All Quiet on the Northern Front

In banning innocuous tourism websites, "seditious" anti-capitalist books, and information about Pyongyang, South Korea's intelligence service is acting a lot like its brother to the north.

PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - APRIL 03: A mural of Kim Il Sung, founder of North Korea, stands on April 3, 2011 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Pyongyang is the capital city of North Korea and the population is about 2,500,000. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

Sometime last year, in an office buried within South Korea’s national security establishment, a bureaucrat scanning the Internet for threats must have clicked a button, thereby banning the website of Koryo Tours inside the country.

It wasn’t until this January that Nick Bonner, head of British-owned, Beijing-based Koryo Tours, learned the news. Bonner founded the tourist agency in 1993, transforming it into the clear leader in the tightly circumscribed field of North Korean tourism. Fewer than 2,000 Westerners are estimated to visit the country each year, and Koryo takes in roughly 50 to 60 percent of them. Last year, the company brought around 1,300 Western tourists to the North. On the occasion of North Korea’s so-called Mass Games in Pyongyang this month, Koryo is conducting a half-dozen package trips for 300 to 400 intrepid travelers.

Bonner, who has also produced three documentaries about North Korea, became fascinated with the country on a spontaneous trip to Pyongyang in 1993. By developing a close working relationship with the North’s state-run Korea International Travel Company, he has gained unprecedented access for Koryo — opening up new travel destinations in the North, screening films such as Bend It Like Beckham for the public, and organizing international sports exchanges.

For the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS), the country’s chief spy agency, this was all too cozy. Invoking the National Security Law, the NIS claimed Koryo’s website was spreading propaganda about North Korea. Although it is highly unlikely, if Bonner were charged criminally for violating the law, he could face up to seven years in prison.

And what was the nefarious deed that would justify this? Bonner would later learn that certain pictures on Koryo’s website that supposedly portrayed North Korea unrealistically, including one of a smiling man of indeterminate nationality playing golf, had raised the ire of South Korean intelligence officials.

In censoring and controlling the flow of information reaching its citizens, the democratic South is mirroring — albeit to a lesser degree — the notoriously closed North.

The relationship between the North and South has worsened since North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan and its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last year — and, more recently, another live-fire incident in the Yellow Sea and reports that a North Korean assassination team was targeting the South’s defense minister. As tensions rise, Lee Myung-bak’s conservative government in Seoul is wielding the National Security Law to cut off even ostensibly innocuous attempts at engagement and understanding.

Before South Korea achieved its inchoate democracy in the early 1990s, the National Security Law was used by successive military governments to detain, torture, and sometimes kill student dissidents and others thought to have pro-North Korean sympathies. The law can be radical, broad, and arbitrary in its application.

I received a firsthand education in the law. While serving a prison term for an unrelated smuggling charge in South Korea in the mid-1990s, we inmates were given a list that outlined the National Security Law’s prohibitions against "stories that praise or support communism or socialism." That restriction is at least clearer than the injunctions against "stories that can create chaos" and "stories that are critical of society and can prompt disobedience." Technically, the copies of Ayn Rand, Friedrich Nietzsche, and even Walt Whitman in my cell violated the law.

The Constitutional Court in Seoul last year upheld a military ruling that labeled 23 books "subversive" and off limits to soldiers. The list included a book by South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang, a well-known academic who holds a post at the Cambridge University, titled Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism.

As Seoul tightens its grip on cyberspace, Koryo’s website has not been the only victim. The Korea Times reported that, in the first half of 2010, South Korean police ordered various websites to delete more than 42,000 posts deemed to be supportive of North Korea — 100 times the number from five years earlier. Just this month, a South Korean naval officer who taught Korean history was put on trial for downloading allegedly pro-North Korean materials.

Bradley Martin, a longtime Korea watcher and author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, said that the Lee government’s fears are, in part, justified. "Young South Koreans over the decades have proven remarkably susceptible to pro-North propaganda," he said. "The choice for the Southern government lies somewhere between opening up completely to pro-North information flows and hoping its subjects learn how to sift true from false, on the one hand, and barring all such flows, on the other hand."

In calibrating that choice, however, it’s all too easy for a conservative Seoul to overreach. That’s when entities like Koryo, that are not propagandists or advocates for the North’s political system, get swept up in the clampdown.

The National Security Law’s ambiguity is the reason that it poses such a threat to freedom of speech. "The law forbids ‘anti-state activities,’ which has generally meant discouragement of praise for the North, but which can be interpreted to mean anything that doesn’t portray North Korea in the most critical and negative light," said Charles Armstrong, a Columbia University history professor and director of its Center for Korean Research.

There’s the rub.

Back at Koryo Tours, Bonner and his small staff were stunned by the ban. "No Internet access in the North and banned in the South!" he said in an email message to me.

South Koreans are legally barred from going on such tours, though for a time they could go on day trips to the North Korean city of Kaesong, just on the other side of the demilitarized zone, and were able to take tours to the Kumgang mountain resort in the southeast corner of the North. Both of those tours were suspended in 2008 amid rising tensions involving, among other issues, the killing of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean guard in the Kumgang area.

Although the website blackout will not greatly affect Koryo’s business, as it does not take on South Korean clients, Bonner saw it as a grave step away from engagement. "There was clearly an interest in South Korea to find out more about life in the North," he said. "It’s a slap in the face for the 20 years of work we have done, which we hope is part of a process towards stability and understanding."

In a meeting with South Korean authorities this May, Bonner reiterated that Koryo is simply a business, not a front, and does not endorse the North’s ideology. But he also tried to comply, removing from the website photos that appeared propagandistic or that featured the North Korean military, as well as a link to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. But these steps were all for naught — Seoul refused to lift the ban. "[I]t seemed they were objecting to the entire site, really," Bonner said.

Koryo’s website does have a sanitized feel — no surprise for a company trying to convince people to visit North Korea. It presents a controversy-free, somewhat airbrushed image of the Hermit Kingdom, mentioning nothing about the country’s human rights violations, prison camps, or nuclear weapons program.

But shutting out Koryo for remaining impartial on the political rivalry between the North and South is a new step for Seoul. Jim Hoare, who ran the British Embassy in Pyongyang from 2001 to 2002, has watched closely as the Lee administration attempts to reverse nearly 20 years of increasing openness to information about the North. "I think that what we are seeing is a steady move to try to put pressure on any organization that has links with [North Korea]," Hoare said.

"The trouble is that once a decision like this is taken, it’s very hard to get it changed," Hoare continued. Under the current government in Seoul, "Who would want to appear to be soft on [the North]?"

As for doing business with Pyongyang, Bonner’s conscience is clean. "We work in North Korea but do not work in South Korea tourism," he said, "so it is not surprising that we have developed strong links with our Korean colleagues in the North."

He also praised his colleagues in North Korea’s state-run travel agency as "great people" and "trustworthy." He said that they worked "on a person-to-person level; this is not on a governmental/political level, and we have clearly demonstrated what can be achieved."

In the tense atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula, however, a conservative Seoul seems to have little use for those trying to build bridges to Pyongyang.

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