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John Power is an Australia-based journalist who lived in South Korea and has reported on the peninsula since 2010.
It’s considered essential reading for North Korea watchers, regularly cited by international media and academics hungry for information about the world’s most secretive country.
But for more than a year, North Korea Tech, a San Francisco-based blog that covers IT developments inside the isolated dictatorship, has been banned in South Korea.
The website, run by British journalist Martyn Williams, has been deemed a risk to national security in the democratic South, one of the most tech-savvy and connected countries on earth.
In March last year, the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC), which censors internet content as part of a mandate to uphold “sound communication ethics,” began blocking the site after the National Intelligence Service claimed it was in breach of the National Security Law (NSL); a law which criminalizes praise or support of North Korea.
“I have had zero communication since this all began,” Williams, who learned of the ban through social media, told NK News.
Williams, a reporter of several decades with IDG News, considers the action “foolish and simplistic,” particularly in an era where such restrictions could be circumvented relatively easily by anyone with basic IT knowledge.
“It’s disappointing that South Korea chooses to censor journalism, especially in the internet age,” he said.
The KCSC sees it differently, however, and has dug in its heels. After first rejecting Williams’ internal appeal, the president-appointed, nine-member body has busied itself contesting a South Korean court ruling against the ban.
In April, the Seoul Administrative Court found the KCSC to have acted unlawfully in its decision to block the entire site instead of specific content and failure to conduct sufficient investigation or review.
“It’s disappointing that South Korea chooses to censor journalism”
“In order to block the whole website, the whole purpose of the website should be found in violation of the National Security Law by examining the weight of the information violating that law,” said Sohn Ji-won, a lawyer representing Williams.
“So if there is a lot of information which is not in violation of National Security Law, such as reporting information about North Korea objectively on a website, it is difficult to see the whole website itself as violating the National Security Law.”
But because the commission appealed the ruling to a higher court, the ban remains in place for now. If the KCSC were to lose and appeal again, the Supreme Court would ultimately settle the case.
While South Korea maintains heavy restrictions on expression for a liberal democracy, particularly when it comes to its northern rival, North Korea Tech’s banning has nonetheless baffled many observers at home and abroad.
FAR FROM PRO-NORTH
Since its launch, the website has been a go-to source of information for journalists, researchers and others interested in media and communications inside North Korea.
Williams balks at the suggestion that he’s a regime sympathizer. Within North Korea-watching circles, he’s better known for his fact-based reporting and commentary rather than for any ideological disposition.
“This clearly isn’t some Kim Jong Un fanboy site,” Williams said. “The content doesn’t gloss over the reality of North Korea and is analytical in nature.”
In court, the KCSC has justified its actions on the basis of North Korea Tech’s inclusion of links to North Korean websites and its posting of state media video clips and broadcast schedules. Although South Korean media regularly repeats Korean Central Television (KCTV) and other North Korean propaganda without sanction, the administrative body claims that North Korea Tech’s use of similar content sets it apart from mainstream newspapers and television channels.
“Such information is itself content which promotes and tries to instigate the system, unilateral ideology, and assertions of anti-state groups or North Korea, or praise and glorify the Kim family,” a KCSC spokesman told NK News in a statement, requesting anonymity. “Therefore, it is valid to conclude that such information constitutes conduct that is banned by the National Security Law.”
It’s also clear the body suspects the motives of the site’s operator, despite his long career as a respected journalist. In rejecting Williams’ appeal last year, one commissioner, Korea University professor Cho Young-ki, questioned whether the North Korean government could be involved with the site and queried why a British citizen would have an interest in the country in the first place.
“I’ve seen KCTV clips on (South Korean broadcasters) KBS and YTN many times, so the government clearly accepts that there is a valid journalistic reason to do that sometimes,” said Williams.
Williams takes viewers through North Korea’s “Samjiyon” Android Tablet
REDS ON THE NET
Park Kyung-shin, a former KCSC commissioner, told NK News the commission had a history of reading nefarious motives into innocuous behavior. He pointed to a case he worked on in which a local man with North Korean sympathies had his entire blog blocked, even though it mostly consisted of mundane postings about everyday life.
“Most of the postings were about his children and his personal hobbies so I opposed the takedown of the whole website, asking how could the pictures of baby children pose a national security risk to South Korea,” said Park, who now works for the internet freedom non-profit Open Net Korea.
“And one of the members answered, ‘Hey, what you see on screen is not all there is. Who knows what secret motive lies behind these innocent pictures of children.’”
The body is stacked with members nominated by South Korea’s traditionally hawkish political right
Park said the KCSC, two-thirds of which is nominated by the ruling party of the day, continues to be dominated by people with “backward thinking” about national security and relations between the Koreas, which remain technically at war nearly 70 years after the cessation of hostilities in the Korean War.
“If the NIS states that even those kinds of innocuous postings pose a security threat, without really elaborating how NIS has arrived at that conclusion, people are forced to take that for granted,” Park said, noting that the public is given no insight into the spy agency’s deliberations or rationale.
With nearly a decade of conservative rule only broken last month by the election of new President Moon Jae-in, the body is stacked with members nominated by South Korea’s traditionally hawkish political right, most of them academics and former media executives. Both Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, the last two conservative presidents, were heavily criticized by free expression advocates for overseeing a sharp rise in the number of prosecutions under the NSL, many of them for online activity.
In the first year of Park’s presidency, 2013, the number of cases rose to 129, the highest number in a decade. The law and its broad application is a major reason why South Korea’s internet, despite being among the fastest and most accessible networks in the world, is ranked just “partly free” by American non-profit Freedom House.
“The blocking of North Korea Tech is, on face, an overbroad application of a law that in itself is in direct contrast to the principle of freedom of expression,” Jillian York, director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told NK News.
More fundamental than the ideological bent of the KCSC’s individual members or their interpretation of the law, however, is the vague and subjective mandate it has to block material, according to Park. In fact, the commission is empowered to ban content that isn’t illegal at all, relying on the amorphous concept of ethics.
Such a sweeping mandate manifests itself in censorship on a massive, and expanding, scale
“The statutory mandate forming the KCSC tasks the agency with the obligation to surf the web and take down content ‘when it is necessary for nurturing sound communication ethics,’ which can be a very vague standard and can include many lawful activities, depending on the ethical standards of those deliberating on the content,” Park said.
Such a sweeping mandate manifests itself in censorship on a massive, and expanding, scale. In 2015, the commission, whose budget is set by the Ministry of Finance and the FCC-like Korea Communications Commission before being approved by the National Assembly, made almost 149,000 requests, backed by the threat of fines, to internet service providers to block, delete or otherwise restrict objectionable material.
Despite the publicity generated by the North Korea Tech case, the vast majority of cases relate to content considered to be pornographic or obscene, or associated with gambling, food or medicine. In 2015, national security-related decisions accounted for just over 1 percent of the total.
The data also indicates that the commission’s role is growing, and rapidly. In 2014, the number of removal-of-content requests came to almost 133,000; in 2013, it was only about 104,000.
By way of comparison, the similarly-functioned Australian Communication and Media Authority requested ISPs to block only around 500 pages or websites in 2012-2013, according to Open Net Korea.
“The only other comparable agency is Turkey’s ICTA (Information and Communication Technologies Authority) and you know what’s happening to Turkish democracy,” Park said of South Korea’s standing as a rare example of a developed country with mass internet censorship.
In 2011, Frank La Rue, the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, cited the KCSC as an objectionable example of state power being used to “force intermediaries to undertake censorship on its behalf.”
Unsurprisingly, considering the numbers involved, the commission rules on material quickly and in bulk. On average, each KCSC meeting makes some 1,600 deliberations, according to the Korea Internet Transparency Report 2016. In 2015, 94 percent of decisions came down on the side of censorship. While minutes of the commission’s meetings being made public, those who fall foul of its rulings aren’t notified or given a chance to appeal in advance.
“It is a big problem that there is no institution or effective procedure that can monitor or scrutinize the KCSC’s deliberations,” Sohn said. “In the case of blocking access to information abroad, the notice is sent to domestic ISPs, not the website operator, so that it is difficult for the operator who is directly involved in the decision to know it. There is an appeal process within the KCSC, but it is hard to expect the KCSC to overturn its decision on its own.”
REFORM ON THE WAY?
With a new and broadly popular liberal administration now in the Blue House, there are hopes for a shakeup of the status quo.
On the campaign trail, Moon, who served as Chief of Staff to the liberal President Roh Moo-hyun – who unsuccessfully attempted to repeal the NSL in the mid-2000s – suggested he could do away with the KCSC altogether.
“The KCSC’s communication review functions should be abolished and the right to deliberate communication standards handed over to a body free from undue political and business influence,” Moon said in May, echoing calls from the National Human Rights Commission of Korea to disband the body.
Whether Moon will actually follow through on such a bold move remains to be seen. At a time of elevated tensions on the peninsula, loosening restrictions on expression around North Korea could be sensitive, leaving the new resident open to charges of appeasing its nuclear-armed rival.
Park said it should be within Moon’s reach to at least reform, if not repeal, the National Security Law, a task that eluded his mentor Roh.
The Blue House spokesman, a holdover from the last administration, said he couldn’t comment on the government’s plans while it was still assembling the incoming communications team. The Ministry of Justice said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on issues related to other branches of government. The NIS declined to comment on its influence on the KCSC’s decision making.
In the meantime, North Korea Tech’s best hope lies with the judiciary. The KCSC appealed the initial ruling because the court had ignored its evidence and fallen for “factual errors,” it told NK News. Although it said it would accept the Supreme Court’s decision if the case went that far.
South Korean courts have a mixed record on checking the sort of power and functions enshrined in the KCSC.
In the 2002, the Constitutional Court, which adjudicates constitutional matters separately from the regular courts system, struck down a law banning “content that could harm the public peace and order or the social morals and good customs,” ruling it to be unclear and ambiguous.
But in 2012, the court upheld the similarly-worded rationale of the KCSC’s censorship regime, ruling that its mandate for “nurturing of sound communication ethics” was not unduly vague.
Sohn said it was impossible to gauge the political leanings of the Supreme Court, which could end up deciding North Korea Tech’s fate, or anticipate its ruling.
“Laws like these hamper reporting”
Nevertheless, she and Williams are optimistic about their legal fight, which has won the support of a number of South Korean NGOs concerned with free expression.
“Generally, in litigation against administrative action, the court tends not to overturn the administrative action easily,” said Sohn. “But I think this case is a typical example of the KCSC’s unscrupulous practices. So if the court is faithful to the basic spirit of law, I believe that it will rule in favor of North Korea Tech.”
Just as well for Williams, who sees much more at stake than a personal gripe: journalistic and internet freedom in a liberal democracy.
“The fact that the block on my site can be so easily circumvented via a VPN or SSL website shows that there really is no need for this,” he said.
“But on specifically the question of North Korean reporting, there are few issues larger and more important than the North-South issue and I think citizens need to have access to as much information as possible. Laws like these hamper reporting, especially because the bar for prosecution is hazy.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons, modified by NK News