The first weeks of December were eventful in South Korean politics. After months of partisan fighting and the standstill of the committee, the ruling Democratic Party bent its 174-seat majority in the National Assembly to pass a really massive list of laws – more than 130 bills covering areas like government organization, corporate governance, labor rights, and climate change. In Washington, however, only one bill among the 130-plus received attention: the revision of the law on the development of inter-Korean relations, the so-called anti-pamphlet bill, which by introducing the distribution of pamphlets near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) large measures prohibit helium balloons in any way that could cause "serious danger".
Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made a statement criticizing the bill. A Washington Post statement reported that Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun raised concerns about the legislation during his recent visit to Seoul. Amid the small club of Korean observers in the United States, the bill was the only issue in South Korean politics that sparked any significant discussion.
The unique focus on the pamphlet law is a typical example of the old way of thinking – one I criticized earlier – that judges South Korea solely on how closely its North Korean policies align with US needs. Those flashing views, unrelated to events from the ground, unnecessarily burden an alliance far more important than just dealing with North Korea.
Few deny that China is the US's greatest foreign policy challenge of this century. This, of course, means that the United States' closest ally must be given a very high priority. If we are really in a second Cold War, South Korea is just as important as West Germany: a prosperous democracy with a twin in the communist camp on the front lines of the liberal world order. South Korea is not an auxiliary player, but deserves to be evaluated on its own terms – which unfortunately rarely occurs in Washington's foreign policy circles. Even among experts and think tanks who specialize in East Asia and Korea, there is hardly any attempt to keep an eye on the domestic politics of South Korea. Instead, its policies (and sometimes all of its democracy) are judged by just two questions: What is South Korea's plan for North Korea, and how closely does that plan align with the US plan for North Korea?
Such myopia is particularly detrimental today as South Korean politics undergoes a major realignment similar to that overseen by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan in the United States. For 29 years after the end of the military dictatorship in 1987, South Korea was largely a conservative country, with 19 years of conservative and 10 years of liberal presidency. When liberal presidents like Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun triumphed, they formed strategic alliances with smaller conservative factions. Kim Dae-jung worked with Kim Jong-pil, a former lieutenant of the dictator Park Chung-hee, while Roh fought with Chung Mong-joon, a centrist scion of the Hyundai group. Even after winning the presidency, the Liberals were persistently faced with a legislative minority, which limited their ability to implement a large-scale center-left political agenda.
That era ended with the impeachment and removal of Park Geun-hye in 2017. In the twilight years of Park's presidency, the guards switched when the Liberals scored four straight national victories: the 2016 general election, the 2017 presidential election, the 2018 local election, and again the general election in April this year, which saw the Democratic Party win a historic filibuster-proof majority that it enthusiastically moved to pass a massive list of progressive laws. With these victories, the constituency of South Korean politics shifted significantly. Voters in their forties, who make up nearly 20 percent of the total electoral population, support the liberal parties by a 2-1 lead, making South Korea's base electorate more left-to-right than right-to-right. Conservatives may still retake the presidency, but most likely they will only be able to do so in the same way that liberals did 20 years ago – by co-opting center-left issues and forming an alliance with some of the progressive factions.
However, this fundamental change has largely been lost among Korean observers in Washington. In December, they were content to focus on one law without paying attention to the other 130, which, according to the conservative Dong-A Ilbo, "has effectively changed the very foundation of our (South Korean) society." For example, the Corruption Investigation Law for Senior Officials is the culmination of the reform of the Moon Jae-in Prosecutor's Office, the drama of which has caught the Justice Department and the Supreme Prosecutor's Office in South Korea for months. Fair trade law revisions will almost certainly trigger a billion dollar restructuring in South Korea's largest corporations as they come under scrutiny for anti-competitive behavior. The “three ILO laws” represent the largest expansion of trade union rights in decades and allow South Korea to comply with the recommendations of the International Labor Organization, the United Nations agency that sets global labor standards. In fact, the Leaflets Act isn't even the main North Korean law that has been passed. These would be the corresponding revisions of the National Intelligence Service Act and the Police Act, which would shift the power to investigate espionage cases from the espionage agency to the police. None of these laws attracted Washington's attention; There was no Congressional declaration, statement, policy paper on any of them.
This is a shame, not least because studying South Korean politics would have made the leaflet ban debate more rigorous and more informed. Most of the criticisms of the law come from the hardliners in Washington, who characterize the leaflet ban as a weak surrender by the liberal moon to North Korea. But if they had followed South Korean politics, they would have known that this matter was long before the moon. South Korea's restriction on the launch of air balloons with leaflets near the DMZ began in 2007, and even Conservative Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye enforced the restriction. They did so because the safety concerns were real: the last time North Korean shells landed on South Korean territory was in 2014 when the North Korean military fired anti-aircraft guns at large helium balloons that were fired by activists.
The activists challenged the restriction in court and lost when the Korean Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the danger warranted the restriction. The new law is merely a legislative ratification of the Supreme Court ruling four years ago, which is becoming more urgent today due to the risk of accidentally escalating into nuclear war with North Korea. None of the criticisms from the United States relate to this story, analyze the 2016 Supreme Court opinion, or deal with the text of the law making it clear that the ban is not a blanket ban – like Article 24 of the States Act, the distribution of leaflets is prohibited only to the extent that it is done in a way that actually causes damage or danger.
A stronger focus on South Korean politics would also have shown the domestic political dynamism of the activists, many of whom are North Koreans who have fled to the south. Many members of the North Korean defector community in South Korea have joined forces with far-right South Korea. This trend was particularly pronounced during the conservative Park Geun-hye government, which subsidized North Korean defector groups in exchange for helping them waving flags in downtown Seoul. As a result, they were largely silent when the park administration abused North Korean defectors by falsely accusing some of them as spies but now violently protesting Moon.
To be blind to these general political dynamics harms the US-South Korea alliance. Freedom of expression for North Korean activists is an important issue, but not the only important issue in the Alliance that serves as the linchpin for the liberal order in the Indo-Pacific. If the US government only expresses its concerns about freedom of expression when North Korea is involved, and not when, for example, the Park Geun-hye government blacklisted and censored around 9,000 liberal artists, including those with the Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-ho South Koreans rightly wonder whether the United States' alleged love of free speech is just an excuse to defend a Hawkish stance on Pyongyang.
When the South Korean public sees US experts on the Korean Peninsula who are said to be well versed on these issues, they bluntly dismiss the concerns of more than 1.1 million residents near the DMZ and feel like one-way chess pieces in the game of foreign policy, not as people who live their lives in a community. The ban on leaflets may deserve debate, but it should be better and stricter, for the health of the whole Alliance.