South Korea’s NSL Is A Disgrace

7 Dec

Park Jung-geunSometimes, wrong is wrong.

An Amnesty International report (via Witness to Transformation) displays a very troubling and counter-productive aspect of South Korea’s historical and cultural legacy. South Korea is just not a free country.

A new report shows a 95.6% increase over the past four years (2008 to 2011) in the number of people questioned on suspicion of violating the National Security Law [NSL].

Figures released by the National Prosecutors Office show the number of new cases under the NSL rose from 46 in 2008 to 90 in 2011. The majority were accused of posting pro North Korean content online. Eighteen websites were closed for such content in 2009, rising to 178 by October 2011.

(…)

…the report highlights an emerging trend in which the NSL is being used increasingly to target individuals and groups that cannot be described as taking a pro-North Korea stance.

This development is an attempt to narrow the space for public debate which seriously undermines freedom of expression and freedom of association in the country.

The NSL has recently been used to restrict political and academic debate and to curb criticism of official investigations.

Ill-defined clauses in the NSL have left it open for such abuse by the police and security services. The most controversial clause is Article 7 that provides for imprisonment for up to seven years for anyone who ‘praises, incites or propagates the activities of an anti-government organization…’

Whilst the courts have rejected many of the requests from prosecutors for detention warrants under the NSL, there has still been a disturbing increase in its application.

The article goes on to narrate the experience of Park Jung-geun.

Stephen Haggard offers Mill’s defense of the freedom of expression, and, frankly, I am jealous he had the chance to take Mill to the South Koreans first.

As we noted, however, the problem is not just the recent abuse of the law but the law itself. John Stuart Mill’s argument for freedom of opinion are worth reiterating, as they still constitute the most compelling rebuttal. Mill’s argument had two parts. The first is that the views of dissidents and minorities might be true; if so, they need to be articulated. But equally if not more important were Mill’s arguments with respect to claims that are false. If widely held opinions are not debated, then they run the risk of becoming “dead dogma.” Censoring the expression of opinions that are false blocks the debate that shows—through reasoned argument—why such opinions are false. Both the state and public opinion—which was a central focus of Mill’s concern—deny a free citizenry access to the bad ideas that would be bested by better ones.

Mill may be criticized for his faith in reason, but that is the side of the angels. The fact that the South Korean public remains divided on the issue is completely irrelevant. The only political issue is whether the left—generally the targets of the law—have the political support or gumption to tackle it again, or whether Park Geun Hye and the conservatives will have to take on the task. But we just do not see any arguments for the NSL that trump Mill’s against it.

And, one of those “dead dogmas” is the notion, that South Korean laypeople cannot be trusted to debate North Korea or defense-related issues, like the budget. South Korea cannot be a truly sovereign and normal state if it cannot defend itself. And, that means spending more on its defense forces, to ward off a North Korean attack, not to make grocery runs to Liancourt Rocks. The National Security Law is a boon to contractors and other lobbyists who benefit from a cozy relationship with domestic and foreign firms. Frankly, this is another aspect of South Korean politics, and Korean culture in general, that is, for an American and a “veteran” with family members who fought and served in Korea from the time of the Korean War to the ’90s, an embarrassment.

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