The Koreas

Leftist Politics and Balloon Launching: More Complicated Than You Think

Recent Features

The Koreas

Leftist Politics and Balloon Launching: More Complicated Than You Think

The politics of leaflet propaganda reveal the complexities of the domestic political scene in South Korea.

Leftist Politics and Balloon Launching: More Complicated Than You Think
Credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

In a recent post at One Free Korea, author Joshua Stanton is unequivocal in his description of the contemporary South Korean left: “South Korea’s illiberal left: authoritarians in the service of totalitarians.” He lambasts the left for abdicating the principles of liberalism, which, according to his definition, means: “things like tolerance and equality and nonviolence and free expression and free love.” He believes that the South Korean left has all but abandoned such principles, which leftist parties elsewhere have upheld. Compared to Euro-American liberals, “The Korean left lacks the liberal passion for protecting the vulnerable.” By “the vulnerable,” in this case he means defectors. He continues, “the South Korean left despises North Korean refugees and heaps abuses on them… would rather let them die in in place than offend Pyongyang… [and] would sacrifice the right of South Koreans to speak nonviolently, and of North Koreans to freedom of information, to appease the totalitarians in Pyongyang.” Hence: authoritarians in the service of totalitarians.

The event which sparked Stanton’s polemic against the South Korean left is a recently proposed bill by the main opposition (liberal) New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), which would give the government the legal authority to “regulate” the sending of balloons filled with propaganda leaflets across the border and into North Korean territory. The leaflets carry messages of varying stridency concerning matters such as the “correct” history of the Korean War, the wealth gap between North and South, and religious (i.e., Christian) messages of hope and salvation. According to a Yonhap article cited by Stanton, the bill (a revision to the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act), “stipulates that the minister must give the go-ahead ‘to unspecified individuals with mobile equipment, including balloons,’ before they can be launched.” Also, the revised bill would “ban the unification minister from giving the green light to sending items into North Korea that ‘could cause legitimate concerns of hurting inter-Korean exchange and cooperation.’”

It is true that the activist group responsible for sending the leaflets into North Korea, led by defector-turned activist Park Sang-hak, stoked the ire of North Korea (which is not difficult, at least in terms of inciting the country’s propagandists). This has resulted in threats of retaliation from Pyongyang, which have, presumably pleasingly for the North Korean side, prompted the South Korean government to request that activists refrain from flying the balloons into the North. However, as a Wall Street Journal article notes, “Seoul’s government has said it has no legal basis to stop civic groups from sending the leaflets.” Hence the proposed legislation and Stanton’s unconcealed indignation.

The mainstream left’s stock position on North-South relations and Seoul’s North Korea policy is relevant here. It can be summarized as such: Do not engage in acts that could unnecessarily provoke or offend the North Korean regime, because this will only make genuine engagement and possible rapprochement harder, if not impossible. While this position in and of itself is not problematic, the way in which it has been used in the treatment of North Korean defectors, especially during the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations (1998-2007), tints it with a shade of moral dubiousness.

This is what boils Stanton’s blood. In the same article as cited above, he writes: “During the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun years, the Korean left censored human rights activists, refugees, newspapers, and playwrights. Acting as Pyonyang’s thought police in the South.” Indeed, as I noted in my piece on the rise of defector “voice” in North Korean studies, one of the reasons why Hwang Jang-yop remained a relatively obscure figure despite being the highest-ranking defector both then and since, was the timing of his defection: during the Kim Dae-jung presidency.

While Stanton’s take on the South Korean left has some merit, it is an oversimplified view of both the left and South Korea’s political culture. First, it is not fair to paint the entire left as illiberal and prone to authoritarian political behavior. As regular readers of One Free Korea will know, and the title of the blog makes evident, Stanton’s views on South Korean domestic politics are filtered through the lens of North-South politics, which has the potential to distort. He is also a strong supporter of sanctions on North Korea, which he believes, not without cause, have the potential to achieve his stated goal: the end of the Kim regime.

None of which is to say that Stanton’s position on the left’s treatment of defectors is not “right;” simply, it is to say that South Korea’s political culture is not as simple as he makes it out to be. The left – as we see it today – is the product of a long social and political history of struggle against authoritarian oppression and government policies which many in the leftist camp understood as detrimental to North-South rapprochement and eventual unification (for a deeper understanding of this historical development see: the minjung movement). That the left split unevenly among those who were struggling for political change in South Korea and others who actually supported Kim Il-sung’s Juche ideology has left it with a problematic legacy; that there are, apparently, some among the leftist politicians who continue to support North Korea makes things all the messier.

But not everyone on the left is beholden to a troubled past. Ahn Cheol-soo, for example, while not the best politician around town, represents, in many ways, a genuinely “progressive” face for the left. And what of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon? Is not coming out in support of the LGBT community as “liberal” as someone in an otherwise socially conservative political culture can get? True, these are not the opposition party’s heavy hitters (right now, anyway), but they do represent the future of leftist party politics. Lim Su-kyung does not.

Moreover, it is abundantly clear that opposition to the floating of propaganda leaflets into North Korea is not the sole preserve of “illiberal leftists.” Quite the opposite. Ha Tae-kyung, Saenuri Party lawmaker, committed human rights activist, and founder of the privately run Open Radio for North Korea has come out in direct opposition to the flying of balloons into the North.

Ha’s arguments, made in a press conference at the National Assembly but seemingly lost in the milieu of attack and counter-attack, cut right to the heart of the matter. Ha said that due to his method and means of engaging in balloon launches, Park’s launches have become little more than publicity stunts for the funders. According to the Joongang Ilbo, “Ha said Park’s group carried out balloon launchings seven times this year with press crews covering the events, and that on six out of seven occasions the group launched the balloons when the wind was blowing westward, which prevented them from reaching the North.” Pointing out that leaflets ended up in locations considerably south of Seoul, he went on, “Parks’ organization must have known of the unfavorable wind conditions but ignored the forecasts for the sake of publicity,” thus it represents “publicity stunts to drive donation campaigns.” Ha has been quoted elsewhere, together with North Korean defector Lee Min-bok, who does similar work but outside the limelight, of calling the efforts by Park and his group “a scam.”

It’s important to note that Ha is not demanding a halt to the sending of the leaflets. Rather, he wants to see a more prudent, and thus successful, strategy. “I urge civic groups engaged in the leaflet campaign to promise that they will never disclose their launchings to the public in advance, as doing so only adds tension to inter-Korea relations and does nothing to deliver information to North Koreans.” And while Stanton would certainly disagree, there is some common ground between Ha’s position and that of the sponsors of the legislation meant to give the government legal grounds upon which to regulate the balloon launches. Their motivations might be different, but their objectives are alike: don’t unnecessarily provoke the North Korean government – that much is in no one’s best interest.

The bottom line in all of this is this: The politics of flying anti-North leaflets across the border and leftist politics in South Korea more generally are more nuanced issues than they are often made out to be. As Ha’s opposition shows, not everyone who opposes Park Sang-hak’s preferred method of getting information into North Korea is an “authoritarian in service of totalitarians.” Neither are all leftist illiberal Juche advocates. As the case of former leftist revolutionary Kim Young-hwan indicates, the “old” left is old news. With an electorate growing increasingly weary of “struggle” and the moderating demands of democratic politics bearing upon them, South Korea’s “liberals” are facing pressure to change – to become, in short, like other liberals.