The Koreas

In South Korea, Freedom of Expression Put to the Test

After the Charlie Hebdo attack in France, South Korea has decisions to make regarding free speech and national security.

Steven Denney
In South Korea, Freedom of Expression Put to the Test
Credit: Flickr/ lmjleft

In light of the Charlie Hebdo killings, the world is debating whether the freedom of expression should be an absolute right. Meanwhile, South Korea puts theory to practice in a way that is instructive for all parties concerned with how a basically democratic society deals with what are sometimes perceived as mutually exclusive goals: protection of the freedom of expression and promotion of the national interest. Two recent cases highlight how the South Korean government is handling the push and pull between the two ends.

The first case is that of Korean-American Shin Eun-mi, the middle-aged author of a North Korea travelogue. Between 2011 and 2012 Shin traveled multiple times to North Korea – which she could do as an American citizen – and documented her experiences at the left-leaning news site for “citizen reporters,” OhMyNews. She would eventually publish a book (in Korean), based on experiences in the North, entitled “A Korean-American Ajumma Goes to North Korea” [재미동포 마줌마 북한에 가다]. The cover photo shows her locked arm-in-arm with a North Korean solider and what is likely her minder/guide. Shin’s articles and book gained her notoriety in South Korea, so much that she was invited to comment on the experiences recounted in her book in a series of talk shows alongside former deputy spokesperson of the now-defunct Democratic Labor Party, Hwang Sun. The well-known leftist activist Lim Soo-kyung, best known for her unauthorized trip to North Korea in 1980 and, more recently, for berating a North Korean defector as a “turn coat,” also joined on at least one occasion.

Shin found herself the object of a police investigation for comments made during these talk shows. Her allegedly pro-North comments, which seem to consist of speaking favorably about the people and landscape and noting that many North Koreans wish to return home, were seen by the government as violating the National Security Law. This controversial and problematically vague law prohibits any praise of North Korean political ideas. Shin’s remarks were seen as “anti-state” activities, forbidden under the National Security Law.

It was later decided, after a temporary travel ban expired, that Shin would be deported from the country (but not indicted). Whether Shin actually praised North Korea in such a way as to warrant deportation or simply displayed an extremely naive understanding of North Korea and the legacy of the North-South divide is debatable, but the message sent by the South Korean government is quite clear: you are not completely free to express your opinions about North Korea. Had Shin written a book condemning North Korea for its many known human rights abuses, she would of course still be welcome in South Korea.

The second case is that of Park Sang-hak and his intention to send balloons containing the movie The Interview, a lowbrow comedy in which Kim Jong-un is assassinated, across the border. Despite interpretations to the contrary, it is unclear whether the government (specifically the Ministry of Unification) will let the activity go forward or might actually try to stop Park from sending the movie into North Korea. (It is not, it should be noted, guaranteed that the balloons would actually reach the North were they launched.) Whether a Seth Rogen film can contribute to the undermining of regime legitimacy (Park’s supposed objective) is unclear, but the principle at stake is most interesting and indicates that the government’s take on pro-/anti-North Korean activity is not a black and white issue.

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While Seoul (during conservative rule) may not be as lenient toward comments that can be perceived as praising North Korea, this does not mean it gives groups or individuals carte blanche to go after the North. There is the issue of public safety at stake given possible retaliation from North Korea, something that could result in the injury or death of South Korean citizens, especially those located in the border regions. Considerations for safety and stability can be inferred or read in government statements. According to a Ministry of Unification spokesperson, quoted in the AP article on the government’s position on Park’s intention to send balloons flying north, “The government plans to request [that the group] make a wise decision in order to prevent physical or property risks among local residents at the border area.”

Park, a North Korean defector and president of The Fighters for a Free North Korea, is often in the news for his efforts to send anti-North propaganda via hydrogen-filled balloons. He has been described at least once as the equivalent of France’s Charlie Hebdo. And indeed, for those who hold the freedom of expression to be an absolute right, such a comparison is not unwarranted. However, the state’s dual concerns for the promotion of security and stability (a core national interest in most cases) and for the protection of the democratic principle of the freedom of expression seem mutually exclusive at times. How the state handles Park’s case now and in the future and how it responds to further allegations of people spreading pro-North messages will be important decisions to follow. And while they might not be as important as the attention given to the killings at Charlie Hebdo, it is the same principle that is at stake in both instances: the freedom to express what one wants, how one wants.