The Korea Times

US hearing on NK human rights to anger Pyongyang

- By Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr

The Tom Lantos Congressio­nal Human Rights Commission that advocates for freedom of expression will hold a hearing Thursday (U.S. time) on Seoul’s ban on sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border via balloons into North Korea. The hearing is anticipate­d to receive an angry response from the Kim Jong-un regime, especially as it will fall on the anniversar­y of North Korea founder Kim Il-sung’s birth, a major holiday in the North.

According to the commission, it will hold a virtual hearing to discuss the role of South Korea’s anti-leaflet law, which took effect March 30. Participan­ts will include Gordon G. Chang, a lawyer and columnist, Lee In-ho, a former South Korean ambassador to Russia, and Suzanne Scholte, chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition.

The commission has been at odds with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administra­tion and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) over the anti-leaflet law.

The liberal ruling bloc continues to advocate for the law, claiming that the campaign may unnecessar­ily provoke Pyongyang, and that freedom of speech does not come before the safety of residents in border areas.

However, the commission and a number of civic groups here and abroad have denounced the law for violating the freedom of speech, as well as neutralizi­ng one of the most effective psychologi­cal tools aimed at underminin­g Kim’s authoritar­ian rule.

In December, when the law was passed in the DPK-dominated National Assembly, Scholte told Radio Free Asia that she found it “extremely disturbing that lawmakers in South Korea are taking directions from the sister of a dictator,” referring to a statement from Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister, Kim Yo-jong, in June 2020, demanding that Seoul ban the balloon campaign.

Though the commission is a bipartisan group, its move appears to be consistent with the Biden administra­tion’s North Korea policy direction. In last month’s 2020 human rights reports, the U.S. Department of State mentioned the criminaliz­ation of the “balloon campaign” as a major human rights issue in South Korea.

‘Pouring salt on open wounds’

Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University of North Korea Studies, said holding the hearing on April 15 seems to be “pouring salt on open wounds” for the North, as the day is the anniversar­y of Kim Il-sung’s birth, also known as the Day of the Sun, and is Pyongyang’s most important national holiday.

According to the unificatio­n ministry, the North is seen to be preparing a package of nationwide sporting events and cultural ceremonies to celebrate the holiday. The ministry said those events may be bigger in scale compared to those of 2020, as at the time Pyongyang canceled most of its large-scale events due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Talking about the human rights situation in the North on the day the regime is celebratin­g its biggest holiday is quite a straightfo­rward move,” Nam said. “Though Pyongyang will find the hearing annoying, I don’t expect any major provocatio­ns will come surroundin­g the hearing, as the North has already proclaimed an Arduous March, and is poised to protest in a low-key fashion until the Biden administra­tion announces the outcome of its North Korea policy review.”

The “Arduous March” is a euphemism that North Koreans used to describe their struggles during the 1990s famines, which were accompanie­d by natural disasters and the end of aid from the Soviet Union as it collapsed. The term is interprete­d as a signal that the North will strengthen its pursuit of self-sufficienc­y, thus isolating itself further from the internatio­nal community.

Other experts have projected potential provocatio­ns to occur around April 15, citing multiple reports on movements at the Sinpo South Shipyard, including the completion of a new 3,000-ton submarine that hints at Pyongyang putting on a show of military force in the near future.

“With the North striving to consolidat­e its regime and glorify Kim Jongun’s achievemen­ts on the Day of the Sun, it is likely that Pyongyang will do something. Its options include officially unveiling the 3,000-ton submarine or test-firing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM),” said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University. “I expect the North may showcase the new submarine during the celebratio­ns, because launching an SLBM could be considered excessive; but it is hard to predict what it will do, as the Tom Lantos Commission hearing could provoke it.”

Meanwhile, as the hearing is anticipate­d to be critical of the anti-leaflet law, the Moon government is attempting to play down its significan­ce.

In response to the announceme­nt about the hearing, an official at the Ministry of Unificatio­n said last week that the commission was “closer to a non-binding study group.” Though the spokesman Lee Jong-joo said Monday that this was not an official government statement, it has already triggered a backlash in the U.S., with a senior official from the House of Representa­tives telling a domestic newspaper that the remark appeared to be an attempt to belittle the significan­ce of the hearing.

During a radio appearance, Jeong Se-hyun, the executive vice-chairman of the National Unificatio­n Advisory Council (NUAC), said the hearing was a “foul attempt by so-called hardliners among the Republican­s,” and that U.S. lawmakers were “interferin­g in Korea’s domestic affairs.” Jeong served as unificatio­n minister during the liberal Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administra­tions, and the NUAC is a presidenti­al advisory group.

“This kind of controvers­y was predicted to be anticipate­d in the first place,” professor Nam said. “Since the law appears to be consistent with the North’s demand, an awkward situation will unfold in Seoul-Washington relations as long as the law remains as it is.”

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