South Korea is the second-greatest threat to human rights on the Korean Peninsula. President Moon Jae-in ordered a crackdown in July on activists protesting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s crimes against humanity. South Korea’s national police have undertaken politically driven audits of more than 100 human-rights organizations, and the president is pushing for new laws to criminalize speech.
Mr. Moon has staked his legacy on improving relations with Pyongyang, but in practice that’s meant taking cues from its vicious dictatorship. On June 4, Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong denounced South Koreans who use balloons to send leaflets across the demilitarized zone. Calling them “human scum” and “mongrel dogs,” Ms. Kim demanded that Seoul “make a law to stop the farce.” Hours later, Seoul said it would ban the leaflet campaigns. Police raided activists’ offices, and the Unification Ministry, which oversees relations with North Korea, revoked the operating licenses of two organizations.
Mr. Moon has also used Korea’s illiberal “criminal defamation” law, under which truth is no defense. He has filed at least 10 defamation lawsuits, personally or through surrogates, against opponents during his political career, including three in April 2017, the month before he was elected and took office. Since then, lawmakers from his party have demanded that Google Korea take down political commentaries they deem “fake news” and used tax probes to target opponents. Police have even investigated campus posters parodying Mr. Moon’s policies.
New bills in the National Assembly—where Mr. Moon’s party holds a supermajority—would criminalize the expression of unsanctioned views about Korean history, punishable by up to seven years in prison. The Chosun newspaper also reports that the party plans to amend existing inter-Korean relations laws to criminalize acts that “endanger the physical integrity or life of South Koreans.” By bowing to Pyongyang’s threat to fire on South Koreans who send messages across the border, Seoul gives Pyongyang an incentive to make more threats of violence and act on them, as it has in the past.
Mr. Moon’s ultimate objective is reunification with the North by 2045—and he’s willing to accept terms unlike those of the 1990 German reunion. He plans to ask the National Assembly to ratify a series of agreements with Pyongyang to transcend “differences in ideology and systems,” and achieve “independent reunification led by Koreans”—a phrase North Korea uses to mean “independent of the U.S.”
Most South Koreans do not support Mr. Moon’s bid to merge South and North Korea. But he’s determined to make it happen, as were his predecessors Roh Moo Hyun (2003-08) and Kim Dae Jung. This will surely be an issue in the country’s 2022 presidential election.
Meanwhile, the U.S. ought to call Seoul out on its suppression of freedom. Congress should increase funding for radio transmission into North Korea. And President Trump can use the presence of 29,000 U.S. troops, which most South Koreans support, as leverage. Rather than demanding Seoul pay more for American protection, a prospect Koreans would naturally resist, Mr. Trump could jolt South Korean voters out of complacency by withdrawing more ground troops under the rubric of “forces realignment.”
In the interest of freedom, democracy, and peace in Korea, America must break the silence that the censors in Seoul and Pyongyang seek to enforce.
Mr. Stanton, a Washington lawyer, blogs at FreeKorea.us. Mr. Lee is an assistant professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy.
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Appeared in the September 10, 2020, print edition.
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