A slip of tongue reveals challenges in dealing with N. Korea

August 27, 2015
(Facebook screen capture / Newsis)

(Facebook screen capture / Newsis)

By Kim Kwang-tae

SEOUL (Yonhap) — A slip of the tongue by a politician cost him his job in South Korea, in a case that highlighted the sensitivity in dealing with North Korea and raised questions about freedom of expression.

Heo Young-il, a deputy spokesman of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, quit his post Thursday amid a controversy over his remarks that said he respected North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

“President Park Geun-hye has really made a great achievement,” Heo said on his Facebook page early Tuesday, adding Kim Jong-un has also “made a difficult decision. I respect both of them. But I respect President Park Geun-hye more.”

As of 4:57 a.m. on Tuesday, it had 55 likes.

Heo posted his message about three hours after the two Koreas announced a breakthrough deal that defused military tension and paved the way for a series of cross-border reconciliation projects.

The deal included a high-profile project to reunite families separated since the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.

The family reunions are a pressing humanitarian issue on the Korean Peninsula, as most of the separated family members are in their 70s and 80s, and wish to see their long-lost relatives before they die.

Heo’s message drew immediate criticism from Park’s ruling Saenuri Party, citing the severe injuries two South Korean soldiers sustained in a recent land mine attack blamed on North Korea.

The ruling party had demanded that Heo resign from his post, condemning his message as “an act that betrays our people” and broke the hearts of the two soldiers who lost their legs.

Heo later deleted the message, claiming his comments on the North Korean leader had been taken out of context.

“I was very happy over the deal. It was not easy for an opposition deputy spokesman to say, ‘I respect President Park.’ And I thought it was right to say customary greetings” to Kim Jong-un, Heo said. “I don’t understand what the problem is.”

The former student activist-turned-politician later announced his resignation as the controversy did not die down.

“It is my fault for not convincingly getting my message across, and I am sorry to the injured soldiers if I hurt their hearts,” Heo said in a new post on his Facebook page.

One of Heo’s followers said on Facebook that this is about freedom of expression.

Another follower said on Facebook that he is disappointed at the opposition party for “gagging a deputy spokesman and even controlling private expression.”

The case highlighted challenges in dealing with North Korea in a country where its people are officially banned from praising North Korea in any way under the anti-communist National Security Law.

Repeated calls to a prosecutor handling the National Security Law seeking to comment went unanswered.

Suh Jung-kap, a retired Army colonel who has been leading a conservative group meant to root out what he calls leftists who blindly follow what North Korea says, called Heo’s message “garbage.”