January 7, 2012
South Korean Law Casts Wide Net, Snaring Satirists in a Hunt for Spies
By CHOE SANG-HUN
SUWON, South Korea — On May 1, 2007, the police locked Kim Myung-soo in a jail cell so small he could spread his arms and touch the facing walls. On one of those walls, a television was showing trains in North and South Korea preparing to cross the border for the first time since the 1950-53 Korean War. The report also noted that South Korea was donating 400,000 tons of rice to North Korea.
Mr. Kim was angry about his fate and confused by the reports of North-South conciliation. After all, he had been told his crime was “aiding the enemy” by running a Web site that sold used books deemed pro-North Korean. These included a biography of Karl Marx and “Red Star Over China,” an account of the birth of Chinese Communism by the American journalist Edgar Snow.
Although Mr. Kim was later released on bail, he is still fighting the charge in court. He has visited nearly every public library in Seoul and the surrounding metropolitan areas to bolster his argument that all the books seized from him as criminal evidence are readily available at government-supported libraries.
“It’s a tragicomedy,” said Mr. Kim, 56, whose acquittal in a lower court is being challenged by prosecutors in an appeals court. “It’s depressing living under a government like this.”
Over the years, South Korea has sought reconciliation with North Korea while at the same time guarding against Communist ideology infiltrating its society. Nowhere have those conflicting desires clashed more sharply than in the National Security Law, enacted in 1948 to fight Communism and used to indict Mr. Kim and numerous others.
That conflict was on display in recent weeks after the death of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. On one hand, the South Korean government allowed the widow of former President Kim Dae-jung, who had hugged Kim Jong-il during a landmark summit meeting, to go to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to express condolences. On the other hand, it barred most other South Koreans from visiting the North and was seeking to arrest a former student activist who had traveled to Pyongyang.
In Seoul, conservative activists blocked an attempt by civic groups to pitch a tent to receive mourners for Kim Jong-il’s death as a gesture to promote reconciliation with the North. The authorities at Seoul National University dismantled a makeshift mourning altar that a student had set up on campus. Since Mr. Kim’s death was announced on Dec. 19, South Korea has also intensified the policing of the Internet, where some bloggers called for expressions of condolence, if only to test the government’s tolerance of free speech.
Lee Kwang-cheol, a lawyer who is defending several people charged under the National Security Law, said its applications had varied widely depending on the government’s stance toward North Korea.
“What once were called exchanges and cooperation with North Korea are now acts of ‘aiding the enemy,’ ” Mr. Lee said. He cited cases in which people were convicted based on conversations with North Korean officials during trips authorized under previous, more liberal governments.
For years, international rights groups, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission, have urged South Korea to repeal the law. But it has proved resilient in a society where the generation that experienced the 1950-53 Korean War remains wary of Communism, its fears revived by every North Korean military provocation and often stoked for domestic political ends.
In 2010, 151 people were interrogated on suspicion of violating the National Security Law, up from 39 in 2007. The number of people prosecuted for pro-North Korean online activities increased to 82 in 2010 from 5 in 2008. The number of domestic Web sites shut down for pro-North Korean content rose to 178 last year from 18 in 2009.
During the first 10 months of 2011, the police deleted 67,300 Web posts they believed threatened national security by “praising North Korea and denouncing the U.S. and the government,” a sharp rise from 14,430 posts in 2009. The Korea Communications Standards Commission, a government regulatory agency, almost always approved requests by the police or the national spy agency to delete Web content for violating the National Security Law, although only 20 percent of their investigations under the law led to court convictions in 2010, according to government data submitted to Lee Yong-kyung, an opposition lawmaker.
In May, Frank La Rue, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, called South Korea’s regulation of online content “a matter of great concern.” In the past, South Korea’s military dictators used the National Security Law not only to prosecute spies but also to persecute political dissidents. Between 1961 and 2002, at least 13,178 people were indicted, and 182 of them executed, under the law, according to human rights groups.
Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who supported reconciliation with the North between 1998 and 2007, enforced the law less vigorously. But Lee Myung-bak, a conservative, rejected that approach when he became president in early 2008. Inter-Korean relations chilled further in 2010 when South Korea accused the North of torpedoing one of its warships and the North shelled a South Korean island. Seoul halted aid shipments and cross-border trains. It also increased the policing of the Internet, citing what it called a growing infiltration of North Korean propaganda.
The government denies that it is applying the law as a weapon against political dissent. But human rights groups, including Amnesty International, say that prosecutors began enforcing the law more vigorously in the months before Mr. Lee took office, when it became clear that conciliation toward the North would end.
The law makes it a crime to praise, sympathize or cooperate with North Korea if such acts threaten national security. But it is so vaguely worded that, decades ago, even people who might have praised North Korea while drunk were hauled in for interrogation.
Court records show that, depending on the prosecutor or judge, “The Communist Manifesto” was either a political pamphlet of historical interest or “subversive material” whose possession was punishable by as much as seven years in prison.
Recently, the South Korean authorities have begun investigating or arresting bloggers who have praised North Korea — jokingly, some of them said — or have downloaded North Korean propaganda that is widely available on the Internet.
These actions have had “a chilling effect on the freedom of expression,” said Rajiv Narayan, an East Asia researcher for Amnesty International.
In August, Prosecutor General Han Sang-dae declared “a war against fellow-traveling pro-North Korean left-wing elements,” and said, “We must punish and remove them.”
A month later, plainclothes police officers ransacked Park Jung-geun’s photography studio and his home in Seoul for 10 hours, copying the hard disks of his computer and his cellphone memory data and confiscating photos and books they deemed suspicious. They have since called him in five times, each time questioning him for hours: Why did he upload Web links to North Korean songs on his Twitter account? Didn’t he know Twitter was “a powerful propaganda tool” for the North?
Mr. Park said he had done it for fun. His satirical streak was evident in the North Korean propaganda posters he had tweaked and uploaded on Twitter. In his versions, he replaced a smiling North Korean soldier’s face with a downcast version of his own and the soldier’s weapon with a bottle of whiskey.
To the police, that was not funny. “I felt ridiculous having to explain my beliefs, and explain jokes so obviously harmless to anyone who’s not language-impaired,” said Mr. Park, 23. “This law defines your brain and your tongue as government property.”
Now he is waiting for prosecutors to indict him, and he says he is on medication for stress and sleeplessness. In a recent Twitter post, he asserted his right to free speech, taunting the prosecutors with an insult and saying, “Hear me loud and clear — Hurray for Kim Jong-il!”