It is disheartening to witness one of Asia’s exemplary democracies engaging in outright censorship. On October 8, South Korean prosecutors indicted Japanese journalist Tatsuya Kato on charges of writing a defamatory article about President Park Geun-hye’s unexplained absence for several hours during the Sewol ferry disaster.
To outside observers, the South Korean government’s response is simply baffling given that a head of state’s whereabouts is a common subject of public interest. Many South Koreans, however, probably find it reasonable. The Park administration’s poor response to the ferry tragedy has aroused public anger, but South Koreans see this as a domestic affair that is off-limits to foreign criticism, especially from the Japanese.
South Koreans may perceive the indictment of Kato as a rightful punishment on an ultraconservative Japanese newspaper that insulted their president, rather than an abuse of state power or a violation of freedom of the press. In fact, it was a complaint filed by a local civic group that inspired South Korean prosecutors to pursue the case at all. South Koreans have often criticized the Sankei Shimbun as Japan’s right-wing, nationalist newspaper that takes biased positions on sensitive issues in the bilateral relationship, such as “comfort women” and island disputes.
Regardless, this is press censorship in essence, and South Koreans should be opposing the imprudent decision made by their government. Immediately after the news of Kato’s indictment was released, both the Japanese and international media raised questions about South Korea’s credibility as a democracy. According to these critics, the indictment of Kato is “nothing short of intimidation by the authorities” and therefore unacceptable by the standards of the world’s advanced democracies.
Sadly, the South Korean government’s indictment of Kato is only a small part of the quiet but disturbing censorship trend that has intensified in recent years. Since 2011, Freedom House has identified South Korea as a “partly free” country that actively censors the media. Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, and the United Nations have made similar evaluations regarding the freedom of the press and expression in the country.
In addition to North Korea-related censorship (which is technically safeguarded by the National Security Law), the South Korean government has regularly practiced political censorship involving the concept of defamation. Given that Kato was also charged for defaming Park, it is important to think about how the authorities in Seoul tend to conceptualize insults upon top government officials. Defamation is a dangerous term, as it is difficult to draw a line between what is indeed defaming and what is not, especially when considering comments made on political leaders.
Censorship is a slippery slope. Once it is practiced in one area, it can easily move into others. In 2012, South Korea was categorized as a country under surveillance due to the government’s tight control of the Internet. Just last week, South Korean prosecutors attempted to censor the country’s most popular texting app, Kakao Talk. And now the authorities are considering a ban on balloon launches by NGOs to stop them from sending leaflets over to North Korea.
If this trend of censorship continues, South Korea’s anti-democratic reputation will hurt not only President Park’s own political legitimacy but also the country’s national interests. South Korea is a respected member of the international community and an attractive place for foreign leaders, investors, and visitors today not only because it accomplished miraculous economic growth but also because its people fought and gave their lives to protect democratic rights. South Korea is one of the rare cases that achieved both economic development and democratic consolidation in Asia, which is something that countries like China and Singapore have been unable to do. Electing the first female president in East Asia also helped the country set the “Korean example” in the region, further strengthening its political diversity and democratic stability. The government’s growing engagement in censorship is thus a big blow to its international reputation.
South Korea has a lot on its agenda that would require cooperation of various international actors, including the media. To name a few, it is hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and is hoping to re-bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Being labeled a censorship regime is not helpful at the least, and potentially detrimental to Seoul’s international priorities.
With the protests in Hong Kong, the world’s eyes are on Asia in the hope of seeing further democratic growth in the region. It is time for Seoul to solidify the Korean example, not abandon it.
Daye Shim Lee is a fellow in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown University and the former Executive Editor of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.
Victor Cha is Director of Asian Studies and D.S. Song-KF Professor of Government & International Affairs at Georgetown University.
Note: In this article, the authors use the terms “government” and “authorities” interchangeably to refer to the administration and the prosecutors’ office in Seoul, but not necessarily the court.