The New “Steps Towards Democracy” in South Korea

76876845555On July 15 2015, the police of the Republic of Korea in Seoul raided the office and residence of members of the civil movement, “Korean Alliance”, (in Korea – the association for independent reunification and the development of democracy), who advocate the expansion of ties with the DPRK. This organization was created in November 2011 to implement the independent reunification of the two Koreas without external influence. It demands the withdrawal of foreign troops (read – the US, because there are no others) from the Korean peninsula and advocates the abolition of the National Security Law (NSL), which (among other things) prohibits citizens of the Republic of Korea, any unauthorized contact with North Koreans and actions to support the DPRK.

According to law enforcement officials, the movement is suspected of “promoting North Korean ideology and actions in support of Pyongyang.” About 100 police officers went to the movement’s offices in order to seize documents for the investigation.

According to investigators, members of the movement, which the authorities consider “anti-government“, repeatedly published messages indicating a positive attitude towards the North Korean regime on the Internet, as well as organizing public events against the NSL. Furthermore, in 2013 during a stay in Germany, one of the members of the movement allegedly attended a seminar organized by the pro-North Korean group and was in contact with officials from the DPRK.

In addition, the chairman of the organization was the late pastor, Pak Chan Kyung, who, according to secret service agents, was previously deputy chairman of the pro-North Korean, organization “Korean Association for the Reunification of the Motherland.”

Its members are holding protests, calling for a stop to the investigation, but the chances of getting away with this are very slim. After all, at the same time the law-enforcement system in South Korea has taken “an important step toward democracy.” This entails the decision by the Constitutional Court on the issue of whether possession of North Korean literature is a political offense subject to proceedings under the Law on National Security. In comparison to the ban on the United Progressive Party, against which only one judge out of nine spoke up, the number of those voting “against” has risen to three, yet the ruling has been passed.

The decision was made in connection with the appeal by Hon, who was accused by the court of Suwon of violating the National Security Law. He was counted as belonging to the “anti-state organization” on the grounds that memoirs of Kim Il Sung were found on the hard drive of his computer, but he filed a protest, claiming that he held such materials to “better know the enemy.”

The court judgement confirmed that the NSL is vital in curbing social unrest, and necessary to ensure public safety and freedom by preventing actions that could lead to a violent regime change. Moreover, according to the Court, these restrictions did not violate freedom of speech. Of course, they could be used to suppress political opposition, but this should be separated from pro-North Korean activities. Such bans are precautions against possible social instability achieved by means of illegal protests.

As stated by the judges in their verdict, “given the current circumstances in the country, national security is critically dependent on the law which is being proposed for review. We recognize that, currently, there is no clear and direct threat, but it is in the public’s interest to restrain these violent ideas before they gain impetus.” Therefore, the storage of materials was sufficient for prosecution. “Given the level of modern scientific and technological progress, the rapid dissemination of materials via the Internet is very likely. The law prohibits the storage of individual anti-state literature without legal authorization.” In other words, anything that is not permitted is prohibited. Even if you’re just interested in North Korea without being a patented fighter with the Communists, this poses the threat of sedition.

It is curious that such an interpretation is, in fact, the assumption that a person that stores such information is, a priori, a supporter of North Korea.

Three of the judges, however, did not agree with this interpretation: the punishment for possession alone without proof of proliferation creates a great potential for errors or violations of the law. Too much depends on the personal opinion of the investigator. It requires additional evidence that the accused distributed these materials or kept them because they held similar views.

Let’s translate this law into the language of reality. Just the mere fact that you keep a copy of “Mein Kampf” at home automatically makes you a fascist and a suspect in a series of other crimes motivated by ethnic hatred, why else would a person keep this at home? And silly talk such as “how can you study Hitler, without reading Hitler?” are just flimsy excuses; if you are not registered as an official opponent of Hitler, then you must be one of his secret supporters, and so, face criminal prosecution. In general, if we compare this case with Russian practice, we have to ask ourselves who is catching up with the Russian Federation – North Korea, or even the Republic of Korea?

In this context, one cannot but recall the textbook for North Korea’s lawyers, issued by the Ministry of Public Security (i.e. by the ordinary, detective police) of North Korea in 2009. The book contains a great number of examples of various offenses, including an example very similar to the aforementioned, right up to the prescribed punishment.

Finally, here’s more recent news from July 31, 2015. The Constitutional Court has recognized the legitimacy of the Republic of Korea’s Law on the election of officials, which requires Internet users to use their real names during the electoral period. This relates to paragraph 6 of Article 82 and paragraph 1 of Article 261, which requires the user to specify their real names if they want to express opinions about political parties or candidates for leadership positions. For violation of these requirements, fines of up to 10 million Won, or 8.5 thousand Dollars are enforced. This requirement is effective only during the election period, because, according to the decision of the Constitutional Court dated August 23, 2010, the collection of users’ personal information when working with the Internet violates the constitutional rights of citizens. Thus, the 2007 requirement of the identification of Internet users was lifted, so as to prevent the interference with freedom of expression on the Internet.

Today’s decision by the Constitutional Court came in response to a complaint filed in 2013 by Daum, the web-portal whose headquarters are on the island of Jeju. The Jeju Provincial Electoral Commission fined the portal for breach of compliance with the requirement to indicate the real names of users during the 2012 presidential election. The Portal administration felt that this requirement was contrary to the decision of the Constitutional Court from 2010. Meanwhile, five of the nine judges found no violation of the law requiring users to indicate their real names. Especially, since it does not reveal the individual’s full personal information and is valid only during the election period. The other four judges considered that the requirement was unconstitutional because it required online-voters to disclose personal data, even if only for a limited period.

Here we should note the following: the Internet in South Korea is already only provided with passport identification. To register on a forum or to perform any transaction, it is necessary to submit a unique identification number. But here we are talking about the compulsory disclosure of personal data in any attempt to discuss politicized issues. Obviously, it’s not just for the sake of combating Internet trolling (which is usually cited to justify abolishing anonymity), but, so the state security organs could easily identify anyone whose thinking does not coincide with “the party line.”

This is an obvious crackdown. How it interfaces with the internal policies and whether it is possible, in this context, to say that conservative circles are regaining their former influence in the Republic of Korea will be in one of our forthcoming articles.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD (History), Senior Researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”


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