Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun “privately conveyed” the Trump administration’s opinion, which likely was quite negative.
I added my voice, contending that the measure was wrong-headed and counterproductive. The prohibition punished people for exercising their fundamental right to express themselves by criticizing an oppressive government. Even worse, Seoul was seeking to sever one of the few means to reach the North Korean people, circumventing controls by a government fearful of any outside communication. Over the long-term the best hope for fundamental reform in the North is internal. The more people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea know about the South and the rest of the world, the more likely and faster such change is to occur.
Nevertheless, the Moon government backed and the National Assembly approved the legislation. Smith justified his official criticism of the ROK: “No government is above scrutiny, not even that of a long-time ally.” True enough, but should the U.S. Congress then hold what amounts to a human rights hearing on a policy difference—an important one, to be sure, but something that falls far short of what the Commission normally considers to be worthy of its attention?
Consider the body’s most recent hearing topics: “Conflict and Killings in Nigeria’s Middle Belt,” “The Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas,” “Enforced Disappearance in Latin America: Taking Stock,” “Religious Freedom in China: The Case of Bishop James Su Zhimin,” and “Human Rights in Haiti: Ideas for Next Steps.”
Alas, the topic “Should South Korean Activists Be Allowed to Send Balloons into Angry, Unreasonable, and Unpredictable Well-Armed Adversary Next Door?” seems to fall a bit short of the others. Yet Smith abandoned any sense of proportion. In December he fulminated: “If they pass such a law, I call upon our State Department to critically re-evaluate the Republic of Korea’s commitment to democratic values in its annual rights report, as well as in its report on international religious freedom. It may very well be that we will see South Korea put on a watch list, which would be a very sad development indeed.”
Really? Is applying an official genocide designation the next step? How about imposing economic sanctions to match those currently on the North?
Better would be to treat the ROK as the friend that it is and engage its arguments. Before the measure’s passage Smith called on Seoul to remember its better angels. As he put it: “Given the great accomplishments of the people of South Korea, I truly hope this legislative proposal is an aberration, and that cooler heads will realize that this bill is not just ill-conceived, but frightening in its implications for democracy and liberty.”
The Moon government contended that the measure would protect people living near the border from possible North Korean retaliation. According to KBS World Radio, last week Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung wrote congressional leaders expressing concern that “moves by U.S. lawmakers to hold hearings on the matter could hinder a legitimate exercise of South Korea’s sovereignty aimed at protecting the lives and safety of its people.”
Added KBS, “The governor, who is considered a leading presidential hopeful, also stressed in the letter that the law is a peaceful means that can prevent military tensions and confrontation with North Korea, as well as improve strained inter-Korean relations, according to provincial government officials.” These points are not idle concerns, given the DPRK’s brutality and volatility. Indeed, a few years ago there was an exchange of fire between the DPRK and South Korean militaries when the former sought to shoot down some balloons after their release.
Nevertheless, meekly yielding to the North’s demand that Seoul halt leafletting is more likely to increase than decrease Pyongyang’s demands. The word appeasement naturally comes to mind. Historically, addressing other nations’ grievances was a time-honored diplomatic strategy, but the 1938 Munich Agreement on Czechoslovakia demonstrated the danger of attempting to accommodate those who refuse to be appeased. Which appears to be the case today in North Korea.
Despite the Moon administration’s great efforts to promote inter-Korean exchanges and improve inter-Korean relations, Kim Jong-un has responded with actions that range between chilly and contemptuous, highlighted by the dramatic demolition of the joint liaison office in June. Yet with the change in administrations in Washington the North needs a better relationship with the ROK more than ever. Instead of kowtowing northward, the Moon government should toughen its stance. Seoul should indicate its continued desire to work with the DPRK, but insist on respectful treatment in return.
Whatever the arguments, however, this issue doesn’t seem appropriate for congressional hearings and threats to have Washington rate South Korea the same as Pyongyang, China, and Saudi Arabia. Put the ROK on a watch list? Good grief!
With great power comes great arrogance, at least in the case of U.S. policymakers. They ooze sanctimony as they attempt to micromanage the globe and express outrage when other nations don’t play their assigned roles. So it is with congressional attacks on the ROK’s leaflet legislation.
The South Korean ban on offending Pyongyang is bad policy. But the decision is up to the South, its officials and people. If the new U.S. administration and Congress are serious about strengthening their ties with the ROK, they should go light with fevered and public criticism. And behave like Americans expect their friends to act.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.