South Korea | Renovating the Past

An Amnesty International report highlights an oppressive, decades-old South Korean law

Park Jeong-geun satirised the North Korean establishment through images like this one, set against the country’s flag. COURTESY PARK JEONG-GUN
01 January, 2013

THE JUDGE LOOKED UP ONLY ONCE from the paper-clipped stack of documents, to ask the accused if he understood his sentence. Park Jeong-geun, convicted in November 2012 of violating South Korea’s National Security Law (NSL) and aiding North Korea, answered politely that yes, he understood that he had been given a suspended sentence of ten months’ imprisonment and two years’ probation.

Before reading the verdict, the judge had listed dates on which Park, a 24-year-old photographer, had retweeted messages from North Korea’s state media, acts that were held to be in violation of the NSL. Park had argued that his tweets, including one that read “Long Live Kim Jong-il!”, were sarcastic, intended to make fun of a humourless regime. But this found no favour with the court. “Their claim that I’m benefitting the North is ridiculous,” said Park outside the courtroom after receiving the sentence.

Under the NSL, it is illegal for a South Korean to do anything deemed beneficial to any anti-government organisation. This specifically includes recognising North Korea—officially considered an enemy by South Korean policy—as a political entity. The combat phase of the Korean War ended with an armistice agreement in 1953, but no peace treaty was ever put in place; the two countries technically remain at war. While supporters say the NSL is necessary to protect a fragile peace against the North Korean threat, critics say it is a vaguely worded prohibition that is really meant to stifle dissent within the country.

The NSL was implemented in 1948 in the brief window between the end of Korea’s colonial occupation by Japan and the start of the Korean War. It was based on a law used by the Japanese Imperial Government during its occupation of Korea. The law’s most controversial clause, Article 7, demands legal punishment for “any person who praises, incites or propagates the activities of an anti-government organisation”. What constitutes praise, incitement or propagation is not clearly defined.

The law has been used to rein in critics of governments throughout South Korea’s history. The country was a dictatorship until the democracy movement of 1987 won a multi-party, democratic system and basic civil rights. Even during this movement, the law was used to persecute critics of the government. After fading in use during the 1990s and early 2000s, the NSL was revived under the Lee Myung-bak government, which came to power in early 2008. In particular, suspected pro-North Korea activity has been put under stricter watch and control.

Lee Myung-bak was inaugurated after being elected on a conservative platform after 10 years of liberal rule under Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Lee capitalised on public discontent with a sagging economy, and a public perception that his predecessors’ policy of engagement with North Korea—known as the “Sunshine Policy”, for which Kim Dae-jung won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize—had failed to bring peace and stability to the Korean peninsula.

Under Lee’s rule, there have been many complaints, from both media companies and individuals, over curtailments to freedom of expression. The issue was highlighted when, in late November 2012, Amnesty International released a detailed report describing increased use of the NSL under the Lee government. Between 2008 and 2011, the report said, the number of NSL cases increased by 95.6 percent.

Under President Lee Myung-bak, the number of NSL cases in South Korea has risen by 95.6 percent. PARK JIN HE / XINHUA PRES / CORBIS

Park Jeong-geun manages a photography studio that he took over from his father, on Seoul’s eastern fringe. Before his trial, in his free time he liked to make images—his own photographs, as well as digital manipulations of others’ photographs—that satirised North Korea’s leadership, including one in which he replaced a gun on a North Korean propaganda poster with a whisky bottle.

I met Park at his studio on the first Monday after he received his sentence. As he peeled and ate oranges from a bag on his table, Park described the first time police came looking for him, in September 2011, in response to his online activity. “Detectives showed up at my house early in the morning and took my phone, hard drive, books, a bunch of stuff,” he said. He spent 40 days in jail alongside criminals who had been brought in for a range of other offences, including rape and sexual assault. He said his reputation had preceded him. “Many people there had heard of me and were interested to talk to me.”

Park’s work at the studio leaves him plenty of time to kill throughout the day. He spends a lot of time online, especially on Twitter, the site of his crimes. He tweets almost constantly. On the morning of his hearing he tweeted that he wished to stay in bed and sleep more; the previous night he told his more than 7,000 followers (to whom he has tweeted more than 93,000 times) that he wanted to stay out drinking but had to go home and get to bed early. The day after the trial he wrote two tweets:

“My name”

“is Park Jeong-geun”.

“I prefer short writing,” he told me. “There are many interesting people on Twitter but I’m the most interesting one because I’ve been to jail.”

Unlike Park, Kim Myeong-soo was charged under the NSL without having made statements that could have been mistaken as being pro-North Korea. While driving in early 2007, Kim realised something was the matter when he noticed in his rearview mirror two cars that followed him for some time. He stopped at a gas station even though he didn’t need gas. When he started driving again, he noticed the same two cars behind him. A short while later, he stopped at a grocery store and was followed at a distance by two men.

Kim’s online book selling business had made him a person of interest to authorities. He was first arrested in May 2007, by detectives who confiscated any books with the words “revolution” or “juche”—the word for the North Korean ideology of self-reliance—in their titles. This was done on the grounds that distribution of such materials benefited North Korea and was a violation of the NSL. Ironically, some of the confiscated works were written by prominent conservatives and were critical of North Korea.

Kim had participated in South Korea’s democracy movement of the 1980s and felt he was being targeted because of his past activities and his continued interest in left-wing ideas. “Many of South Korea’s powerful conservatives are originally from what is now North Korea,” Kim said. “They fled to the South when the communists began to gain control. It is in their character to censor anyone who might seem progressive.”

None of Kim’s books were illegal to possess; he checked after his arrest and found that they could all be borrowed from public libraries. In March 2011, Kim was found not guilty on the charges of violating the NSL, but prosecutors appealed the decision. In February 2012, he was sentenced to six months in prison and a suspended sentence of two years.

Kim would like to appeal the decision, but after struggling with the case for several years, he is exhausted, and unable to afford a lawyer. His online book selling business has now been closed for five years and he is without a means of earning a living, dependent on friends and family for support. “I never did anything just to make money or for any bad purpose,” said Kim when I met him in a Chinese restaurant near his home in Suwon, a gritty suburb south of Seoul.

Amnesty International deliberately released its report on the NSL a few days after November 26, the official commencement of campaigning for the presidential election on December 19. Following the release, the organisation also wrote to presidential candidates, calling on them to overturn the NSL. The next government will have to decide whether to maintain, amend or abolish the law. They may also adopt an approach similar to the country’s stand on the death penalty, which remains legal due to the political difficulties in abolishing it, but hasn’t been practiced since 1997.

In Park’s case, the ruling and threat of imprisonment can be expected to silence his satirising of North Korea. Under a strict interpretation of the law, Park could have been sentenced to seven years in jail; the judge mentioned in his ruling that his leniency was partly attributable to Park having promised that he would not repeat his offense. “They seemed to think what I was doing was really serious,” Park said. “To prevent getting in trouble again, I definitely won’t mention North Korea online at all.” Park is still young and unsure about his plans for his career. He expressed a hope that his ordeal with the NSL would end and he would be free to concentrate on his future. But he remains convinced that the NSL is antiquated and brings no benefits to South Korean society. As he put it: “It’s like trying to block the sky with the palm of your hand.”