Dozens of groups representing North Korean defectors in South Korea issued a call Thursday for Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon to step down after banning a journalist from covering a joint Seoul-Pyongyang event because that journalist was born in North Korea.
Chosun Ilbo reporter Kim Myeong-sung, a South Korean citizen, typically covers Unification Ministry affairs for the newspaper. On Monday, however, the ministry blocked him from attending and covering a meeting between representatives of both Koreas in the border town of Panmunjom, claiming his presence there, given his status as a North Korean defector, would case a “safety” issue.
The government of left-wing President Moon Jae-in followed up blocking Kim from doing his job with an announcement that it would greatly enhance prosecutors’ abilities to fight “fake news” with criminal charges, adding to growing free speech concerns in the country.
Chosun Ilbo reported on Thursday of the ongoing fallout from the government blocking its reporter from the Monday meeting. According to Chosun, about 30 groups representing North Korean defectors, or refugees, issued a statement Wednesday demanding Cho step down and give the job to someone willing to defend the rights of all Koreans.
“As the chief of a ministry responsible for helping defectors settle down here, Cho discriminated publicly against defectors,” a spokesman for the defector groups said at a press conference. “Cho takes a submissive attitude towards the North Korean regime but lords it over defectors. He is not qualified to be unification minister.”
The group insisted they were “worried about the future of democracy of the country” when the Moon administration sends the message that “defectors cannot become full citizens, no matter how hard we try.”
The Unification Ministry press corps did not officially call for Cho to step down, but they did issue a scathing statement on Monday in defense of Kim, calling his censorship “a serious violation of free speech.”
“It is unprecedented that the Ministry of Unification preemptively excluded certain reporters from the South-North talks in the South. The ministry should take the lead in protecting the rights of the refugees,” the reporters wrote.
Conservatives in South Korea, already suspicious that Moon has extended too much flattery to the North Korean rogue regime, argued that infringing upon the rights of South Korean citizens to please the North was indicative of Moon’s desire to placate dictator Kim Jong-un.
“Adulation is not a policy,” Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun of the conservative Liberty Korea Party (LKP) told reporters. “If [the government] continues to kowtow in front of North Korea, we won’t be able to achieve anything, much less denuclearization.”
The Unification Ministry has not issued a formal apology to Kim. Instead, Cho has personally expressed “regret,” according to South Korean outlet Yonhap. The ministry itself issued a statement claiming that Kim’s exclusion “is deemed necessary under such special circumstances.” The ministry also, however, denied that the North Korean government demanded Kim’s removal, meaning Seoul made the decision against the defector independently.
Outside of South Korea, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights warned the Moon administration that it appeared to be skirting acceptable limits on free press rights.
“In terms of the reporting, there should be freedom of media and media should be allowed all kinds of issues,” Signe Poulsen, the office’s South Korea representative, said in a statement, according to South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo. “What’s really important … is we hope there is no censorship on reporting on summit and talks.”
The added pressure has led to the Unification Ministry claiming it is considering a formal meeting with North Korean refugee groups. “A review (for the meeting) is underway among relevant offices,” a ministry spokesman told reporters, adding that details would be forthcoming as they are completed.
The scandal involving the defectors comes just as the Moon government launches a new initiative to limit political expression online as a way to fight “fake news.” Justice Minister Park Sang-ki issued a statement Tuesday explaining prosecutors would now be able to “crack down on fake news and track whoever was responsible for its production and distribution” with use of criminal charges. The ministry did not offer a clear definition of “fake news,” though it used as an example a claim surfacing online during the tenure of conservative President Park Geun-hye that accused her of having sex with Kim Jong-il. The North Korean Kim regime assassinated both of Park’s parents.