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South Korea Cracks Down on Dissent

On February 8, the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) raided the Seoul and Incheon offices of the South Korean NGO, Solidarity for Peace and Reunification in Korea (SPARK) for violating the National Security Law (NSL). The NIS also searched the homes of two of SPARK’s leadership, confiscated their notebooks and cell phones, and shut down the server of its website,

The NIS, famously known as the Korean CIA, alleges that SPARK members violated the NSL because the organization sent a condolence letter to North Korea following Kim Jong Il’s death and that a member was part of a North Korean spy ring. SPARK members counter that they went through the legal and proper channels in sending the letter and that charges of its affiliation with a spy ring is a fabrication. “SPARK always conducts its activities legally and openly,” says Regina Pyon, chairwoman of the Seoul branch. “All the day’s activities are reported on our website, including the most trivial information.”

The South Korean government’s targeting of SPARK, however, is clearly politically motivated given the organization’s vital role in supporting the Gangjeong villagers’ resistance to the naval base on Jeju Island. While the raid on SPARK is just one in a long string of arrests by South Korean President Lee Myung Bak using the NSL, it has particular historic significance given that the Cold War law was created to suppress the uprising on Jeju Island in 1948.

Cracking Down on Dissent

The SPARK raid follows on the heels of the arrest of Park Jung-geun, a 24-year old photographer, blogger and member of the South Korean Socialist Party who re-tweeted messages from the North Korean government’s Twitter account. Park now sits in jail for violating the NSL for “praising and supporting an enemy of the state.”

“The NSL has a chilling effect on freedom of expression in South Korea,” says Sam Zarifi, the Asia director at Amnesty International, in a February 1, 2012 statement. “It is used not to address threats to national security, but instead to intimidate people and limit their rights to free speech.” The application of this law increased dramatically under Lee Myung Bak. In 2007, there were 39 cases of individuals violating the NSL; by 2010, there were 151. In 2008, five individuals were prosecuted for activities considered to be pro-North, compared with 82 in 2010. In 2011, the South Korean government deleted 67,300 web postings considered pro-north.

While the Park Jung-geun case has received international media attention, less is known about how the South Korean government has used the NSL to crackdown on leftists from trade unionists to peace and reunification activists, particularly those who have visited North Korea. Not only has the Lee administration made it more difficult for South Korean humanitarian aid groups to travel to North Korea, it has also used the NSL to investigate those who have traveled as far back as 2007. It has been used by successive South Korean regimes to use the North Korean threat to torture and arrest political dissidents, such as former president Kim Dae Jung. In 1980, when General Chun Doo-Hwan took power through a coup d’état, he used the NSL to repress pro-democracy activists during the Gwangju uprising. And during the 1997 financial crisis, the NSL was used to arrest more than 400 students and workers challenging IMF-imposed austerity policies and high rates of unemployment. The United Nations and leading human rights organizations have called on the South Korean government to abolish the NSL. Presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun both tried and failed.

The Origins of the NSL

The NSL was enacted on December 1, 1948 to prevent anti-state acts that threaten the national security of South Korea. The law defines “anti-state acts” as “domestic or foreign organizations or groups whose intentions are to conduct or assist infiltration of the Government or to cause national disturbances.” Under the NSL, the punishment for those who sympathize, voluntarily aid, or cooperate with an anti-state group ranges from several years to life in prison or death. It was initially used to suppress popular uprisings in Jeju and Yosu.

Following Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule, Jeju was largely a self-governing province inhabited by islanders used to rugged self-determination, in part due to its geographic distance from the mainland. According to secret U.S. documents, Jeju was “a truly communal area that is peacefully controlled by the peoples’ committee without Comintern influence.” Two-thirds of islanders were considered leftists, so when an extreme rightist was appointed governor by the mainland, tensions started to mount.

On March 1, 1948, two years before the Korean War, Jeju islanders protested against the separate elections in North and South Korea. To quell the protests, the police arrested 2,500 islanders, including a young man whose tortured body was later found dead in the river. This sparked the April 3rd rebellion throughout Jeju where islanders attacked police stations, destroyed bridges, and cut phone lines. By month’s end, a 4,000-peasant strong Peoples’ Democratic Army had formed bearing swords, spears, and farm implements. Only 10 percent had firearms.

As the uprising progressed on Jeju Island, a second rebellion erupted in the southeastern port city of Yosu. “The Yosu-Sunch’on rebellion was also about Jeju,” Korea historian Bruce Cumings wrote me in an email. “Troops not wanting to go and suppress the island rebels are the ones who caused the uproar.”

Because Jeju was labeled a “Red” island, the South Korean government and police unleashed an indiscriminate, state-sponsored killing spree in the name of “national defense.” The entire interior of the island was declared an enemy zone, the target of “scorched earth” bombing raids. Civilians, including women, children, and elderly who were left behind were tortured for information and massacred. By 1949, more than 70 percent of the island’s villages were burned down, an estimated 80,000 people of the island’s 300,000 inhabitants were killed, and over 65,000 left homeless without food. An estimated 1,000 civilians were killed in the course of the military’s suppression in Yosu.

Not only did the U.S. military oversee the massacres in Jeju, it helped train counterinsurgent forces, interrogate prisoners, and allowed the use of American spotter planes to ferret out guerillas. In The Korean War: A History, Cumings writes that in Yosu, “The commanders who actually subdued the rebels were Americans, assisted by several young Korean colonels.”

To counter the insurgencies spreading throughout southern Korea, the Republic of Korea National Assembly introduced the NSL. As soon as the law was enacted, then President Syngman Rhee immediately arrested 30,000 people accused as communists. Sixty-four years later, the NSL still haunts South Koreans as a form of McCarthyism.

Jeju Full Circle

The South Korean government has targeted SPARK in part because of its critical support of the Gangjeong village resistance, which has been fighting the South Korean naval base that will stage Aegis destroyers as part of the U.S.-missile defense system. It has organized dozens of solidarity visits from throughout the mainland. Since 1999, SPARK has held monthly demonstrations outside of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul to protest its ongoing military occupation in South Korea.

By red baiting SPARK as a communist, pro-North organization, the South Korean government is trying to taint the Jeju naval base resistance and send a message to others that if they are or become involved, they too will be branded and targeted.

A SPARK video uploaded on Facebook references a Korean Broadcasting Service (KBS) 60-minute program that disclosed a secret deal made among the NIS, police and Jeju Island government in January 2009 to quash the opposition movement against the naval base by labeling SPARK as pro-North. In the video, the NIS is caught saying that the anti-base groups will be dealt with, and Jeju government officials say that the Navy should just push ahead. (When I tried to hyperlink to the video, I got this automatic response, “This video contains content from KBS Media, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.”)

The raid on SPARK is part of this state plan just as the round-ups of Jeju residents 64 years ago were used to suppress people’s movements fighting for representational democracy and social justice. Sadly the NSL is still at work in Jeju Island.

*Christine Ahn is the executive director of the Korea Policy Institute, an advisory member of the Global Campaign to Save Jeju Island, and a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus.


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