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McCarthyism in Korea?

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I've had arguments with some Korean friends about the National Security Law (NSL). They tell me that the law may not be perfect, but I should remember that North Korea still harbors a desire to reunify the peninsula by force. It continues to send its agents to the South, sometimes in the guise of defectors. It still commands the support of some South Koreans, albeit a small group, who would support the North Korean army if it attacked across the 38th parallel.

And the threat is not just hypothetical, they remind me. North Korea has attacked South Korean territory as recently as the 2010 Yeonpyeong Island shelling. It routinely threatens to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire."

The NSL, in other words, is necessary to guard against North Korea's subversion of South Korea. Even though South Korea has changed tremendously since the law was enacted in 1948, the NSL is the price that free people have to pay in order to safeguard their freedom.

I am not convinced. I've heard the same arguments here in the United States, first during the Cold War and now during the war on terrorism. I've similarly been told that Communists -- and now terrorists -- have long wanted to subvert the U.S. constitution, overthrow our democracy, and install their own illiberal system. To guard against that, Americans must accept a certain infringement of their civil liberties.

All three examples are similar not only in the arguments used by the governments but also in their misperception of the reality. The U.S. governments of the 1950s and of today as well as the current South Korean government all imagine threats that are much bigger than they really are, and they promote policies that have lasting negative effects on democratic institutions.

Let's look at the situation in the United States in the 1950s when Senator Joseph McCarthy famously launched his anti-Communist crusade in the United States. The Cold War was at its height. The Soviet Union tested its first atomic weapon in 1949. Mao took Beijing the same year. The Korean War began in 1950, and the United States was convinced that Communism was spreading rapidly around the world.

McCarthy was focused on rooting out Communists within U.S. society. In his famous February 9, 1950, speech in Wheeling, W.V., McCarthy talked of 205 Communists working in the U.S. State Department. He never made the list public. He tried to give the impression that Communists were everywhere.

There were indeed Communists in America. In the 1930s, quite a few intellectuals were attracted to the Party as well as labor organizers and those working against racism and segregation in the South. During World War II, when the United States and the Soviet Union were official allies, the Communist Party successfully pursued "united front" policies that drew in more people. The 1948 presidential run of Henry Wallace also attracted the support of many Communists.

But Wallace's electoral campaign -- he only won only 2.4 percent -- revealed just how little power the Communist Party wielded, even when working in a larger alliance. Membership in the Party peaked around 100,000 in 1945, and then steadily dropped until it was only 50,000 by 1950.

So, there were Communists in the United States, and some of them even had influential positions. But the Party was never particularly powerful in America, and it was already on a steep decline before Joseph McCarthy began his witch-hunt in 1950.

McCarthyism, however, did have a profound impact on U.S. society. It created a culture of fear. It prompted otherwise reasonable people to support the erosion of civil liberties. And it cast a shadow over entirely respectable efforts, such as the civil rights movement, union organizing, and arms control initiatives.

Even today its effects can be felt in the United States. Last year, a Florida Congressman claimed that there were 80 Communists in the House of Representatives. Politicians here use the label of "Communist" to discredit anything even remotely progressive.

These days, of course, the search for Communists has been largely displaced by the hunt for terrorists. The notion that al-Qaeda supporters continue to threaten the United States was the basis for the USA PATRIOT Act, the preventive detention of thousands of Muslims and Arabs (with no convictions), and the expansion of domestic surveillance (recently revealed in more detail by Edward Snowden's revelations).

In contrast to McCarthy's assertions in the 1950s, the current witch hunt takes place on a much wider scale and there are even fewer needles in the haystack. There are no al-Qaeda sympathizers in positions of influence in the United States. Many high-profile arrests of terrorist "cells" turn out, after close scrutiny, to be little more than FBI entrapment. Muslim-American terrorism has claimed 33 lives in the United States since September 11, 2001, writes Charles Kurzman of Duke University, while more than 200 Americans have been killed in political violence by white supremacists and other groups on the far right over the same period of time.

Which brings us back to South Korea. I've traveled to South Korea dozens of times over the last 15 years. I've been impressed with the scale of its economic growth and the strength of its civil society. I've also witnessed over the past few years a strange paradox. North Korea's influence in South Korea has declined -- from an already low point -- and yet the South Korean government has reacted as if the opposite has happened.

As Amnesty International has chronicled, the National Security Law is stronger than ever. Between 2008 to 2011, the South Korean government basically doubled the number of cases it was prosecuting under the NSL. Yet it wasn't so longer ago, under the previous term of Roh Moo-hyun, that the South Korean executive attempted to abolish the NSL. "When we abolish the Security Law," the former president said in 2004, "we would be able to say that Korea has become a civilized country."

Yes, of course, North Korea still attempts to subvert South Korea (as South Korea still attempts to subvert North Korea). But the North Korea of today, even with its unknown nuclear capacity, is a shadow of its former self in terms of military power, regional and global influence, and economic capacity. Moreover, South Koreans have no illusions about North Korea. Even the South Korean left has largely abandoned whatever positive evaluations it once had of North Korea's system. But the South Korean government operates as if it's back in the 1960s, when North Korea was considerably more influential.

Meanwhile, the government's use of the vaguely worded NSL creates an environment in which it is all the more difficult to find ways of engaging North Korea. People-to-people contact, which had been a cornerstone of the engagement policies of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, has once again become suspect. McCarthyism in the United States eventually gave way to détente. For Park Geun Hye's trustpolitik with North Korea to work, she will also have to build support among her domestic opponents. One way to do that would be to abolish or substantially modify the NSL and end South Korea's version of McCarthyism.

Hankyoreh, December 15, 2013