South Korea: Dramatic increase in targeting of people for 'pro-North Korean views'

·         Near 100% increase in security arrests over four years

·         Jail for man who re-tweeted joke and bookseller who sold ‘wrong books’

South Korea has seen a dramatic increase in the abuse of national security laws in a politically motivated attempt to silence debate, Amnesty International said today, as it published a new report on the country.

The report shows a 95.6% increase over the past four years (2008 to 2011) in the number of people questioned on suspicion of violating the country’s National Security Law (NSL).

Figures released by the National Prosecutor’s Office show the number of new cases under the NSL rose from 46 in 2008 to 90 in 2011.  The majority of people were accused of posting pro-North Korean content online. Eighteen websites were closed for such content in 2009, rising to 178 by October 2011.

The report highlights a new trend with the authorities using the NSL to encroach into more areas of public and private life without justification. Vaguely worded clauses in the law are being used to target individuals and groups perceived to be critical of the government, and especially their policies on North Korea.

Individuals using social media to discuss issues like North Korea are increasingly at risk of criminal investigation and prosecution, said Amnesty.

Amnesty International’s East Asia Researcher, Rajiv Narayan, said:

“The NSL is being used as a smoke screen to hound critics of the government, with serious consequences for those targeted.

“No one is denying the right of South Korea to ensure the security of its citizens. But that is not what is being witnessed with the arbitrary and widening application of the NSL. Such abuse has to end.”

Amnesty has written to all candidates in the imminent Presidential election urging them to commit to abolish or fundamentally reform the NSL in line with required international standards.

Individuals detained under suspicion of breaching the NSL have also been ill-treated by the authorities, as have their families according to testimony given to Amnesty.  Amnesty is calling on the government to implement prompt, transparent and independent investigations into these allegations.

Cases from the report

Park Jung-geun – jailed for re-tweeting a joke

24-year-old Park Jung-geun was targeted by the authorities for re-tweeting a joke. On 21 November he was sentenced by Suwon District Court to ten months in prison with a further two years’ suspended.  Park is to appeal against the sentence.

Park told Amnesty: "I re-tweeted tweets from a North Korean Twitter account. My intention was to lampoon North Korea's leaders for a joke.”

The warrant authorising the search of his home in October 2011 stated that: “Park Jung-geun used the Social Network Service Twitter as a very effective method of propaganda.” While the 21 November judgment acknowledged that some of Park’s twitter postings were parody, the judge ruled that his overall acts constituted “supporting and joining forces with an anti-state entity.”

But Park Jong-geun is no supporter of North Korea. He is a member of the Socialist Party, which is highly critical of North Korea. The police interrogated Park about his political beliefs on five occasions and asked if he was aware that Twitter is a powerful propaganda tool for the North. Each session lasted five hours.

According to Park, "Even though I disagree with North Korean communism, I'm interested in North Korean culture … I have a right to know about it, to express my freedom."

Park feels that as a target of a gruelling NSL investigation, “my brain belongs to the state”.

The whole process has left him physically and mentally exhausted, he has difficulty sleeping, is very nervous and is seeking treatment for stress.

Kim Myeong-soo – bookseller jailed for selling the ‘wrong books’

In February bookseller Kim Myeong-soo was sentenced to six months in prison and to a further two years’ suspended imprisonment for violating the NSL by owning and selling the ‘wrong’ books. 

In an investigation and trial lasting five years, South Korea’s Special Investigation Bureau (Boan Susadae) of the Gyeonggi provincial police force took issue with books on North Korea, Marxism, Socialism or with “revolution” in the title. All the books were stocked in the National Assembly library or sold in large bookstores. However, the court determined that by owning and selling them Kim was intent on “endangering the existence and security of the State”.

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