President Park Geun-hye of South Korea
On December 19, the Constitutional Court of South Korea ruled 8-1 in an unprecedented case for the dissolution of the left-oriented Unified Progressive Party (UPP) on grounds of treason under the National Security Act of 1948. The Constitutional Court, which holds a unique role in the Korean judiciary as a court of “last resort,” declared the party’s actions and ideology unconstitutional, “pro-North Korean,” and of “grave danger to national security.”
A majority of English-language media outlets have expressed bitter opposition to the ruling. Opponents of the verdict question South Korea’s “commitment to democracy,” fearing the reemergence of authoritarianism in the country. From bloggers to organizations such as Amnesty International, many on the Internet have resoundingly decried the actions of the South Korean government, emphasizing the importance of free speech within democratic societies.
Considering South Korea’s past, these concerns are understandable. With the presidency of Park Geun-hye — daughter of authoritarian leader, Park Chung-hee — emotions on the subject run particularly high. Adversaries of the Park administration have been quick to point fingers, ever vigilant of the renewal of a South Korean autocracy. The statutory basis of the ruling itself, the National Security Act of 1948, has also long been criticized as a potential tool for the imprisonment of political rivals. President Park and her legislative majority, the Saenuri Party, have been accused of rekindling the “red scare,” silencing dissidents through McCarthy-esque tactics.
However, it is important to consider the original intent of the Statute. The National Security Act was implemented in order to protect the South Korean state against the aggressions of North Korea in times of war. Legislation of a similar nature exists in other developed, democratized nations. In Germany, the Strafgesetzbuch, under Section 86a, explicitly bans the use of “symbols of unconstitutional organizations,” with the aim of expunging Nazi ideology from German politics. South Korea’s National Security Act functions in much the same way. Both statutes were implemented in the wake of World War II, with the intent of preventing the emergence of violent entities within national borders. Both inherently restrict freedoms of speech in favor of bolstered national security.
Of course, it’s certainly odd to see the trappings of a legislated “red complex” in this day and age. However, South Korea’s relationship with its northern counterpart puts it in a uniquely precarious position as demonstrated in May of 2013. At a time of heightened aggression from the North, 130 members of the UPP, headed by National Assembly Member, Lee Seok-ki, expressed plans to attack South Korean infrastructure in the case of an attack by North Korea. Mr. Lee was detained shortly after the party meeting, along with several other conspirators, after a whistle blower revealed details of the meeting to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.
Upon Assembly Member Lee’s arrest, party leader of the UPP, Lee Jung-hee, claimed that the comments were made in jest and not taken seriously at the meeting. Despite these claims, this incident provided sufficient impetus for the untimely dismemberment of the party.
On January 22, the Supreme Court issued a final sentence of nine-years in prison to Mr. Lee on the basis of encouraging sedition, a sentence which would have remained at twelve-years if the court found him responsible for actively plotting as opposed to merely encouraging. Whether they intended to follow through with the attack or not, such words are not to be taken lightly. The situation involved high stakes: alleged terror plots crafted by state representatives of all people.
Thus, the true crime was not perpetrated by the Park administration, nor was it directed at the UPP or South Korea’s democracy. Injustice stems from the irresponsibility of the UPP’s leadership. Party leaders such as Lee Seok-ki have committed a disservice to the political left of South Korea, and ultimately, to the nation as a whole. As representatives of their nation, they catered to an inimical state, plotting to violently endanger the very citizens they were sworn to protect.
Although the UPP was only a minor party with five seats in the Assembly, this controversy will have a lasting impact on South Korea’s political climate. The UPP’s dissolution has inflicted a chilling effect on the political left. In a nation where discourse against liberal politics already oftentimes devolves into accusations of pro-North Korean sentiment, the UPP has dealt a blow to the very ideology it was meant to represent. The challenge of disaggregating left-oriented politics from pro-North Korean sentiment has been made more difficult than ever.
Image Attribution: “KOCIS Korea President Park Sejong Econ 03 (11640577615)” by Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han), licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0