The Korea Times
US hearing on NK human rights to anger Pyongyang
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.”