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Civil Liberties in South Korea 2: Amnesty International is Not Alone

by | December 7th, 2012 | 07:00 am

Earlier in the week, we reviewed and endorsed a report by Amnesty International on South Korea’s National Security Law. We argued that the law was beyond fixing and should probably be scrapped altogether. But Amnesty International is not alone in noting adverse trends in civil and political liberties in South Korea over the last several years. A number of other credible international sources have expressed concerns as well, and they are by no means limited to national security issues. A brief inventory.

UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression

A UN Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the Human Rights Council to examine and report back on either a country situation or human rights theme. The Special Rapporteurs are part of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. In 1993, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights established the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression (web page here).

In March 2011, Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue issued a 20-page report (available here) on his country visit. The report notes that despite Korea’s generally open political environment, a shift appeared to occur following the demonstrations over beef imports in 2008. National security does not dominate the report, although it is covered. Rather, “the Special Rapporteur observes that the shrinking space for freedom of expression in the Republic of Korea in recent years is primarily due to an increasing number of prosecutions and harassment of individuals who express views which are not in agreement with the position of the Government.” The report contains long sections on defamation, freedom of expression on the internet and prior to elections and even freedom of assembly. The report also notes limits on the freedom of expression of public servants. For example, the report expressed “particular concern” about members of the Korea Teachers and Education Workers Union subjected to investigation, dismissal, suspension without pay, harassment and surveillance for signing petitions. Under LMB, the National Human Rights Commission has not acted as a counterweight to these tendencies, hamstrung by an incomplete complement of commissioners and an unwillingness to challenge key cases.

OpenNet Initiative

The OpenNet Initiative surveys government controls on the internet; their South Korea report can be found here.  OpenNet reports distinguish between four areas of control–political, social, conflict and security, and internet tools—and five levels of filtering on a 0-4 scale (none; suspected; selective; substantial; and pervasive). Korea engages in “pervasive filtering” with regard to conflict and security because authorities block any materials that appear to praise North Korea. This ranking is a little over-the-top; only China and South Korea get a score of 4 in the area of conflict and security among the 74 countries included in their survey and Iran and Pakistan only get “3’s.” But the report makes clear that the security issues are not the only ones of concern. The report raises issues about new laws passed in 2008 with respect to defamation, “false rumors,” and malicious postings, all of which carry large fines for providers and thus force them to be cautious in what they allow to be posted; censorship effectively rolls down to a cowed private sector which seeks to protect itself against downside risk.

An infamous case concerns the blogger Park Dae-sung (posting as Minerva) who was indicted for “spreading false data in public with harmful intent” as the financial crisis broke. He was subsequently acquitted and the Constitutional Court struck down the offending law, but similar restraints operate in other spheres.

Freedom House

Freedom House has steadily increased the issues it monitors, and for the last decade has kept tabs of freedom of the press. South Korea was always categorized as being “free” until 2011 when it was downgraded to “partly free.” Its 2011 report is worth quoting at length:

“Status change explanation: South Korea declined from Free to Partly Free to reflect an increase in official censorship, particularly of online content, as well as the government’s attempt to influence media outlets’ news and information content. Over the past several years, an increasing number of online comments have been removed for expressing either pro–North Korean or anti–South Korean views. The current conservative government has also interfered in the management of major broadcast media, with allies of President Lee Myung-bak receiving senior posts at large media companies over the objections of journalists.”

Subsequent paragraphs provide additional justification with respect to the NSL, but also defamation and the effort by the government to monitor and influence state-controlled broadcasters, including by firing dissenting journalists.

Since 2011, Freedom House has also issued reports on freedom on the net. Their Korea reports for 2011 and 2012 reach conclusions similar to those with respect to media freedom: South Korea is ranked “partly free.” Although the country gets very high marks on access, it has lower—and marginally declining—scores on content limitations and violations of user rights. On a 0-100 scale, with 0 being most free and 100 being the least, Korea gets a score of 34; this is just above the “free” threshold of 30, and puts the country behind Brazil and Ukraine (27) and in the company of Nigeria (33), Uganda (34) and Kyrgyzstan (35).

Reporters without Borders

A similar tale is told at Reporters Without Borders. Their method is to present an annual ordinal ranking of countries (with ties; they also have a Korea page covering relevant stories). The numbers bounce around a lot, and we have a little less confidence in them; for example since, the rankings started in 2002, Korea has scored as high as 31 (in 2006) and as low as 69 (in 2009). But scores for 2010 and 2011-12 (42 and 44). But the last report summarizes the concerns:

“The conservative government has stepped up pressure on some TV channels that are seen as over critical and the authorities have also tightened control of the Internet, going so far as to arrest Internet users for their posts, even though the country is in the forefront of Internet access. While the opposition has condemned it as a return to the authoritarianism of the 1980s, it is more a case of government interventionism in media so as to limit criticism of its actions.”

What to make of it all? Some elements on the South Korean left have argued that the election of Park Geun Hye will mean a return to Yushin; it goes without saying that this is hyperbole. And we treat these kinds of rankings and data with the appropriate degree of skepticism. But we hope that whoever is elected addresses some of the issues raised in these reports. To anyone who knows (and loves) the country, South Korea is clearly a vibrant democracy and open society. But it is precisely for that reason that these derogations are such an embarrassment.


Our thanks to our colleague Jong-sung You for bringing these sources to our attention.