By Chosun Ilbo columnist Yang Sang-hoon
Bloomberg news described President Moon Jae-in as a "de facto spokesman" for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in a recent article, raising expectations of furious protests from Cheong Wa Dae. But there was none. Even during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, Cheong Wa Dae would react furiously to such accusations, but perhaps now it no longer feels insulted. It would not be surprising given that Moon's approval ratings surge more than 10 percent every time he shakes hands with Kim and members of the presidential entourage last month were apparently mesmerized by Kim's younger sister, Yo-jong.
Moon's speech at the mass games in Pyongyang underscored this fact. He told 150,000 Pyongyang residents, "I witnessed the amazing development of Pyongyang. My heart was overwhelmed after realizing what kind of country Chairman Kim Jong-un and our brethren in the North are trying to create. I was able to confirm just how much you all yearn for reconciliation and peace between our people. I saw the indomitable courage you displayed in the midst of difficult times in order to stand up on your own." Whenever Moon uttered a phrase, all 150,000 North Koreans in the stadium raised their arms and shouted in ghastly unison.
But downtown Pyongyang is a Potemkin village, and the rest of North Korea looks much the same as it did 50 or 150 years ago. There are fears that mass starvation will hit again. But some people insist on seeing only the "amazing development" of the isolated crackpot state.
In the World Bank's latest governance report, North Korea ranked at the bottom of the world in freedom of speech, regulatory quality and the rule of law. But some people's hearts are "overwhelmed" when they look at this train wreck. It doesn't matter if North Korea develops weapons of mass destruction, sinks South Korean ships or shoots South Korean citizens who are on vacation. Those at the top here only see what they want to see.
A considerable number of South Koreans did feel troubled by Moon's speech in Pyongyang. They will have been reminded of Lim Su-kyung, a well-meaning South Korean university student who broke the law to travel to Pyongyang to attend a world youth festival in 1989 and has since become a byword for naivety. Many South Korean officials who went to Pyongyang with Moon said they were moved by what they saw there, and surveys show that more South Koreans were moved by Moon's speech rather than alarmed. No wonder Moon does not mind being labeled Kim's chief spokesman.
At home, the government wants to shorten the mandatory military service and cover the shortfall with advanced weaponry. That is the crux of the government's military reforms. But at the same time, in talks with the North, it agreed to temper advanced weapons development and deployment. Yet not a single South Korean soldier has voiced concerns. Who is speaking up for the safety and rights of South Koreans?
Of course many people are relieved by the easing of cross-border tensions and rejoice in the prospect of reunification. But what is even more important than reunification itself is how to go about that process. Democracy, freedom and human rights must be upheld if it is to succeed, and as long as Kim has any muscle to flex that cannot be assured.
Where is this country headed? The U.S.-based Human Rights Foundation said the South Korean government has shown that it is more interested in improving relations with North Korea than upholding the human rights of North Koreans. The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea said it was "very regretful" to see activists in South Korea face "censorship and restrictions" and their budgets shaved.
Many South Koreans, especially young people, rightly remain suspicious of North Korea's sincerity. But who is speaking up for them? Xi Jinping? Vladmir Putin? Kim Jong-un? U.S. President Donald Trump says he and Kim "fell in love," and South Korea's own president is acting as Kim's loudhailer on the world stage. Who is standing up for us?
North Korea, even so, only let those who were allowed into the stadium that day hear Moon's speech, and most North Koreans have not seen Kim's latest gestures of humility and respect for his people that have been all over the news here. All of it was a show aimed at duping South Koreans, because the South holds the key to achieving the North's goals. People here need to be vigilant at a time when nobody is speaking up for their interests.