Yesterday unification activist Ro Su-hui walked across the DMZ in sensational scenes which saw him handcuffed, roped up and arrested upon his first steps across the border. Moments earlier he had been given a hero’s send-off in a highly orchestrated move by Pyongyang which can only be described, for now, as a clear but unnecessary propaganda victory. With Ro now likely to face lengthy detention for his unauthorized visit, his arrest and case will continue to serve North Korean propaganda purposes in the months to come. But the arrest once again underscores the controversial nature of South Korea’s National Security Law and raises questions about why North was facilitated to engineer such a significant propaganda event.
When Ro left Pyongyang yesterday morning he walked beneath the Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification, surrounded by thousands of pro-unification DPRK citizens. The start of North Korea’s latest propaganda coup took place just a week after a rare news conference covering the surprising news of defector Pak Jong Suk’s return to North Korea. As you can guess, KCNA milked the departure of Ro back to South Korea for its full worth. Confident of the reception he would get as soon as he stepped across the DMZ, North Korea dispatched its media and a significant number of local citizens down to the northern side of the Panmunjon facility to witness his arrest as he returned back to his native South Korea.
As North Koreans cheered and waved their white unification flags, Ro stepped across the border and attempted to resist authorities as they went in for his immediate arrest. As such, pictures soon emerged of the 68 year old being tackled to the ground, then dragged away, handcuffed and bound up in ropes. Almost certainly his North Korean handlers, well-trained in the art of propaganda, gave him instructions on how to aggravate South Korean reaction as much as possible while in the limelight of KCNA’s cameras. For a Confucian society to witness a 68 year old pro-unification activist thrown to the ground will likely have provoked some genuine anger among North Korean citizens, especially from those locals brought along to witness the charged spectacle. Unsurprisingly KCNA seized on the arrest, calling it a “fascist” act and an “antireunification racket”, even going so far as to threaten unspecified retaliation (again). But did South Korean authorities really need to react in this way and rope him up like a cartoon criminal from the 1940s Wild West?
Some say yes, because an example needs to be made to South Koreans. Going to North Korea on unauthorized trips is illegal and cannot be condoned. Such a heavy handed response will help discourage other South Koreans from making ill thought out trips to North Korea. The National Security Law is there to protect South Koreans from enemy influence and to discourage pro-North Korea rhetoric from within the political system. It is a law that has been there for decades and despite best intentions, it will always be difficult for any well meaning leader to repeal. Furthermore, when compared to North Korea’s own poisonous record when it comes to human rights, political freedom, and belligerence, it can be seen as a rather restrained and prudent policy.
On the other hand, other people say no, and disagree with the law that former President Roh made significant efforts to repeal. As Roh said in 2004, “If we are to shift to an era of people’s sovereignty and respect for human rights, don’t you think it is desirable to scrap the old legacy? The National Security Law is an old relic. Thus, we should put it into a sheath and display it at a museum.” Unfortunately, it was because of the unnecessarily direct way the National Security Law was applied yesterday that North Korea got its propaganda victory. We are likely see KCNA and other North Korean media continue to make a big deal about this arrest in the coming months.
Had South Korea dealt with Ro’s return differently, imagine how things could have played. South Korea missed an opportunity to show North Koreans that their very own propaganda is based on false accusations. Just imagine KCNA’s reaction had South Korea called North Korea’s bluff and allowed him to walk in a way befitting a 68 year old and conducted the arrest in private, away from North Korean cameras? Or better still, as one commenter on the NK News Facebook page said,
“Where’s the imagination? Should have sent out Girls Generation to greet him with an ice-cream cone and a small llama on a piece of string and then just walk away, leaving him to find his own way home. Give the NK propagandists a bit of a challenge to work with.”
To those that defending the NSL (but also freedom of speech), Israel makes an interesting case study. Faced with what some might argue a much clearer and potentially existential threat from Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria, Israel is confident in letting people enjoy their freedom of speech, allowing them to say and do whatever they wish, as long as it is not inciteful, racist, or about sensitive military capacities. With the Arab Spring in full swing, Israeli Druze citizens in February held Pro-Assad rallies without prosecution, while Arab Knesset members are free to defend their sometimes terrorist colleagues in a way that “pro-NK” members of S. Korean parliament could never dream of. Those Israeli peace activists who promote Palestinian rights and sympathize with Hamas and Hezbollah could be viewed in similar light to Ro and this visit to Pyongyang. Is it finally time for South Korea to think differently about how it treats those who travel to North Korea or place misplaced faith in the leaders of the DPRK?
Understandably, it is difficult for South Korean political elites to consider repealing the National Security Law, given its long history. There for six decades, doing so would require a leader to put his neck out and receive overwhelming support from both the public and political colleagues of all color, something hard to imagine in current circumstances. And while North Korea may have scored a small propaganda victory, it doesn’t really get them much in the grand scheme of things. However, the way in which the law is applied can change – as yesterday’s events can be seen to suggest.
See video of the incident: