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Conservatives accuse Moon Jae-in's government of gagging tactics

President allegedly silencing critics despite vow to unite South Korea

South Korean President Moon Jae-in faces accusations of clamping down on conservatives. (Getty Images)

SEOUL -- Riding a wave of public optimism following a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is flying high in the polls. In one opinion survey released after April 27 summit, during which the two leaders pledged to work toward formally ending the Korean War, Moon held an approval rating of 85%.

But despite Moon's popularity, a growing number of conservative voices here accuse the president of trying to silence those who challenge his liberal agenda. His administration's actions, they say, stand in stark contrast to the rhetoric of a leader who came to office last May pledging to heal partisan divisions and break with the authoritarian tendencies of his predecessors.

"He is trying to annihilate everything related to the rightwing, ignoring all his basic obligations as president," said Sohn Sang-yoon, editor of conservative news site Newstown.

Last month, a number of conservative newspapers published reports claiming that scholars at government-affiliated institutes were being subjected to a "Moon code" that prevented them from criticising the government. In one case, the Joongang Daily reported, the House pressured the Sejong Institute into firing David Straub, a former U.S. diplomat, after he voiced disapproval of Moon's pro-engagement policies toward North Korea. The think tank denied the report, while Straub declined to comment on the situation.

Soon after, it was revealed that a government-linked think tank had abruptly decided to withdraw all funding for the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins after the institute resisted pressure to replace its right-leaning director of more than a decade. Other reports detailed political interference in the media, including the case of a conservative anchor who was allegedly forced out of major broadcaster MBC.

Critics drew comparisons to a notorious blacklist operated under the administration of former President Park Geun-hye, who was sentenced to 24 years in jail last month for abuse of power, that punished artists deemed unfriendly to the administration.

In another incident last month, South Korean intelligence agents were filmed blocking high-profile North Korean defector Thae Yong Ho from answering questions by journalists after a private conference on human rights. Thae, who was Pyongyang's U.K. ambassador before defecting in 2016, had previously expressed hard-line views on North Korea that stood in contrast to Moon's agenda of rapprochement that echoes the "Sunshine Policy" of former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

In Moon, some see another similarity with his liberal predecessors: a willingness to silence outspoken defectors, like the late regime propagandist Hwang Jang Yop, deemed to pose an obstacle to improving relations with the North.
"He is so hellbent on making this summit a success and his legacy, and his ticket to the Nobel Peace Prize, he can't afford to have anyone, especially defectors, ruin it for him," said Hyun S. Song, North American director for defector-led nongovernmental organization No Chain for North Korea.

"The sense of stifling of their work, and subtle reminders from the South Korean government to keep quiet or to tone it down -- the defectors have been feeling the heat and are worried about [their] future in South Korea," Song added.

Like previous administrations, Moon's Blue House has relied on South Korea's harsh defamation laws to punish critics. This year alone, several prominent critics of the president have faced prosecution for calling him a "communist," an incendiary accusation often levelled at advocates of closer cooperation with the North.

Sohn, the Newstown editor, is currently under investigation for defamation after publishing a contested report that claimed the Blue House had purchased anthrax vaccinations for the personal use of the president and his aides in the event of a biological weapons attack.

"What kind of president in a civilised country could possibly press charges against his own citizen in an attempt to silence him?" Sohn said.

Meanwhile, a committee set up by Moon's Democratic Party to tackle disinformation announced in March that many of the 500 instances of "fake news" it had identified were defamatory comments about the president.

During South Korea's short democratic history, leaders on both sides of the political divide have been accused of trying to silence their critics. So powerful is the country's scandal-soaked executive branch that it has been referred to as the "imperial presidency."

Yang Seung-ham, a professor of politics at Yonsei University, said that employees of state-affiliated organizations appeared to be feeling pressure to watch their words.

"The effort to suppress critical opinions about the Moon Jae-in administration appears to be related to state agencies," Yang said, adding that the Moon administration has, in his opinion, been less authoritarian than past governments. "You can see a different characteristic with the blacklist of the previous conservative administration. I think people working in research institutes certainly have to be careful about their words and actions."

The Blue House has rejected all allegations of political interference and quashing dissent.

"The allegations that the Moon Jae-in administration has been trying to suppress conservative voices in Korea to any extent are totally groundless. President Moon, whether before his inauguration last May or thereafter, has been taking freedom of the press as one of the key values in a democratic society like Korea," said Nam Sang-kyoo, assistant secretary to the president for foreign press.

"With respect to fake news, Korean people are generally much worried that such fake news could have harmful effects on their everyday life," added Nam. "Fake news, whether it reflects conservative or liberal views, is a social harm to both conservatives and liberals. In this regard, some congressmen are now working for the enactment of a legislative bill to prevent fake news in an attempt to make the media environment in Korea fairer and freer."

For Sohn and other conservatives, though, there is no doubt that Moon hasn't lived up to the pledge he made during his inaugural speech to rid politics of "division and conflict."

"All those words he said have turned out to be just big talk," Sohn said.

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