South Korea’s controversial censorship of a website tracking North Korea’s information and telecommunication sectors could soon be overturned, founder of the North Korea Tech blog Martyn Williams said on Monday following a court ruling in his favor.
The website, which is well-known by North Korea researchers, was blocked last April by the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) after South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) claimed it violated the 1948 National Security Act.
While the KCSC defended the block as being due to links to DPRK state media websites, the inclusion of North Korean radio schedules, and an analysis of a satellite launch, the court decision said justification for a total block of the North Korea Tech site was without basis.
“The Court held that the blocking of a website must be conducted only in an inevitable and exceptional circumstance where the website as a whole can be evaluated as illegal,” said Jiwon Sohn, a South Korean censorship lawyer helping Williams, said.
“Therefore it was unlawful to entirely block access to northkoreatech.org, which contains a lot of information that cannot be considered as in violation of the National Security Law.”
Williams, a well-regarded British journalist based in California, told NK News on Tuesday he was “happy with the decision” and was looking “forward to the site being fully available again in South Korea”.
But a representative from the KCSC committee that rejected an appeal against the blockage last May told NK News it still hadn’t received the court’s ruling, which could take up to another 10 days.
Once the KCSC receives the ruling, a representative said on condition of anonymity, the five-member commission would then consider whether or not to file a counter-appeal, something which previous statements by one commission member suggest could still be possible.
KCSC commission member Cho Young-ki – a professor at Korea University’s Department of North Korean Studies – notably justified the rejection of last year’s May appeal by suggesting the North Korean government might directly be involved with Williams’ website and said “we should ponder why a UK citizen has a deep interest in North Korea.”
ABUSE OF POWER
The blockage – still in place in South Korea following Monday’s court ruling – has been regarded by many observers as incomprehensible. North Korea Tech, which is regularly cited in U.S. academic and government reports, does not praise the DPRK leadership or pose a security threat to South Korean citizens.
“This case is a typical example of the NIS’s indiscriminate reporting and KCSC’s unscrupulous acceptance practice, and shows that KCSC abuses its power to block without due consideration, thereby infringing on the freedom of expression and the right to know on the Internet,” said Sohn, the lawyer, on Monday.
Deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia division Phil Robertson, who regularly criticizes Pyongyang for its lack of transparency, welcomed the court’s ruling on Tuesday and described the actions of the KCSC as reflecting the “rights abusing nature of the National Security Law, which is a Cold War relic sorely in need of being either scrapped…”
“The National Security Law, criminal defamation statutes, and overzealous censors like the KCSC make expressing opinions about North Korea, or publishing exposes that critique specific South Korean business and political practices, dangerous for the speaker,” he said.
“Every legal test of an unjust law or regulation needs someone ready to stand up and fight, so while North Korea Tech may have more resources and time than other websites which KCSC blocked, that doesn’t diminish this victory in any way,” Robertson added. “Now it’s time for KCSC to realize it’s wrong, that there must be necessary limits to its powers, and so it should accept this judgment in its totality.”
Tristan Webb, a senior NK Pro analyst and legal specialist, also welcomed the court ruling.
“Once again the South Korean judicial system has shown how adept it is at handling policy sensitive cases,” he said. “The court’s ruling is a sensible way of finding a principled line balancing national security and civil liberties, and will serve as an important guide for future cases.”
But while foreign observers are usually united in their criticism of South Korean censorship of websites which focus on North Korea, not all have historically agreed.
In late 2013, when the NK News-linked KCNA Watch website was blocked, North Korea human rights activist Eunkyoung Kwon said that websites linking to North Korean media could pose risks for Seoul.
“We should not forget that North and South Korea are still in armistice status,” she said at the time. “North Korea’s propaganda activities towards South Korea and the world are still working, but South Korea has not got many means to cope with it.”
Freedom House, which produces annual reports on the freedom of the press, said in 2015 that South Korea’s information ecosystem had worsened under the now-imprisoned former President Park Geun-hye due to “increased intimidation of political opponents.”
For its part, North Korea bans the vast majority of its own citizens from accessing the internet and in 2011 was described as the “most repressive media environment in the world” by Freedom House.
“I hope (this ruling) results in a more careful and nuanced examination of blocking requests by the KCSC and therefore a wider range of more critical information available to South Korean Internet users,” said Williams.
Additional Reporting: Seoyeon Kim
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: North Korea Tech blog
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