I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it

January 19th, 2011

It has been reported that the South  Korean government has yet again arrested and charged a South Korean national for violating its National Security Law (NSL). The 54-year-old man, Mr. Cho, is accused of praising North Korea via his account on Twitter.  It is difficult to sympathize with Mr. Cho’s decision to support such a brutal dictatorship and one might even think that Mr. Cho acted with full knowledge of the risks involved, and must therefore assume responsibility for his actions. Last year, the leftist pastor Han Sang-ryeol, who made an unauthorized trip to North Korea in the summer 2010, was also arrested for violating the NSL.

The National Security Law—or anti-communist law—is as old as the Republic of Korea (ROK) and was enacted in 1948 with the blessing of the United States. Between the years 1948 and 1988, it was used as a political tool to arrest, punish and torture anyone suspected of political dissent and/or harboring left-wing tendencies. It was also used to crack down on democracy and human rights activists and effectively curtail freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom of conscience. Nowadays, the law is mainly used to subordinate North Korea’s sympathizers.  With the advent of democracy in 1988 and the increasing opportunities for dialogue with North Korea, human rights activists started to ask for the abolishment of the law but they lacked the support of the South Korean population. The law has been amended seven times since its enactment and the older generations generally believe that the law contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability on the peninsula. Younger generations and university students, however, are usually in favor of the repeal of the law.

In fact, the question of human rights on the Korean peninsula, whether in the North or in the South, has been used as a tool to promote political views. Typically, those who promote an anti-North Korea agenda will advocate for human rights in the North while supporting policies that curtail civil rights of South Koreans such as the NSL. For example in 2010, a group of North Korean defectors based in South Korea established an organization to promote and facilitate the collapse of the North Korean regime in view of achieving reunification, peace and democracy on the Korean peninsula – the North Korea Peoples Liberation Front. In order to do so, the group vows vowed to “take the lead in exposing and seeking prosecution of those who violate the national security law and show sympathy for Kim Jong Il regime [sic] and North Korea”.

The arbitrary decision by foreign powers to divide the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel and the subsequent Korean War are well known historical facts. However, beyond the borders of South Korea, little is known about the increasing ideological polarization between conservatives and progressives/leftists, which pervades every aspect of society and effectively paralyses the country. Thus, human rights activists who advocate for the abolishment of the NSL are usually also supportive of a policy of cooperation with the North Korean authorities.  For ten years, the liberal/progressive Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Noh Moo-hyun implemented respectively the ‘Sunshine Policy’ and ‘Policy of Peace and Prosperity’.  Both were inspired by the Helsinki policy of engagement and dialogue, which many believe led to the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. The so-called South Korean “left”, however, has persistently omitted the term “human rights” from its own package of engagement and cooperation with the North and thus lamentably betrayed the “Helsinki spirit” of liberty and human rights for all.  It would be too easy, however, to assume that the use of the NSL is the prerogative of conservative presidents, Kim Dae-jung himself resorted to the law in the aftermath of the IMF crisis of 1997-1998 to arrest workers and students who demonstrated against unemployment[1].

Thus, domestic human rights organizations and international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the use of the law, which breaches South Korea’s commitment to international treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCE). In 2004, Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged South Korea to repeal the law. In December 2010, South Korea Amnesty appealed again for a repeal of the law especially because “the NSL contains clauses that prohibit ‘anti-state’, ‘enemy-benefitting’ and ‘espionage’ activities but does not clearly define them. The law continues to be used as a tool to silence dissent and to arbitrarily prosecute individuals who are peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association”. However, the South Korean constitution stipulates that international law equals domestic law but if there is a conflict between the two, domestic law prevails[2].

The NSL is not the only means at President Lee Myung-bak’s disposal that can be used to prevent South Koreans from enjoying full freedom of speech. The South Korean government has also been blocking access to North Korea’s internet assets, including both its Twitter and YouTube accounts. On December 27 2010, the South Korean President called for national unity, arguing that “the survival of the nation depends on it, because North Korea looks for division in the South to attack”[3]. In order to achieve national unity, President Lee Myung-bak would be well advised to stop giving the opposition opportunities to criticize his policies, as brilliantly argued by Brian Myers in his article[4]. There is a saying, often attributed to Voltaire, which springs to mind: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire also said, “I always made one prayer to God . . . O Lord, make our enemies quite ridiculous!” A quick look at North Korea’s Twitter updates would suggest that President Lee Myung-bak could take a leaf out of Voltaire’s book by allowing South Korean citizens to see North Korean propaganda for what it is.

[1] Diane Kraft, “South Korea’s national Security Law: a tool of oppression in an insecure world”, in Wisconsin International Law Journal, 24, no 1, available on-line: http://hosted.law.wisc.edu/wilj/issues/24/24.html, pp. 631-634

[2] Idem: pp. 649-650

[3] See article: http://www.voanews.com/english/news/South-Korean-President-Calls-for-Unity-to-Thwart-Further-Attacks-by-North–112494684.html [accessed January 14 2011]

[4] See article: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/01/13/dear_tweeter?page=0,2)[accessed January 14 2011]

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About the Author

Sandra Tailleux

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  • Aidan Foster-Carter

    Amen! Excellent, balanced article.

    As I recall, it was in the past the formal position of both the UK and US governments that their ROK ally should abolish the NSL. Does anyone know if this is still the case.

    btw please could NKNews provide a short bio or byline for your ever more numerous authors?

  • Steven

    Thanks for your article Sandra but I must disagree with you. These laws are essential for preventing sympathy groups from increasing the scope of their activities and undermining the government. Who knows what may have happened following the recent shelling had North Korea many supporters able to undermine the nation at a time when great unity was required.

  • Jean Smith

    Unfortunately, it looks as though it may only get worse:
    A new era on ‘McCartyism’?

  • Jean Smith

    Unfortunately, it looks as though it may only get worse:
    A new era on ‘McCartyism’?