While the world’s eyes were riveted on Pyongyang during the transfer of power in North Korea, South Korea clamped down even more on online content related to its neighbor, which continues to expand its Net presence for propaganda purposes. Censorship is also focused on political opinions expressed online – a critical topic in this electoral year. The National Security Law must be reformed without delay.
Content removals soaring
Under the conservative government of Lee Myung Bak, who has been in power since 2009, the number of content removal requests issued by the Korean Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) has been soaring. According to the blog NorthKoreaTech, they rose from about 1,500 per year before 2009 to 80,449 in 2010. The procedure lacks transparency due to the typically unclear way in which the Commission functions. Similarly, the number of investigations climbed from 58 before 2009 to 91 in 2010. There were already 150 cases as of August 2011. According to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, 122 pro-North Korean websites were investigated between August 2010 and September 2011. It is estimated that 78 of them have been shut down.
North Korean censorship
North Korean information censorship, which has been intensifying, has taken on a special meaning in the context of the recent transition of power in Pyonyang. Social networks are the new battlefield between the two Koreas which, in the absence of a peace treaty, are officially still at war.
In late 2011, the KCSC, whose job is to regulate Internet content, was instructed to set the standards for Facebook and Twitter users and smartphone owners. These users will be required to delete any “harmful or illegal” content related to pornography, gambling, drug use, or disseminating false information, libelous statements, or pro-North Korean comments. The Commission’s President told Agence France-Presse: “We also target posts and sites that support North Korea or praise its leaders, because their number has been rapidly increasing this year.”
More than a reaction to many dramatic current events, this measure is in keeping with the North Korean regime’s Internet charm offensive. The regime began using social networks in 2010 to more effectively wage its propaganda war. However, the vast majority of the population does not even know the Web exists (see the North Korea chapter of the 2011 “Enemies of the Internet” report). The Internet website uriminzokkiri.com symbolizes the country’s official presence on the Web. However, in late 2011, it began posting anti-South Korean and anti-U.S. visuals, urging its supporters to circulate them on the social networks (see the North Korean chapter of the 2012 “Enemies of the Internet” report).
South Korea’s counterattack has not been restricted to online initiatives, but includes the arrest and intimidation of pro-North netizens, thanks to the legal means provided for under the 1948 National Security Law.
The most recent example of the obsolete and arbitrary nature of this Law and its application is Park Jeong-geun, who was arrested in January 2011 for retweeting messages such as “Long live Kim Jong-il,” and now faces up to seven years in prison. The young man claims that these were just sarcastic messages meant to poke fun at North Korean leaders.
Another South Korean, Kim Myung-soo, who was arrested in 2007 and later released on bail, is still fighting the charge of “aiding the enemy” by selling “pro-North Korean” books online. The army is also investigating some 70 officers who allegedly subscribed to a pro-North Korean community website. The Defense Ministry claims that seven or eight of them engaged in “questionable” conduct by posting messages on this site and plans to investigate them more thoroughly. The others may have joined out of mere curiosity.
Politics and the Internet: “A complicated relationship”
A KCSC member who was testing the limits of censorship was himself censored. He was using his blog to instruct Internet users on the type of content targeted by censors. Pressured by other KCSC members and the threat of seeing his blog shut down, he was forced to remove what was deemed to be “sensitive” content.
Political comments are considered highly sensitive and are closely monitored in South Korea. On January 13, 2012, the National Electoral Commission lifted the ban on using Twitter and social networks to discuss politics. This ban had been judged “unconstitutional.” Two elections are scheduled in 2012. Over 100 people are charged with violating election laws.
One of the country’s most influential political commentators, Kim Eo-jun, editor of the online newspaper Ddanzi Ilbo, along with several others, are currently involved in legal proceedings for spreading false news about Na Kyung-won, the Grand National Party’s (GNP) losing candidate in the 2011 Seoul municipal elections.. In his podcast ”I’m a Ggomsu” (“I’m a cheater”) – one of the most popular of its kind in the world, followed by millions of people – he and other commentators criticize and ridicule GNP figures, including President Lee Myung-bak.
On the other hand, the popular blogger “Minerva", whose real name is Park Dae-sung, has filed lawsuits against the State, whom he is suing for damages related to his incarceration in 2009 for criticizing the government’s economic policy (see the South Korea chapter of the 2011 “Enemies of the Internet” report).
In May 2011,Frank La Rue, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for the protection of free expression, called South Korean Internet regulations a “subject of great concern.”
The National Security Law in particular, which is now too outdated to deal with the extent to which South Korean has evolved since then and embraced democratic ideals, should be revised or abolished as soon as possible so that the most connected country in the world can stop engaging in outdated and ineffective censorship and allow its citizens to form their own opinions about the futility of North Korean propaganda and freely criticize their political leaders online.