South Korea, the world’s "most wired" nation, has intensified its censorship of pro-North Korean websites. Determined to maintain public order in a period of political tensions and social unrest, President Lee Myung-bak’s government sometimes resorts to excessive methods and a liberticidal legislative arsenal to compel netizens to practice self-censorship.
Censorship strengthened in reaction to Northern propaganda
For several years, South Korea has been practicing selective blocking: it has rendered inaccessible some forty websites which extol the Pyongyang regime, as well as websites which deal in pornography and online betting, or promote suicide. By virtue of the country’s National Security Law, any individual who publicly supports North Korea can be charged with “anti-statist” activity and can face up to seven years behind bars. This law also applies to both traditional and online media.
Website blocking is carried out via access providers by order of an administrative authority, the Korean Communications Commission, which is also responsible for Internet surveillance.
Censorship is thought to have greatly increased in 2010. According to the Korea Times, based on figures disseminated by Ahn Hyoung-hwan, a spokesman of the ruling Grand National Party, the police forced Internet website administrators to delete 42,784 pro-North Korean posts in the first six months of 2010, which is one hundred times more than five years ago.
Lastly, in retaliation against North Korea’s new online propaganda offensive (see the section on North Korea), the government has blocked a dozen accounts with probable ties to the Pyonygang regime on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, most often under the user name “Uriminzokkiri, which means “our nation” in Korean.
This North-linked reinforcement of censorship is not very popular with Internet users, and is only partially effective, since netizens can use circumvention tools. North Korean accounts remain accessible to those who use Twitter via iPhone.
Internet crackdown in reaction to social agitation and criticism of the authorities
South Korea has resumed disseminating propaganda messages by radio following the March 2010 torpedoing of one of its warships, which it blamed on North Korea. Its censorship decisions are motivated by a resolve to prevent its citizens from having access to Northern propaganda.
Moreover, the 2008 demonstrations linked to the scandal over beef imported from the United States were very unsettling for the incumbent leadership. According to the regime, these demonstrations were caused by netizens’ calls for action via the famous discussion forum Agora, which has become the authorities’ favourite target. In June 2008, President Lee Myung-bak had clearly expressed his distrust of the Internet: “The Internet needs to be a place of trust. The strength of the Internet can be poison instead of medicine if people cannot have faith in it.”
Excessively harsh laws
Article 7 of the National Security Law prohibits promoting or encouraging anti-statist groups, including North Korea. In paragraph 5 of this Article, any publication in support of the enemy or the mere reprinting of a document on the subject is also prohibited. Article 8 also prohibits any contact or communication with anti-statist groups. Recently the police began to investigate a cybercafé from which pro-North Korean messages had allegedly been posted. The owner was charged with violating the National Security Law.
Article 47 of the Telecommunications Code states that it is illegal to “disseminate false news intended to damage the public interest.” The penalty for any violation can mean up to five years in prison. The electoral law was amended in 2004 to prohibit the dissemination via the Internet of defamatory statements about politicians running for office in an election campaign. The Penal Code, notably the provisions against insult and defamation – even when the statements turn out to be true – is also used against Internet users (Article 307).
Article 44-7 of the Act on the Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection (the Network Act) prohibits the exchange of electronic information that compromises national security or is deemed to be defamatory, even if such content turns out to be true.
Anonymity in danger ?
Yet another regulation calls into question netizen anonymity. Article 44-5 of the above-mentioned Act requires that Internet users register under their real names and that they provide their national ID card number when visiting portals with over 100,000 members. On the other hand, only the users’ pseudonyms appear online. YouTube has refused to apply this measure. Consequently, since April 2008, YouTube users who identify themselves as based in Korea cannot upload or download their videos on the website. Since February 2009, one of the country’s main portals, Nate, has been requiring surfers to display their real name in order to leave comments online.
Abuse of power?
South Korean authorities sometimes seem to abuse their powers. On 9 July 2010, prosecutors ordered Prime Minister Chung Un-Chan’s offices to be searched. Two years earlier, his agents in charge of ethical matters had investigated and illegally maintained surveillance on a businessman, the director of a small finance company, who had posted online a video criticising the president. The prosecutors seized the computers and other documents of four of the Minister’s staff members. The agents in charge of ethical issues regularly investigate government officials suspected of corruption or malevolent acts, but they are not authorised to investigate ordinary citizens.
The authorities use criminalisation of defamation against their critics and do not hesitate to make examples of them. Since June 2008, a dozen Internet users have been briefly arrested and interrogated for having posted online negative comments related to demonstrations against the importing of beef from the United States.
The well-known blogger Minerva, whose real name is DaeSung Park, learned at his own expense that the government considers protecting the financial markets more important than defending freedom of speech. Arrested in January 2009 for having criticised the regime’s economic policy, he could have faced up to five years behind bars and a fine of 50 million Won (USD 44,500). He was acquitted on 20 April 2009, the Public Prosecutor having dropped his appeal following a Constitutional Court decision.
The blogger had asked for an inquiry into the constitutionality of the Telecommunications Code, and more specifically Article 47, paragraph 1, which prohibits the dissemination of false news. The Constitutional Court ruled on 28 December 2010 that the Article was in fact illegal, since it relies on “obscure” terms and stipulates excessive penalties. Over 47 people accused of defamation should therefore be cleared of the charges against them. Minerva may face other problems, however. He is still being threatened and was even assaulted once in November 2010 while giving testimony as a witness in another case. In June 2010, Minerva filed a complaint against four people whom he accused of harassing him.
Despite constant pressure from the authorities, South Korean netizens are among the most active online. As a result of its persistent attacks on websites spreading North Korean propaganda and its draconian surveillance policy, the government is running the risk of alienating the part of the population which desires more openness and views censorship as a sign of the regime’s lack of trust in its own citizens, who are scarcely likely to let themselves be influenced by Northern propaganda.
One blogger cited by Daily NK summarises this mindset: “No offence, North Korea, but except for a very small minority, no one believes in its propaganda (…). North Korea needs to realise that propaganda only works in a restricted environment and that this already limited space is gradually shrinking.”