At a time when some American voters, led by Republican Party presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump, are questioning the cost effectiveness of traditional alliances, including with the Republic of Korea, the argument of shared values with fellow democracies is a critical one.
The May 4 decision of a South Korean court, therefore, to cancel four performances by the Shen Yun dance troupe in Seoul, despite a previous contract with Seoul's KBS Hall, is disturbing. The fact that this judicial decision was reached reportedly due to pressure from the Chinese Embassy seems rather embarrassing.
It calls to mind that era of Korean history when a weakened Joseon Dynasty engaged in a policy of "sadaejuui" (serve the great),assuming a subservient role with regard to the Imperial Chinese Qing court. Thus this seems an action unworthy of the current economically and politically empowered South Korean state. It also flies in the face of the May 4th movement of Chinese students in 1919 to oppose Japanese imperialism and promote fundamental human rights.
America's own struggle to uphold the principle of artistic freedom came to a head in that fateful year of 1939 as fascist war clouds gathered over both Asia and Europe. The renowned contralto opera singer Marian Anderson was planning to give a performance, including the patriotic melody "America" at the historic Constitution Hall, which then contained the largest auditorium in Washington, DC.
Access to Constitution Hall was controlled by the then all-white organization the Daughters of the American Revolution which had constructed the hall. The DAR refused to make the hall available for Ms. Anderson's performance due to the color of her skin.
Then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took matters into her hands. She submitted her letter of resignation to the DAR president, declaring that the DAR "had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way" but "had failed to do so." Mrs. Roosevelt then arranged for the Department of the Interior to make the Lincoln Memorial available to Ms. Anderson for an Easter Sunday outdoor concert. An estimated seventy-five thousand people attended the concert and it was broadcast nationwide over radio. It became one of the most famous concerts in American history. Artistic freedom and human rights triumphed in the end.
My daughter, a digital artist, attended a performance of the Shen Yun dance troupe this past winter in Seattle, as the troupe schedules concerts in cities around the world. She said she found the performance to be "a celebration of Chinese culture and beliefs." When asked about "anti-Chinese content" (as reportedly alleged in the South Korean court) she laughed and recalled one brief scene about demonstrators but said she paid little attention to that "as we are used to demonstrations in Seattle."
My daughter had her own previous experience with a suggestion on curbing artistic freedom. In 2013 she visited Seoul and was very moved by her visit to the Comfort Women statue. As a result, in 2014, she drew a digital portrait of the Comfort Women that was included in a special exhibit at Catholic University in Washington, DC, that was organized by the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues (WCCW).
She did not appreciate the comment of one Japanese diplomat who attended the exhibit and subsequently asked me, "Doesn't your daughter have other things to do? Why doesn't she draw other subjects rather than Comfort Women?" My daughter rightly viewed that comment as an infringement on her artistic freedom.
The unspoken controversy behind the South Korean court decision is the Shen Yun dance troupe's connection to the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, which the atheistic Chinese Communist government has been systematically persecuting as an "evil cult" since 1999. Leading members of the American Congress, including my former boss on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, have continually spoken out against Beijing's suppression of Falun Gong, and the imprisonment and torture of its members, as major violations of human rights and religious freedom.
The fact that Falun Gong promotes traditional Chinese cultural values taken from Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism, which are also core values in Korean culture, makes Seoul's censorship of the Shen Yun concert even more of a contradiction.
And what would Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson say about the "shared values" of an ally which allows the curtailment of artistic freedom due to outside pressure? Does no one in Seoul have the courage to speak up for artistic and religious freedom and basic human rights? As a former Peace Corps volunteer who provided over two years of service to Korea and its people in order to further these shared values, I am left sadly shaking my head.
Dennis Halpin is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University.