N. Korea plays up political upheaval in South
By Kim Young-jin
“The fight for a new politics and a new life...cannot be stopped,” an editorial in a North Korean mouthpiece newspaper recently declared, with optimism uncharacteristic of the Stalinist regime. Disappointingly for those hoping for change there, however, the remark referred to developments not in Pyongyang but Seoul.
South Korea has been a stage for political upheaval since independent civic activist Park Won-soon last month defeated ruling Grand National Party (GNP) stalwart Na Kyoung-won in by-elections for Seoul mayor, a victory seen as an unmistakable call for sweeping reformation of the status quo.
The North, which has icy ties with the GNP, has attempted to fan the flames of the public — which is frustrated over partisan politics and a growing wealth divide — by vigorously reporting on Park’s victory. And with parliamentary and presidential polls looming next year, analysts expect Pyongyang to step up efforts to influence domestic politics in a bid to foster more advantageous ties with Seoul.
“The North seems to be deepening the extent to which they meddle in the South’s affairs,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said. “In the run-up to the elections, it will be very interested in the heated conflict between the main political forces here.”
Reframing the debate
The North has long sought to drive a wedge between progressives who support engagement and conservatives with a harder line towards Pyongyang, especially during election season. With the public’s call for change, however, its propaganda seems to be reframing its rhetoric to pit “an obsolete system” up against a “new, rising politics” rather than right versus left.
“Park’s election victory is a victory for a new politics, a new life and the democratic force,” the official Rodong Sinmun said on Oct. 31.
It has also placed more emphasis on the South Korean public. The same newspaper five days earlier claimed the election outcome was “a revolution that shows the Southern people have backbone,” while the Chosun Sinbo said it was a victory “not for the opposition but for the people of the South.”
Its media has even begun using a more respectful tone towards South Korean citizens, referring to them as “si-min” which has a more assertive, empowered implication than the typically-used “in-min.”
Watchers said with its stepped-up references to citizens, Pyongyang appears to be appealing to South Korea’s social concerns rather than dwelling on the rancorous inter-Korean stalemate. Last week, the North’s official website, Uriminzokkiri (between our people), took the rabble-rousing campaign a step further, slamming the government for its efforts to ratify the long-stalled free trade agreement with the United States, which has been a point of contention between the ruling and opposition parties and prompted protests in the South. The website hailed “workers, students, religious groups” for their opposition.
The regime has even established a team tasked with interfering in the South’s elections next year, intelligence officials say.
The purpose of all this, analysts say, is to deepen societal tensions and consolidate support among pro-North factions in the South in the run-up to parliamentary poll in April and the presidential election in December 2012, when Pyongyang hopes to see a change in Cheong Wa Dae’s stance on inter-Korean relations.
Tensions between the sides have soared during the Lee Myung-bak government, which ended a decade marked by engagement and instead tied the provision of massive aid to denuclearization steps by Pyongyang.
The North Korean regime responded last year by waging two deadly provocations near the hotly-contested maritime border.
The regime, experts say, is desperate to maintain better relations with Seoul without having to give up its nuclear weapons in a bid to win back the food and other assistance it enjoyed under previous liberal administrations.
Such aid would help it keep the support of its impoverished people as it attempts to hand power from leader Kim Jong-il to his youngest son, Jong-un.
The rhetoric offensive comes at a time of deepened concern over pro-North activities in the South, which some see as a sign of Pyongyang’s growing ability to influence sentiment here through the Internet and other means.
A police report released late last month revealed that the number of Korean-language websites praising the North with servers based overseas has jumped significantly in recent years.
The North’s meddling is feared to possibly have a greater impact on electoral politics given the rise of sympathetic activity.
The National Police Agency, in a report submitted to a lawmaker, said 57 such sites had been detected since 2007, the majority in the last two years. Of them, 37 have been blocked to South Korean users under the National Security Law that bans the praising of the communist regime. The sides remain at war since the Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
Authorities have also blocked access to 141 foreign-based social networking sites extolling the North as well as Pyongyang’s Facebook and Twitter pages. They are also reportedly considering preventing Koreans with pro-North tendencies living overseas from voting via absentee ballots.
Several South Koreans have been arrested in recent months for activities deemed pro-North Korea. In the latest case, a former Army officer was arrested for operating an online community that carried video clips praising Kim Jong-il. The site also disseminated some 13,000 propaganda postings obtained from overseas websites.
Last month, a Korean Air pilot was grounded indefinitely for posting dozens of pro-regime messages on his site. Authorities say they will step up measures to curb such activity in cyberspace, including establishing a joint body including the prosecution and police as part of the crackdown.
While the election for Seoul mayor is usually considered a bellwether for public sentiment, the degree to which the South Korean public will be swayed by Pyongyang’s gestures remains to be seen.
Mayor Park’s victory was fueled in large part by voters in their 20s to 40s, which pollsters took as a sign of their displeasure towards the establishment for failing to address unemployment, welfare and other pressing concerns. Though Park has indicated he supports a softer approach toward Pyongyang, analysts suggest the younger generation who propelled his campaign may not feel the same. Experts say issues like social welfare, job creation and the economy will weigh far more heavily in voters’ minds as they head to the polls.
The North, meanwhile, will take a dual-track approach towards the South of trying to influence the elections while getting as much as it can from diplomacy with Seoul and other regional players, Yoo Ho-yeol, an expert at Korea University, said.
“Priority number one for them is to try to replace the ruling party,” he said. “After that, they want to get assistance. But they want to do that in a way that it doesn’t benefit the Lee Myung-bak government.”
The sides have slowly improved relations since July, when they held talks in a bid to resume the six-party negotiations on Pyongyang’s denuclearization. The efforts have coincided with a more “flexible” stance on the North that has seen a slight increase in inter-Korean exchanges.
Analysts say that the North is doing all it can to secure aid in 2012, the year it has promised to emerge as a powerful country. Its success on that count is said could have a bearing on Kim Jong-il’s ability to pass power to Jong-un.
Korea Times intern Kim Do-yeun contributed to this report.