When I try to bend ears about the subtle erosion of freedom of expression in South Korea, a standard response is that I must mean North Korea. No. As I have documented in some detail (here, here and here)—and in a longer paper with Jong-sung You available on request—a number of factors have combined to clip press and individual freedom of speech: criminal defamation, restrictive campaign laws, ownership of the media, internet censorship and the National Security Law all play a role.
No sooner had we sought to make these arguments than one of our fellow North Korea watchers experienced the restraints first-hand. We heard indirectly from Chad O’Carroll of NKNews that his KCNA Watch pages had been blocked in South Korea. Carroll outlines the case on his site.
Incredulous, we checked with a South Korean colleague, and lo and behold they were indeed blocked by an annoying pop-up message reminiscent of what we would expect in China (http://warning.or.kr/). The warning page informs the user that the page was blocked by the Korea Communications Standards Commission, the government censor. It also provides contact information to specific government agencies if there are inquiries; the operator of a blocked website can challenge the censorship within 15 days of its imposition. The reason in this case is presumably that the KCNA Watch pages provide direct access to North Korean media, which is forbidden under the National Security Law.
Do we have to go into any detail about how embarrassing this is? Thankfully, we can try to restrain ourselves and let Aidan Foster-Carter, Senior Research Fellow at Leeds, do the talking:
“I am dismayed to learn that access to NKNews.org’s KCNA Watch pages has been blocked in South Korea.
This is an invaluable research tool for scholars. To ban it is thus utterly wrong and misguided on all counts.
The wider issue is that, as a mature democracy, South Korea should not be controlling what its citizens read in any way. Leave such censorship to dictatorships like North Korea.
The draconian National Security Law is long overdue for revision. This remains, I believe, the official position of both the UK and US governments. Their citizens might care to remind them of this.
Pending revision, the ROK authorities can choose how much of their scarce resources they devote to enforcing this absurd law.
With a new government committed to Trustpolitik with the North, it is especially anomalous and wrong to continue to block South Koreans from becoming better informed about North Korea. That includes accessing the DPRK’s own websites.
Besides, North Korean self-presentation is overwhelmingly outlandish and unattractive: likelier to put people off than to attract followers. The idea that letting people read or view this stuff poses any kind of security threat to the ROK is completely ludicrous.”
We couldn’t have said it better.