Shim Jae Hoon and Old Dictator’s Tricks

Veteran Seoul-based journalist Shim Jae Hoon gives his take on the Litvinenko/Lugovoi murder case and the Kremlin’s attempts to demonize internal and external opposition in this article.

The problem with this kind of criminal case is that dictators are able to exploit it to condemn foreign interference, imagined or otherwise. That’s exactly what happened under the rule of South Korea’s President Park Chung Hee in the summer of 1973, when KCIA agents kidnapped the opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung, from a Tokyo hotel. Park first blamed North Korean agents for the kidnapping, then criticized Japan’s colonial mentality for demanding his repatriation. In the end, that never happened, until Park’s own killing by his top intelligence officer years later. He knew Japanese politicians could be coaxed into signing a wish-washy deal that would allow him to get off the hook.

Park used Japan’s pressure for Kim’s repatriation to close ranks at home, mobilizing the country to greater unity behind his embattled regime. Liberal oppositionists were denounced as foreign agents, just as Russian dissident and chess player Kasparov is today harassed and called an agent of foreign interests. Putin himself is successfully unifying the post-Soviet Russia by showcasing his “strong leadership,” which the Russian populace, long tired of chaos and deprivation from the post-totalitarian interregnum, welcomes. Putin is giving Russians, especially the young, a cause to unite behind the government against foreign interference. Using the foreign bogey to maintain domestic unity is old trick of many dictatorships.

As we are learning, talking about a strong Russia is very different from creating a strong Russia. Our idea of a strong nation is one that has strong democratic and legal institutions, a broad-based economy, and the respect — not fear — of other nations. That some foreign nations share this idea for Russia is not interference. If they wish to stand up for their core beliefs they can do no other.