Last December, in the small city of Iksan, South Korea, an 18-year-old high school student detonated a homemade acid bomb during a talk by Korean-born American author Shin Eun-mi and activist Hwang Sun. Several people were injured but not Shin or Hwang. The student belonged to a right-wing online club called Ilbe that, along with other conservative groups, demanded prosecution of Shin under the country’s National Security Law — based on comments she made about North Korea during her book tour, which they viewed as praise for the regime.
Shin made news again last week, when the South Korean government determined that she had in fact violated the National Security Law and ordered her deportation, barring her from returning for five years. Then, on Thursday, Hwang was arrested under the same law for comments she made about North Korea. Prosecutors have also issued arrest warrants for the staff of a leftist opposition party for their alleged role in organizing Shin’s lectures, and on charges of possessing material that endorses the North.
The deportation and arrests are the latest developments in what many observers say is a troubling pattern in the administration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye — using the country’s national security and defamation laws to suppress freedom of speech and association, especially for those critical of the government.
Dissolving the UPP
The crackdown is not limited to individuals. Last month, on Dec. 19, the South Korean Constitutional Court voted eight to one in favor of dissolving the left-wing Unified Progressive Party (UPP) and expelling all five UPP representatives from the National Assembly. In the majority opinion, the court found that the UPP posed a “substantial threat” to South Korea’s democratic order and had a hidden motive to install North Korean-style socialism in the country.
The court’s disbanding of the UPP is the culmination in a series of state actions against the party, beginning with the 2014 indictment of UPP lawmaker Lee Seok-ki and seven other members on charges of plotting a violent insurrection and violating the nation’s National Security Law. Two months after Lee’s arrest, the Justice Ministry petitioned the court to dissolve the party on the grounds that it posed a threat to South Korea’s liberal democracy.
While the debate has revolved around North Korea and figures into the South's long history of enforcing anti-Communist views, the UPP is more well known for its staunch criticism of the Park administration. In recent years, it has demanded accountability for illegal online campaigns conducted by the nation’s spy agency and for the military's smearing of opposition candidates in the lead up to the election of Park.
To me, the most dangerous and worrisome thing in [South] Korean democracy at this moment is that people have nowhere to turn. If you remove political parties, if you remove street protest, what is left?
Salisbury University, political science professor
The disbanding of UPP — the third largest political party in South Korea — is the first such dissolution since South Korea democratized in 1987, and only the second since the republic was established in 1948. The decision cannot be appealed.
Before the Constitutional Court was evidence from the 2014 sedition trials of Lee Seok-ki and other UPP members: secret recordings made by an informant for the National Intelligence Service. According to prosecutors, Lee proposed to fellow party members that, in case of war on the Korean peninsula, they should join North Korea and destroy key infrastructure targets. Although the courts trying Lee had found more than 200 errors in the transcript released by the spy agency — some changing the meaning of the defendant's statements — he was still found guilty of inciting and conspiring to commit insurrection. A higher court later reversed the incitement conviction and Lee's case is being reviewed by South Korea's Supreme Court. In the meantime, he is serving a nine-year sentence.
Lee's alleged pro-North statements were construed by the Constitutional Court as reflecting UPP's broader motivations. The lone dissenter, Justice YiSu Kim, characterized the ruling disbanding the party as a “one-dimensional interpretation” unfairly based on the remarks of a few party members. He also noted that UPP's platform, rather than showing evidence of allegiance to North Korean-style socialism, reflected principles shared by progressive parties in many other countries.
The court's ruling was swiftly condemned. Longtime human-rights activist Park Rae-gun said: “This ruling is extremely dangerous for [South] Korean democracy. For example, it has concluded that the objectives of self-reliance, democracy, reunification, which social movements in [South] Korea have professed up until now, are pro-North Korean sentiments.”
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also issued statements warning the Park administration of the chilling effects that this case has on freedom of speech and freedom of association. Currently, Freedom House’s index of press and Internet freedom has determined South Korea to be “partly free,” and Reporters Without Borders dropped South Korea’s ranking to 57 out of 180 countries.
[UPP] is a very small party, so I don’t know why the government decided to single them out except to send a message to the rest of the political establishment that if you tangle with us, we can come after you in the courts with this national security legislation.
deputy director, Human Rights Watch, Asia
At the heart of these trials is South Korea’s National Security Law. Historically used to punish political dissidents, the 1948 law has been criticized over the years as too vague and ripe for abuse. Article 7 of the law criminalizes “any person who praises, incites or propagates the activities of an anti-government organization,” defined to include North Korea.
Prosecutions under this statute tapered off during the liberal presidencies of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. But between 2007 and 2013, the number of cases involving National Security Law violations more than doubled, from 39 cases to 103. Lee Seok-ki was the first politician to be convicted under the law.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said: “The problem with this law is that there is no bottom … . The definitions are so imprecise that basically the sky is the limit. [UPP] is a very small party, so I don’t know why the government decided to single them out except to send a message to the rest of the political establishment that if you tangle with us, we can come after you in the courts with this national security legislation.”
Newly bold conservatives
The court’s dissolution of UPP seems to have emboldened conservatives' demands for further use of the National Security Law to root out party members and allies. Prosecutors have promised to investigate this possibility, and have also warned that any UPP protests against the court decision would be considered illegal. The National Election Commission has announced plans to determine whether local UPP politicians will keep their seats, and police have raided the offices of an alleged pro-North Korea organization and of a progressive lawyer who defended a client facing espionage charges.
“To me, the most dangerous and worrisome thing in [South] Korean democracy at this moment is that people have nowhere to turn. If you remove political parties, if you remove street protest, what is left?” said Taehyun Nam, a professor of political science at Salisbury University in Maryland whose research focuses on East Asian politics and protest movements.
For now, UPP plans to challenge the court order removing party lawmakers from the National Assembly, and has promised to renew broad-based efforts to challenge the security laws. Law professor Kyung Sin Park pointed out that there is no specific provision in South Korea’s constitution or other laws that specifies what is to be done with the legislators of a dissolved political party, and that the administrative courts may rule on whether the Constitutional Court decision should be upheld. Outside South Korea, the Venice Commission, an advisory board in the World Council of Europe, asked to review the ruling and requested an English-language translation.
Meanwhile, leaders of both North and South Korea began the new year with statements indicating that they would be willing to re-open talks over various reconciliation measures on the Korean peninsula. It is uncertain at this time what the prospects for those talks are. But it is apparent, today more than ever, that Seoul is still deeply polarized over all things North Korean.