[Column] Moon’s conciliatory approach bothers N. Korea’s leadership more than Park’s Cold War hostility

Posted on : 2020-07-12 18:04 KST Modified on : 2020-07-12 18:04 KST
The number of defectors increased after loudspeaker broadcasts adopted a friendlier tone
South Korean soldiers dismantle propaganda loudspeakers that had been installed along the Military Demarcation Line in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on May 1, 2018. (photo pool)
South Korean soldiers dismantle propaganda loudspeakers that had been installed along the Military Demarcation Line in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on May 1, 2018. (photo pool)

It was in January 2016 that loudspeaker broadcasts on the front lines were commenced as a measure by the South Korean government to punish North Korea for its fourth nuclear test. Then President Park Geun-hye spoke of the “power of truth,” sharing hopes in her New Year’s address that many North Koreans would defect after hearing the broadcasts. Ten days after that address, a defector from the North Korean military attending a Jan. 22 briefing session by security-related agencies at the Blue House said that he had “decided to defect after hearing a loudspeaker broadcast.”

The defector’s statement brought a happy smile to Park’s face -- as if to say that the South had truly hit North Korea where it hurt. The Ministry of National Defense (MND) committed 16 billion won (US$13.31 million) to setting up high-performance loudspeakers on the front lines to broadcast for over 10 hours a day. At that rate, the numbers of front-line defectors should have skyrocketed -- but not one crossed over. Perhaps out of some sense of concern, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) whisked over a manager and 12 unwitting employees from the North Korean-run Ryugyong Restaurant in China a week ahead of that year’s general elections and disclosed the details to the media.

With no defectors to show for all the time spent, Park took to openly urging defections herself, calling on Armed Forces Day that October for North Korean citizens and soldiers to “come over to the land of freedom.” The loudspeakers continued ramping up their onslaught against the North Korean regime with each passing day.

Those loudspeakers in the DMZ turned into a headache for the Moon Jae-in administration when Moon took office in May 2017. If they were removed, the conservative media would surely erupt in an outcry over Seoul “taking cues from Pyongyang”; if they were left in place, they would only stir up problems along the front. What to do? The answer ended up being quite creative. Before, the loudspeaker broadcasts had mainly focused on criticizing the inferiority of the North Korean regime, attacking the dignity of its leaders, and recommending that soldiers and members of the public defect. The Moon administration changed that completely, removing all the political content and replacing it with K-Pop performances, everyday information about the weather and health, and radio series.

The Moon administration took the psychological warfare that the Park administration had created and added elements of respect, consideration, flexibility, and enjoyment. And then something astonishing occurred: the numbers of North Korean citizens and soldiers defecting from the front lines began to rise. That June alone, two North Korean soldiers defected at the central front; in August, a civilian defected on Gyodong Island in the West Sea. The defections continued with each passing month, rising to 11 by early November -- surpassing the total front-line defections in the preceding two years.

Under joint questioning, a North Korean soldier raved about wanting to “meet the female comrade who does the radio series.” I’m actually quite curious to know whether that soldier’s wish was granted and he did get to meet the Korea Defense Intelligence Command (KDIC) women’s corps master sergeant who narrated the series at the time.

Most of the North Korean soldiers who held out under the calls to defect before eventually coming over when asked to enjoy the broadcasts instead are members of the younger generation born in the 1990s and later. The Park Geun-hye model of psychological warfare had little effect on young North Korean generations, which is sensitive to new trends and yearns for material abundance and happiness. These sorts of ironies -- the hairline cracks in North Korean regime only really beginning to show when the KDIC forwent its threats to “topple” the North Korean regime and changed its approach to become more of a “friendly guide” -- are very much the reality for the Korean Peninsula.

Pyongyang seems confused as to how to respond to friendliness

The Moon administration has been exceedingly friendly, considerate, and respectful in its approach to North Korea. The North Korean regime is far less comfortable with – and perhaps even threatened by -- this sort of behavior from Moon that it was with Park Geun-hye’s “Cold Warrior” bluster. The real threat to the regime lies not in Cold War-style containment policies, but the sorts of “friendly guides” that it has trouble adapting to. After the Panmunjom agreement on Apr. 27, 2018, the South Korean government suspended its loudspeaker broadcasts in consideration of the North Korean regime’s position. Almost immediately, the stream of North Korean soldiers defecting from the front lines dried up, and it has remained so ever since.

Early this week, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun visited Seoul. Cautious predictions that North Korea-US dialogue might be resuming prompted two statements three days apart from North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui and Department of U.S. Affairs Director-General Kwon Jong-gun, both of whom said Pyongyang had “nothing to say to the US.”

When you keep telling someone you are “not interested,” you are really communicating your interest; if they were truly uninterested, they wouldn’t be the least concerned about Biegun visiting Seoul. If we understand the language of the North Korean loudspeakers, which have instead continued their irony offensive, it suggests we need to be even more courteous and scrupulous in our role as “guides” to the North. This has been the truly marvelous effect of Moon Jae-in’s loudspeaker broadcasts to North Korea -- because the North reacts.


By Kim Jong-dae, former Justice Party lawmaker

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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