Non-Interference and Other Pieties

Marcus Noland (PIIE)



I have long advocated the abolition of South Korea’s National Security Law which grants the government extraordinary power to ban political speech. (And in this regard, I welcome the report that South Korean courts may soon de-blacklist Martyn Williams’ extraordinarily informative North Korea Tech blog.) But when making the anti-NSL argument, I do acknowledge that South Korea faces challenges that until recently most other democratic societies did not, namely overt and covert campaigns by a hostile foreign state seeking to influence electoral outcomes. Such concerns are underscored by the growing evidence of Russian interference in US and European elections enabled by technological change, and the possibility that North Korea could take its activity to a new more decisive level.

Such activities are nothing new, though technology makes them potentially more effective. And to be clear, the North has decided political preferences. According to contemporaneous reporting by the conservative Chosun Ilbo, during the last presidential election, the Anti-Imperialist National Democratic Front, an organization in charge of anti-South Korean operations under the Workers Party, claimed a vote for the conservative Saenuri Party was a vote for war: “If Saenuri regains power, a second Korean War will surely break out, to say nothing of worsening inter-Korean relations.” (It’s hard to imagine what could be worse for inter-Korean relations than a second Korean War, but, hey, I don’t write for AINDF.) The AINDF also reportedly reproduced a call by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for “unity of progressive forces in South Korea to defeat the ‘traitorous clique’”—its invective of choice for the conservative Seoul government. And it wasn’t just this shadowy agitprop group, either. The official Rodong Sinmum urged South Korean voters to pass “stern judgement on the Park Geun-hye clique” and warned that electing Saenuri would be catastrophic: “The South Korean people still regret having been cajoled into voting for the Saenuri candidate in the last presidential election. If the party should win again in the local elections, the South Korean people would suffer a more terrible misfortune and disaster.”

Two recent headlines reminded me that such interference is not a thing of the past. The Daily NK headlined a piece on a recent seminar “North Korean espionage operations target South Korea's presidential election,” while Yonhap covering the same event went with “N. Korea mounts campaign to thwart conservatives in S. Korean election.” The pieces document allegations that the North is using as many as 160 websites to influence the South Korean election. What is extraordinary is that with the conservatives fading, the North’s propaganda apparatus is now going after Ahn Cheol-soo, with the propaganda site Uriminzokkiri arguing that Ahn is the stalking horse of the conservatives. According to the Yonhap account, the Uriminzokkiri denunciation of Ahn was followed up by attacks in the Rodong Sinmun, the paper of the Korean Workers Party, and the Minju Joson, the organ of the North Korean cabinet.

The reason is not hard to understand. Progressive candidate Moon Jae-in has put forward a platform of aggressive economic engagement which would in essence allow the North to resolve the inherent contradiction of the byungjin line by offering the North economic support thereby facilitating further weapons development. This strategy is incredibly risky: at a time when the US and China finally may be acting in concert to pressure the North back to the negotiating table, the South Korean government may potentially be throwing them a lifesaver, undercutting the Sino-US strategy (indeed probably inducing China to scrap its own sanctions policy—why sanction the DPRK if the South won't?) thereby allowing the North Koreans to escape the byungjin contradiction. Enabling further weapons development only increases the likelihood that the US might attempt to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem in a non-consensual manner, which, unlike the Rodong Sinmun blather, could truly be disastrous for South Korea.

Those real-world stakes are what matter. But on an intellectual level I must admit I find the arguments by progressives like Moon Chung-in on non-interference annoyingly sanctimonious. Moon has argued that the key to inter-Korean relations is “non-interference with domestic politics of each other, non-denunciation, no criticism.” Yet I have never heard any denunciation of the consistent pattern of North Korean partisan interference in South Korean elections. I am not all-seeing; maybe I overlooked it.

Moreover, that “non-interference/no criticism” line is used to soft-pedal human rights concerns. Ironically, that issue has come back to haunt Moon Jae-in, in the form of the memoirs of Song Min-soon, foreign minister in the government of Roh Moo-hyun at the time Moon served as Roh’s chief of staff. Song claims that the Roh government engaged in consultations with Pyongyang before abstaining on a 2007 UN human rights resolution regarding conditions in North Korea. Others involved in the episode dispute Song’s account. In response, Song has released documents which appear to substantiate his version of events. Moon Jae-in’s campaign has filed a defamation complaint with prosecutors and accused Song of violating public document laws with his release of the papers. Song has called Moon a liar.

Whatever the ultimate resolution of these charges, one is left with the vision of a political party using “non-interference” as a way to downplay human rights issues while blithely standing by as a hostile foreign state tees off on its political opponents. Not a pretty picture. And a dangerous one to boot. 

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