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The Peninsula

The Enduring Consequences of South Korea’s National Security Law

Published September 6, 2022

At the end of July, the Yoon government announced its intention to relax South Korea’s prohibition on North Korea media. In a statement published on 22 July, the Unification Ministry said it would work to “restore ethnic homogeneity by enhancing mutual understanding and consensus between the two Koreas through phased opening of mass media that convey information.” Both Koreas have long emphasized their shared Korean heritage, and many South Korean leaders have looked for ways to promote better inter-Korea relations based on this shared history. But experts say the Yoon administration will find it difficult to promote information exchanges between the Koreas without addressing the long-standing National Security Law (NSL).

The NSL is an expansive law that was implemented to protect South Korea from malign influences. It was enacted on December 1, 1948, only a few months after the establishment of the Republic of Korea and before the Korean War. The dissolution of Imperial Japanese authority left the Korean Peninsula unstable, with various communist and anti-communist groups fighting for control. That year in particular saw significant left-wing uprisings, in cities like Yeosu and Suncheon, as well as the island of Jeju. After the National Assembly passed the NSL, President Syngman Rhee and his successors have used the law to crackdown on members of what it calls “anti-government organizations.”

The ostensible targets of the NSL are North Korean agents or their sympathizers in South Korea. But it has also been invoked to silence opposition to the government. In the first year after the NSL entered into force, 188,621 people were imprisoned under its aegis. After the Korean War, authoritarian governments continued to wield the law to suppress dissidents, including presidents Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam. Although South Korea has transitioned into a democratic society, the NSL remains on the books and a constant specter hovering behind discussions about North Korea in the South.

One of the more infamous aspects of the NSL, and a hurdle to President Yoon Seok-youl’s goals, is Article 7. It prohibits South Koreans from circulating “false facts,” which includes the manufacture, reproduction, distribution of “any documents, drawings or other expression materials.” In practice, this means South Korean citizens are prohibited from accessing official North Korean sources. There are some exceptions to the ban, such as for journalists that report on the North. Dr. Sung-yoon Lee from Tufts University says the government also generally tolerates access by researchers like himself. “But if you were viewed as a pro-North Korean person, then you could be arrested, tried, and go to jail under the National Security Law,” he said.

Although the Unification Ministry said it will push towards “open access and communication between the South and the North,” Pyongyang is hostile to information from the South. Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said that Kim Jong-un has cracked down severely on foreign content. “There are some exceptions, like KPop stars visiting Pyongyang with Moon Jae-in, but this was meant purely for the consumption of the Pyongyang-dwelling elites,” he said. “The North Korean regime continues to regard information from the outside world, especially from South Korea, as threatening to its very survival.” Dr. Andrew Yeo, Professor of Politics, Catholic University and Korea Chair and Visiting Fellow, Brookings Institution, says there are only two conditions that could change North Korea’s stance. Either “the regime’s grip on society has collapsed [or] the regime has gotten serious enough about economic reforms that [Kim Jong-un] decides more outside information is needed to improve the North Korean investment climate,” he said.

The Unification Ministry has not provided specifics on how it will implement its “phased opening” without conflicting with the NSL. Dr. Lee says that while repealing the law in its entirety may be difficult, repealing certain sections of the law may be within reach. “It’s not impossible, because a lot of the opposition party politicians tend to be more sympathetic to North Korea,” he said. Choosing not to enforce the law is also a possibility. Dr. Lee points out that the Yoon administration has been lax in punishing violators of the law passed in 2020 that prohibited launching leaflets and other objects into North Korean territory. But leaving the law intact could undermine this type of effort by the government. Anti-communism remains an animating force among South Korean conservatives, who could use what remains of the law to sue individuals disseminating North Korean media. “It will become a political burden for the Yoon administration,” said Dr. Lee. “They would not want to deplete their political capital on this issue, which would drive away their traditional support base.”

Another option would be for the South Korean government itself to provide access to North Korean sources. “If the South Korean government decides that this is not a threat to South Korean national security…then why not [allow access]?” said Director Scarlatoiu. Government agencies could publish the information themselves, to ensure it is safe for public consumption. “If the Unification Ministry decides to publish North Korean news and other media, it could include [a] disclaimer,” said. Dr. Yeo.

Given these challenges, it is hard to be optimistic that the Yoon government will be successful in promoting a better understanding of the North by relaxing the South’s prohibition on North Korean media. “South Koreans won’t have much interest in watching North Korean content,” predicted Director Scarlatoiu. “I think South Koreans have their own K-dramas and K-movies, and there is very little space for anything else.” There may even be unintended consequences of this initiative. “There’s a greater chance that the youth, especially, will turn these broadcasts into memes that highlight poor production quality, outdated clothes, and just general un-coolness.,” said Karl Friedhoff, a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “There’s a chance that North Korean media becomes a punchline,” he said.

However, President Yoon Suk-yeol can still use this opportunity to address the apathy that has developed after seven decades of the NSL. Jean Lee, a fellow at the Wilson Center points out that the criminalization of North Korean material has propagated a “willful ignorance or lack of curiosity about North Korea.” In conversations with younger South Koreans, Ms. Lee says few seem to understand why universal conscription has continued, or have seen the Demilitarized Zone outside of Seoul. “Two generations of South Koreans have been cut off from information, and frankly, do not have the understanding and the expertise that we expect and rely on,” said Ms. Lee.

Seoul does have an interest in defending itself against North Korean information warfare, which supports the underlying argument of the NSL. But South Korea has transitioned away from authoritarianism, so it should trust its people to make the right decision in reading information from the North. “Removing that restriction…would be another step toward moving on from the past, as well as joining the United States and other countries in championing freedom, liberty, and access to information,” said Ms. Lee. “This is a decision that the South Korean government needs to make about how they see themselves in the world and how they see themselves as a leader on some of these issues around values.”

Terrence Matsuo is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Shutterstock.

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