With the electoral victory of Yoon Suk-yeol, executive power in South Korea will pass from one ideological wing to the other for the fourth time since democratization. By now, we know what such a transition forebodes for peninsular affairs: engagement toward North Korea is “out,” more muscular cooperation with the United States and Japan is “in.”
For those concerned with promoting more diverse sources of information about North Korea, such a transition always closes proverbial doors and opens proverbial windows. Organizations dedicated to documenting North Korean human rights violations and publishing defector testimonies can now come in out of the cold, after having been sidelined due to the Moon administration’s prioritization of rapprochement. Meanwhile, those who advocate more robust inter-Korean communication and informal contacts via tourism, sports, education, and cultural exchanges may be in for another long winter, and those who over-share North Korean media and cultural products – either ironically or out of curiosity – may again fear running afoul of the National Security Law.
Any serious effort to break this cycle of selective information control will have to begin with revising or rescinding Article 7 of the National Security Law, a Cold War holdover that allows the government to selectively prosecute anyone who “praises, incites or propagates the activities of an anti-government organization” – a deliberately vague clause that broadly implies the North Korean state and its sympathizers. Under Article 7, individuals have been prosecuted and imprisoned for merely possessing North Korean publications or satirically tweeting North Korean propaganda. In recent years this clause has been harshly criticized by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who claim the government abuses the law to repress dissenting voices.
It may seem exceedingly optimistic to hope for any meaningful NSL reform with a conservative former prosecutor entering the Blue House. On the other hand, Yoon could hardly do worse than his predecessor.
Under the liberal Moon administration, applications of the NSL diminished to the point where fringe leftist groups could march on the streets of Seoul chanting praise to the North Korean leader without consequences. Yet Moon never moved to reform or rescind the law, even after his Democratic Party won a solid majority in the National Assembly in 2020.
Instead, in December of that year the Assembly passed, and Moon signed, several amendments to a related law, the National Intelligence Service Act, which purportedly limit the scope of the National Intelligence Service (NIS). The amendments strip the NIS of the authority to conduct criminal investigations into violations of the National Security Law and other offenses such as insurrection and foreign aggression, although the changes do not come into effect until January 1, 2024. Even afterwards, the agency will retain the authority to “collect, compile and distribute” information on those crimes; Human Rights Watch argues this shall create “a serious risk that the NIS will engage in surveillance of those suspected of violating the National Security Law, including with speech or activity protected under international human rights law.”
These moves, together with the many disappointments of Moon’s unrequited diplomatic outreach toward the North, gave many Koreans a jaundiced view of the administration’s commitment to national security and made NSL reform politically unfeasible. Last November, the Legislation and Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to table further discussion of NSL reform until the end of their term, citing the need for “sufficient time to examine these petitions in depth.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Party legislators proposed new amendments closely mirroring the language of the NSL but aimed instead at prosecuting anyone “spreading false information” related to the 1980 Gwangju uprising or the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking, as well as anyone who “praises, incites, or sympathizes with Japanese organizations that seek to justify colonial rule” – all uncomfortable topics for right-wing historiography. Instead of removing the threat to leftist free speech, Moon and the Democratic Party cynically used their considerable legislative power to attempt to introduce tit-for-tat restrictions on conservative speech.
The overwhelmingly negative response to the proposed history distortion laws suggests that the Korean public grows weary of this eternal merry-go-round of politically motivated intrusions on free speech and information access by the party in power. This inconsistently restrictive and politicized information environment inevitably sows distrust in all public narratives, and ultimately it leaves South Korean citizens more vulnerable to manipulation by North Korea’s skilled, seasoned propagandists.
The most recent NSL controversy came in 2021, when a small publisher was charged for reprinting Kim Il Sung’s memoirs. The case stands as an embarrassing reminder of the country’s legal ambiguities and political insecurities. The idea that suppressing such publications makes any meaningful contribution to national security seems positively quaint in this age of social media when, as defector Jang Jin-sung revealed in his memoir “Dear Leader,” North Korean propagandists have long since learned to infiltrate various outlets and publish under false names.
Article 7 also gives the government the power to block any websites containing North Korean content, and although such blocks are easily overcome using VPNs, doing so is cumbersome and technically illegal. This ironically causes average South Koreans to be less adept at spotting North Korea’s jingoistic slogans than their overseas counterparts. The best way to combat misinformation is not by jailing its purveyors but by giving people the tools to situate it within its proper context, highlighting all of its inherent contradictions and ulterior motives.
We can feel justifiably disappointed that Article 7 has survived intact through another liberal administration. But though reform will undoubtedly be more difficult under conservative rule, now is arguably the most meaningful time to pursue it.
A theory of diplomacy pioneered by Kenneth Schultz finds, “While leaders from dovish parties can be better at promoting mutual cooperation [with enemy states] in the short term, cooperation initiated by a hawkish leader is more robust to future shocks in the relationship and thus is more likely to be longer lasting” – or, as Schultz puts it, it takes a “Nixon to go to China.” Applied in the domestic politics context, we may posit that progress toward civil liberties made under a conservative administration, though much more difficult, will be more readily accepted by a skeptical public and will also be more likely to be upheld by future administrations.
Incoming President Yoon is a political outsider who has promoted a hardline North Korea policy, but he will still need to deal with a liberal-controlled legislature – no easy task in the current highly polarized climate. Yet political newcomers have greater maneuverability in some respects than veteran party leaders, and they are more likely to value practicality over ideological orthodoxy. As his new conservative administration takes shape, and as liberal legislators recalibrate their strategy for a new era, we can only hope that both sides will finally realize that ending the state’s power to punish speech and restrict information is ultimately in the best interests of their respective factions and the country.