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South Korea’s Police State Wages War on Proponents of Democracy

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By Stephen Gowans

The South Korean police state has cracked down, with varying degrees of intensity over the years, on virtually any public expression of leftism, including anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism, and anti-imperialism. Some degree of intolerance of leftist dissent is emblematic of all states in capitalist societies. Even in liberal democratic societies, which are believed to tolerate dissent to a higher degree than other societies, the security services have had a long history of surveillance “on the side of the political/economic status quo” and against those “who challenge the powerful and the wealthy.” The history of the political police in such societies is one of “conservatism” where “the targets of state surveillance form a kind of roster of (working class) radicalism” and where those who pursue the class war from the bottom up have been seen as subverting “the proper political and economic order” and therefore are deemed legitimate subjects for surveillance and disruption. This is “an activist conservatism on behalf of capital against its perceived enemies.” [1]

South Korea’s police state differs from that of other liberal democracies in degree only, the difference due to its daily confrontation with a state, parked on its northern borders, which embodies leftism, and which, in its official ideology of self-reliance and rejection of foreign domination—to say nothing of its existing as one of the few top-to-bottom alternatives to capitalism—acts as an inspiration to many South Koreans. It’s virtually impossible to be committed to anti-imperialism and convinced there’s a better alternative to capitalism without espousing values which significantly overlap those of the North Korean state. Consequently, it’s virtually impossible for anyone in South Korea who embraces any kind of serious leftism not to be accused of being a North Korean fellow-traveller—someone who sympathizes with many of North Korea’s aims and values, without having a formal connection to it.

Consider the platform of the Unified Progressive Party (UPP), a leftwing party founded in 2011, which has recently been disbanded by South Korea’s Constitutional Court on grounds that it was intent on pursuing “North Korea-style socialism.” The party sought an end to the US military presence in South Korea (as does Pyongyang), advocated an end to South Korea’s subordinate relationship to the United States (paralleling North Korea’s rejection of foreign domination) and wanted to end the artificial division of the peninsula authored by two US colonels, Dean Rusk and Charles Bondsteel, in 1945, with Soviet compliance (this is also a North Korean goal.) The party talked of “rectifying” Korea’s “shameful history tainted by imperialist invasions, the national divide, military dictatorship, the tyranny and plunder of transnational monopoly capital” and large South Korean conglomerates. [2]

The UPP leader Lee Jung-hee averred that the party rejected North Korea’s political model. Had it not, she told the Constitutional Court, the UPP could never fulfill its ambition to be a mass party since, in her view, South Koreans would never accept North Korean-style socialism. All the same, one would be hard-pressed to argue that the UPP, or at least many of its members, could not be categorized as fellow-travelers of North Korea. And to be guileless about it, it seems very likely that in the event of an outbreak of war with North Korea that some proportion of the UPP membership would have acted as a fifth column—at least, that’s how the South Korean state is likely to have perceived matters, as would any other state—and have states in the past—which share a border with an ideological and military enemy. We can expect that as tensions between the two states heightened, that Seoul’s concern about the dangers of fifth columnists heightened in train. Potential fifth columnists (though not so named) were widely denounced as “jongbuk,” a derogatory term denoting blind followers of North Korea, who conservatives believe are infiltrating South Korean society and spreading subversive ideas challenging the merits of capitalism and South Korea’s subordinate relationship with the United States. [3]

To be understood, the South Korean police state must be situated in the context of South Korea’s relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, North Korea’s official name. The DPRK has long been vilified and condemned by the Western news media as bellicose, provocative and unpredictable. But blow away the fog of enduring Cold War propaganda and it’s clear that the DPRK represents something praiseworthy: a tradition of struggle against oppression and foreign domination, rooted in the experience of a majority of Koreans dating back to the end of WWII and the period of Japanese colonial rule. This tradition found expression in the Korean People’s Republic, a national government, created by, for, and of Koreans, that was already in place when US troops landed at Inchon in September, 1945. The new government was comprised of leftists who had won the backing of the majority of Koreans, partly because they had led the struggle against Japan’s colonial occupation, and partly because they promised relief from exploitation by landlords and the Japanese. The USSR, which occupied the north of the country until 1948, worked with the KPR in its occupation zone, but the United States suppressed the KPR in the south, worked to exterminate leftist forces in its zone—which included a significant guerrilla movement under the banner of the People’s Army—and backed conservatives reviled by Koreans for their collaboration with the Japanese. By 1948, the peninsula was divided between a northern government led by guerrillas and activists who fought to liberate Korea from Japanese rule, and a southern government led by a US-installed anti-communist backed by conservatives and landowners tainted by collaboration with the Japanese.

For the next nearly seven decades, the essential character of the competing regimes has remained the same. Park Geun-hye, the current South Korean president is the daughter of a former military dictator, Park Chung-hee, who came to power in a 1961 coup. As a young man Park Chung-hee joined the Japanese military, training at an officers’ school in Japan. He later joined the Kwantung Army, a unit of the Japanese Imperial Army, which enforced Japanese hegemony over Manchuria. Historian Bruce Cumings notes that a biography of Park “subsidized by his supporters (showed) how proud (Park) was to get a gold watch from Emperor Hirohito as a reward for his services, which may have included tracking down Korean guerrillas who resisted the Japanese.” [4] Significantly, it was the very same Korean guerrillas, among them, Kim Il-sung, who founded North Korea, who Park may have been involved in trying to hunt down. Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the DPRK’s current leader, Kim Jong-un, carried out significant guerrilla warfare against the Japanese in Manchuria. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also has a familial connection to Manchuria. Abe is the grandson of Nobusuki Kishi, a former prime minister who was a member of Tojo’s wartime cabinet and chief industrial planner in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. An historical continuity is thus evidenced in the current leaders of North Korea, South Korea, and Japan, being direct descendants of men involved in the struggle over Manchuria—Park’s father and Abe’s grandfather on the side of colonial oppression—Kim’s grandfather on the side of liberation.

Indeed, the DPRK represents the traditions of struggle against foreign domination, both political and economic, while South Korea represents the tradition of submission to and collaboration with a foreign hegemon. Significantly, there are no foreign troops stationed in the DPRK, but are in South Korea. DPR Korean troops have never fought abroad, but South Korea’s have, odiously in Vietnam, in return for infusions of mercenary lucre from the United States, and later in Iraq. That South Korea’s conservatives are steeped in a tradition of subservience to foreign domination is evidenced by the views of Moon Chang-keuk, a widely known South Korean newspaper columnist who was nominated by President Park Geun-hye to be her prime minister, but whose nomination was later withdrawn. Moon gave a lecture in 2011 at a Seoul church, in which he described Japan’s colonization of Korea as “God’s will” and a “necessary hardship.” He went on to blame Koreans for “laziness, lack of independence and a tendency to depend on others”—these being qualities he viewed as inhered in Koreans’ “national DNA.” It was necessary, too, that the Americans bisect the peninsula, Moon added, otherwise Korea would have been “communized…given the way we were then.” [5] Historians tend to agree that if Koreans had not been interfered with and left to their own devices they would have freely chosen communism. Moon obviously regards this as an outcome that was fortunately avoided, and would seem to view US intervention in 1945, the US-led war to exterminate the left in the immediate post-war period, and the war with North Korea from 1950 to 1953, as necessary to rescue Koreans from themselves.

As regards repression, South Korea’s authoritarianism on behalf of rightist causes is long and enduring. Its centerpiece is the notorious National Security Law (NSL), a piece of vile anti-leftist legislation created in 1948 officially to criminalize communism and recognition of North Korea and to unofficially suppress leftists. Criticized by Amnesty International [6], Human Rights Watch [7], and the UN [8], the NSL has been variously used to lock up South Koreans “for acts ranging from praising North Korea in casual conversation to running as an opposition candidate in presidential elections.” [9]

South Koreans have run afoul of the NSL for making comments that were construed as supportive of the DPRK, setting up web sites with pro-North Korean content, calling for the establishment of a socialist state, discussing alternatives to capitalism in public forums, re-tweeting messages from North Korea’s Twitter account, possessing books published in the DPRK, listening to radio broadcasts from North Korea, and visiting the DPRK without Seoul’s permission. Other sins against the NSL have included criticizing the official government inquiry into the sinking of the South Korean warship the Cheonan (blamed on North Korea by South Korean authorities), [10] and promoting reconciliation between the South and North.

In the 1970s, the poet Kim Chi-ha was jailed under the NSL because his poems advocated “class division.” In 1976, South Koreans who signed a declaration commemorating an uprising against Japanese rule were imprisoned, courtesy of the NSL. In 1987, a publisher was arrested for distributing travel essays written by Korean-Americans who were reputed to be sympathetic to North Korea. The NSL has been used to jail university students for forming study groups to examine North Korean ideology. In 1989, the South Korean police state arrested an average of 3.3 citizens per day for infractions of the NSL. In the first half of 1998, more than 400 were arrested under NSL provisions for demonstrating against unemployment. In 2001, sociology professor Kang Jeong-koo was jailed on his return to South Korea for visiting the birthplace of Kim Il-sung while on a visit to the DPRK. [11]

A 53 year old was acquitted 30 years after being arrested for violating the NSL. He was convicted of having in his possession “printed matter aiding the enemy.” The offending printed material included E.H. Carr’s The Russian Revolution, Maurice Dobb’s Capitalism Yesterday and Today, Eric Fromm’s Socialist Humanism, and Paul Sweezy’s Theory of Capitalist Development. [12] In 2007, Kim Myung-soo was locked up in a jail cell so small “he could spread his arms and touch the facing walls.” His crime: aiding the enemy by operating a Web site that sold Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China, a biography of Karl Marx, and other titles deemed to be pro-North Korean. [13]

In 2008, members off the South Korean military were banned from reading Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans: The Secret History of Capitalism (Chang is no Marxist, just critical of capitalism), Noam Chomsky’s Year 501: The Conquest Continues, and Hyeon Gi-yeong’s novel A Spoon of the Earth, all of which have been labelled as subversive books under an order banning pro-North Korea, anti-capitalist, and anti-US publications. [14]

And if the South Korean police state suppresses books, it no less vigorously wipes out online content it doesn’t want South Koreans to see. “When a computer user in South Korea clicks on an item on the North Korean Twitter account, a government warning against ‘illegal content’ content pops up.” [15] In 2011, South Korean authorities blocked over 53,000 internet posts for infractions which included having a kind word to say about North Korea. [16] In the same year, the South Korean police state deleted over 67,000 Web posts that were deemed favorable to North Korea or which criticized the US or South Korean government. Over 14,000 posts were deleted in 2009. [17]

So militantly anti-leftist is South Korea that “a brand of crayon called Picasso was once banned because of the artist’s Communists associations.” [18] Equally absurd, at one time the South Korean police state would splotch black ink over any photographs of Kim Il-sung that appeared in international magazines, to prevent South Koreans from seeing the face of the reviled leftist. [19]

If that wasn’t enough, South Korea’s police state bona fides go way beyond the NSL. The National Intelligence Service—established to spy on North Korea–has illegally “run an extensive operation of bugging the telephones of politicians, businessmen, journalists, and others.” [20] In 2012, NIS agents “posted more than 1.2 million messages on Twitter and other forums in a bid to sway public opinion in favor of the conservative governing party and its leader” Park Geun-hee, in the lead-up to presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012. [21] The messages NIS agents posted anonymously included praise for government policies, as well as denunciations of Park’s rivals as “servants” of North Korea. The NIS defended its actions, saying the posts were part of a campaign of psychological warfare against North Korea. South Korea’s Cyberwarfare Command, a unit of the military created to guard against hacking threats from North Korea, joined in the campaign of online slander of Park’s opponents. [22]

The vigor with which the South Korean police state acts to snuff out expressions of leftism has increased under the last two administrations, led by Lee Myung-bak, who had been chairman and chief executive officer of Hyundai, one of South Korea’s largest corporations, and Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a dictator and Japanese Imperial Army officer. In August 2011, Prosecutor General Han Sang-dae “declared ‘a war against fellow-travelling pro-north Korean left-wing elements,’ and said, ‘We must punish and remove them.’” [23]

South Korea’s police state has lived up to Han’s promise, recently disbanding the left-wing UPP, stripping its legislators of their parliamentary seats, and jailing a handful of its members, including the lawmaker Lee Seok-ki. Lee was convicted of violating the NSL. His offenses include singing the Song of the Red Flag at a gathering of party members and calling Korea “Chosun,” the country’s last official name before colonization by Japan. North Korea resurrected the name, while South Korea has adopted a new name. Ever since, the use of Chosun in South Korea has become associated with sympathy for North Korea. [24] Conservatives, even liberals, have vociferously criticized “jongbuk,” or followers of North Korea, accusing them of spreading “subversive” ideas and worming their way into positions of influence in South Korean society. In Lee’s view, “a problem far bigger than ‘jongbuk’ is ‘jongmi’—blindly following the United States.” [25] Lee was also accused of calling, at a closed meeting, for the sabotage of South Korean infrastructure in the event of war with North Korea. He was convicted of inciting an insurrection. He’s now serving a nine-year jail term.

While Lee’s case was before the courts, the Park government referred the UPP to the South Korean Constitutional Court, asking for the party’s disbandment on grounds that its program mirrored the aims and values of North Korea. The government called the UPP’s commitment to “overcoming foreign domination and dissolving South Korea’s dependence on the alliance with the US,” as well as its defining South Korea as a “not a society where the workers are master, but the reverse, where a privileged few act as masters,” as “identical to the argument coming from Pyongyang.” [26] The court accepted the government’s brief, ruling that the UPP sought to undermine South Korea’s liberal democracy and pursue North Korea-style socialism. This has provided a basis for a further crackdown on leftism, by defining by implication each and every one of the 100,000 members of the disbanded UPP as an anti-state activist. If they belonged to an officially designated anti-state organization, they must carry the taint of anti-state activity, the reasoning goes.

The banning of the UPP and jailing of Lee Seok-ki can be called the death of democracy in South Korea, but South Korea has never been a democracy, not in any substantive sense, not even when it abandoned open dictatorship and adopted a procedural democracy. Democracy can be construed as a set of procedures (voting, political parties, secret ballots, universal suffrage and so on) or as a type of society. “Democracy” in the second sense is more meaningful. We think of democratic societies as operating in the interests of, and on behalf of, the bulk of the people who make them up. And indeed, this has always been how the word democracy has been understood. Democratic societies reflect and promote mass interests. In contrast, societies that exist to serve the interests of a tiny elite at the apex of society, or of foreign masters, or both, can hardly be said to be democratic, even if they have elections, secret ballots, and so on. South Korea fails the test. It is dominated by a few large conglomerates. “The sales of Korea’s ten largest companies are equal to about 80% of Korea’s GDP.” [27] And few deny that South Korea is locked in a subordinate relationship with the United States, which maintains a significant military presence in the country, and has wartime command of South Korean forces. How can a society dominated by a business elite at home and the United States from abroad be a democracy?

As for the designation of South Korea as a “liberal” democracy, it should be recalled that liberalism represents the conditions necessary for the functioning of a capitalist society, not for the flowering of left-wing dissent and efflorescence of workers’ movements and parties. Historically, “liberal” democracies have not been particularly liberal for anyone but the dominant class. The United States, supposedly a model of liberal democracy, maintained slavery for the first 89 years of its existence. “The self-styled champions of liberty branded taxation imposed without their consent as synonymous with despotism and slavery. But they had no scruples about exercising the most absolute and arbitrary power over the slaves.” [28] So too today, champions of liberal democracy may worry about the liberty to exploit labor, but care not one whit about freedom from exploitation. Even after slavery’s abolition in the United States, it took decades—and the Soviet Union pointing to the United States’ deplorable treatment of its black citizens—to goad the United States to fully recognize the civil and political liberties of the descendants of the slaves. As for leftist movements, the United States accommodated them only insofar as was necessary to co-opt them, and otherwise undertook various campaigns of anti-leftist suppression, which waxed and waned, depending on the need to mobilize for war and confront an external enemy.

Indeed, the history of police state suppression of the left is really not much different between the United States and South Korea. The only difference lies in the degree of threat posed by the left to the established order—mostly unremitting in South Korea and only occasional in the United States; accordingly, the United States appears to be the more liberal society, but is only freer when it’s not facing a perceived threat of significance from the left, or, these days, from the efforts of jihadists to end US domination of their homelands. The latter, it will be acknowledged, has spurred multiple efforts to scale back civil liberties.

Under the presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, both liberals—and Kim, himself a victim of the NSL—the South Korean police state’s war on the left was throttled back. All the same, the NSL remained on the books, and leftists continued to be arrested for NSL-violations, though in more modest numbers. Liberals may have reduced the vigor of the war on leftism, but never called it off.

Rather than being the death of democracy, the suppression of the UPP, the jailing of a handful of its members, and efforts to intimidate its former members by threatening to designate them as anti-state activists, represent attempts to abort efforts to bring a real democracy to life in South Korea. Perhaps, it is the North Koreans themselves, watching from across the 38th parallel, who have summed up the eruption of anti-leftism centered on the UPP most aptly. “It is a political coup d’état aimed at stamping out the progressive forces desirous of independence, democracy and peaceful reunification” [29].

1. Reg Whitaker, Gregory S. Kealey, and Andrew Parnaby. Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America. University of Toronto Press. 2012.

2. Choe Sang-hun, “Leftist leaders accused of trying to overthrow South Korean government,” The New York Times, August 28, 2013.

3. Choe Sang-hun, “Leftist leader accused of trying to overthrow South Korean government,” The New York Times, August 28, 2013.

4. Bruce Cumings. Korea’s Place in the Sun.: A Modern History. W.W. Norton & Company. 2005. p. 355.

5. Choe Sang-hun, “Nominee for South Korean premier exits over colonization remark,” The New York Times, June 24, 2014.

6. Amnesty International recommends that “South Korea abolish or substantially amend the NSL in line with the country’s international human rights obligations and commitments.” “The National Security Law: Curtailing freedom of expression, and association in the name of security in the Republic of Korea,” 2012.

7. Human Rights Watch says that “The law clearly violates South Korea’s international human-rights obligations” KaySeok, “South Korea: Abolish or Fix National Security Law,” Joongang Daily, September 17, 2010.

8. “National Security Law again being used in communist witch hunts,” The Hankyoreh, January 13, 2015.

9. Diane Kraft, “South Korea’s National Security Law: A tool of oppression in an insecure world,” Wisconsin International Law Journal, 2006, Vol. 4, No 2.

10. “Police crack down on Cheonan rumors,” The Korea Herald, May 24, 2010.

11. Kraft.

12. “Man acquitted, 30 years later for ‘subversive books’ on capitalism and revolution,” The Hankyoreh, November 26, 2014.

13. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korean law casts wide net, snarling satirists in hunt for spies,” The New York Times, January 7, 2012.

14. “Military expands book blacklist,” The Hankyoreh, July 31, 2008.

15. Choe Sang-hun, “North Korean takes to Twitter and YouTube,” The New York Times, August 17, 2010.

16. Choe Sang-hun, “Korea policing the Net. Twist? It’s south Korea,” The New York Times, August 12, 2012.

17. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korean indicated over Twitter posts from North,” The New York times, February 2, 2012.

18. Choe Sang-hun, “An artist is rebuked for casting South Korea’s leader in an unflattering light,” The New York Times, August 30, 2014.

19. Bruce Cumings. Korea’s Place in the Sun.: A Modern History. W.W. Norton & Company. 2005. p. 365.

20. Choe Sang-hun, “Prosecutors raid South Korean spy agency in presidential election inquiry,” The New York Times, April 30, 2013.

21. Choe Sang-hun, “Former South Korean spy chief convicted in online campaign against liberals,” The New York Times, September 11, 2014.

22. Choe Sang-hun, “Former South Korean spy chief convicted in online campaign against liberals,” The New York Times, September 11, 2014.

23. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korean law casts wide net, snarling satirists in hunt for spies,” The New York Times, January 7, 2012.)

24. “South Korea Police State: National Intelligence Service (NIS) Arrests Rep. Lee Seok-ki: Did ROK Lawmaker Really Try to Overthrow the Government?” Global Research News, October 1, 2013.

25. Choe Sang-hun, “Leftist leader accused of trying to overthrow South Korean government,” The New York Times, August 28, 2013.

26. Jamie Doucette and Se-Woong Koo, “Distorting Democracy: Politics by Public Security in Contemporary South Korea [UPDATE]”, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, February 20, 2014.

27. Kwon Eun-jung, “Top 10 chaebol now almost 80% of Korean economy,” The Hankyoreh, August 28, 2012.

28. Domineco Losurdo. Liberalism: A Counter-History. Verso. 2011. p. 10.

29. “Park Geun Hye Branded as ‘Yusin’ Dictator, KCNA, December 26, 2014.

Written by what's left

January 27, 2015 at 12:59 am

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