Space shrinking for freedom of expression in South Korea

‘National security’ is often the card played by states denying human rights. With the North Korean dictatorship next door, in South Korea it is a regular trump.

Jan Erik Wetzel
20 January 2015

That was then—the UPP candidate in the presidential election of 2012, Lee Jeong-hee, defeated by Park Geun-hye, daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-hee. Demotix / Jeonggon Sim. All rights reserved.

The right to freedom of expression in South Korea is under renewed attack. On 19 December, the Constitutional Court dissolved the opposition Unified Progressive Party (UPP), finding it had violated the country’s “basic democratic order”. The court also ordered that all UPP lawmakers in the National Assembly should lose their seats.

The court found that the UPP had the “hidden objective of realising North Korean style socialism”, based on party activities which purportedly included “assemblies to discuss insurrection”. The court’s decision referred, among other things, to “acts of refusing the national anthem and not raising the national flag” as indicative that the UPP “advocates the positions of North Korea”.

The last time a political party was disbanded was in 1958, by the government of the then president, Syngman Rhee. But this time the blow came from a court, the highest in the country, following the first such request from a South Korean government since the end of dictatorial rule in 1987.

The UPP judgment has to be seen in conjunction with the widened and arbitrary application of South Korea’s infamous National Security Law (NSL) over recent years, which has diminished the space for freedom of expression. The government request in late 2013 went hand-in-hand with the start of criminal prosecutions against the then-parliamentarian Lee Seok-ki and six other UPP members. South Korea’s Supreme Court will soon rule on an appeal of their convictions, for “inciting an insurrection” and violating the NSL.

The latest clampdown involves two women who organised and talked about North Korea during a speaking tour in South Korea in November. The US national Shin Eun-mi was deported earlier this month for speaking positively about North Korea, while the South Korean citizen Hwang Seon was arrested on 14 January and has been charged under the NSL for causing “social confusion” by holding the talks, and praising the North Korean regime on YouTube and in blog posts.

The vague wording of the NSL and its overly broad application, to intimidate and imprison people simply exercising their human rights, are not new problems. But the increased reliance on the NSL by the previous and the present government, and now the ruling by the Constitutional Court, raise serious questions over the authorities’ willingness to fulfil their international human-rights obligations.


In 2012 Amnesty International published a report detailing its concerns about the NSL. In 2014 Amnesty wrote to the president, Park Geun-hye, on a range of human-rights issues, including the individual cases against the seven UPP members and their potential effect on the government request that the Constitutional Court should dissolve that party. In response the government only said it was aware of the longstanding criticism from the international community and confirmed its refusal to abolish or amend the NSL in line with international law and standards.

Vaguely drafted laws can lead to a chilling effect and ultimately self-censorship in public debate, including online.

In fact, the government has widened the application of the NSL in recent years. According to official sources, the 2013 figures for cases received and individuals detained and indicted for possible violations of the NSL were the highest in a decade, having almost tripled since 2008. According again to official sources, investigations of alleged violations dropped in 2014, yet application of the NSL was broadened to new groups of individuals, such as politicians, parliamentarians and foreign nationals.

South Korea is not the only country where governments have used concepts such as ‘national security’ to repress political opposition, human-rights defenders and critical media reporting. Amnesty recognises that every government has the right and duty to protect its citizens, and that some countries have specific security concerns. But these may never be used as an excuse to deny people the right to express different political views and to exercise their other human rights as protected by international legal standards.

Vaguely drafted laws can lead to a chilling effect and ultimately self-censorship in public debate, including online. In South Korea, individuals using traditional and social media on issues relating to North Korea, having meetings on the subject or even just singing North Korean songs risk criminal investigation and prosecution, in an apparent return to a climate of repression and fear.

Vague references

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), binding on South Korea since 1990, enshrine the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, tasked with monitoring implementation of the ICCPR, has frequently rejected attempts to justify far-reaching restrictions with vague references to ‘national security’.

For instance, the committee has declared that this goal could never be served by attempts to muzzle advocacy of multi-party democracy, democratic tenets and human rights. In cases involving South Korea, it has underlined the paramount importance of freedom of expression to any democratic society, with any restrictions subject to a strict test of justification. In 1999 the committee said in terms: “The Covenant does not permit restrictions on the expression of ideas, merely because they coincide with those held by an enemy entity or may be considered to create sympathy for that entity.”

Similarly, it has argued that the “plurality of associations”—including associations which peacefully promote ideas not favourably received by government or the majority of the population—is “one of the foundations of a democratic society”. Consequently, prohibition of an organisation, whether a student council or a political party such as the UPP, and restriction through criminal prosecutions of the freedom to associate and to be a member of such an organisation, can only be justified if in fact necessary to avert a real, not just hypothetical, danger to national security or democratic order.

When the criminal trial of Lee Seok-ki and six other UPP members started, Amnesty expressed concern that the prosecutions were politicised. When Lee and the others were found guilty in the first instance of NSL-related and other charges in February 2014, it noted that the disclosed evidence did not appear to support the contention that the defendants intended to plot or promote an insurrection. In August, the Seoul High Court seemed to share these concerns, at least in part, when it dismissed the charge of “conspiracy to insurrection” for insufficient proof, while upholding the conviction for “inciting an insurrection”.

We will soon see how the Supreme Court applies the National Security and other laws when it decides the final appeals in the criminal cases. In the meantime, the ruling of the Constitutional Court to disband the UPP and the authorities’ broadening use of the NSL indicate a further deterioration of freedom of expression and association in South Korea.

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