Beset by popular protests, the right-wing administration resorts to outdated, draconian national security laws
By K J NOH | January 14, 2023 | Originally published in Asia Times
The Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s coordination and co-militarization with Japan in the service of the US efforts to contain China, along with its neoliberal policies and massive labor suppression, and its general incompetence has resulted in fierce opposition by large numbers of South Korean citizens.
To date, they have taken to the streets in mass “candlelight” demonstrations 23 times, on occasion approaching a turnout of half a million according to organizers. The protests show no signs of abating.
These huge demonstrations have demanded President Yoon’s immediate resignation along with prosecution of his wife for alleged corruption. The demonstrations also express strong opposition to US militarization of the country and military exercises, demand the return of South Korean sovereignty, and charge Yoon with selling out and betraying the nation. The Yoon administration has a 24% approval rating, according to recent figures. To counter this, the Yoon administration has been stifling and shutting down opposition to its policies with allegations that such opposition is derived from pro-Pyongyang sentiment or even alliance with North Korea.
It is currently engaged in a massive political witch-hunt of its opponents. It has arrested key top officials of the previous progressive administration, has raided the opposition party headquarters, raided opposition party candidate Lee Jae-myung’s house many times and has just subpoenaed him, acts unprecedented in South Korean constitutional history.
It is widely feared that Yoon will try to imprison the former progressive president, Moon Jae-in, possibly for acts of commission or omission in his policy toward North Korea.
Even the South Korean military is alarmed: A former four-star general, deputy commander of the ROK/US Combined Forces Command, denounced Yoon’s administration as a “dictatorial regime” that is “suppressing freedom” – a military first.
Republic of prosecution
President Yoon, a former chief prosecutor sometimes dubbed a “Korean J Edgar Hoover,” promised during his election campaign that he would create a “republic of prosecutors.”
Needless to say, the US backed Yoon’s candidacy: He received the blessing and endorsement of top US leaders and the US power establishment. He was commissioned to publish an article – a public confession of the doctrine of the faith – for the Council on Foreign Relations’ journal Foreign Affairs, where he detailed his hawkish concordance with US policy against China and his desire to be a global “pivot state” – a clear reference to the “pivot to Asia.”
The Barack Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” had started the momentum for military encirclement and escalation against China; Obama’s successor Donald Trump escalated this hybrid war into the economic domain, initiating a trade and tech war against China.
The current US president, Joe Biden, rebranded the pivot to Asia as the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and Trump’s neo-mercantilist trade war as the IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework), and has since escalated even further with full spectrum sanctions designed to destroy key Chinese industries.
Yoon’s roadmap article for Foreign Affairs was widely welcomed and lauded, celebrated as an early Christmas present in Washington, in effect the fulfillment of Biden’s wish list for its Korean-backed anti-China strategy. After squeaking into office on the tightest of margins in South Korea’s electoral history, President Yoon has been making good on his promises to the US, shaping, sculpting, and subordinating South Korean military, economic, and foreign interests to align with US policy and goals.
To backstop what are clearly unpopular, dissent-and-hardship-generating, extreme far-right policies – and in fulfillment of his promise of creating a “republic of prosecutors” – Yoon has appointed prosecutors who were subordinate to him to the majority of top administration positions, and prosecuting his opponents without mercy. Anyone who shows the slightest sign of opposition to his foreign or domestic policy has been put in the crosshairs of his army of prosecutors.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Yoon has sent his prosecutorial clown car barreling straight down on the road mapped out in his FP article, with “values” attached as a hood ornament, and “democracy” attached to the bonnet as road kill. The vehicle deployed has been “rule of law,” in particular, South Korea’s national-security laws.
For example, Yoon is claiming that the recent labor strikes organized by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) “were upon orders from North Korea,” a hyperbolic claim completely denied by the organizers.
The devil in democracy
South Korea’s national-security laws (see here) are a relic of the past red-baiting military dictatorships, and are some of the most draconian in the world. They have been applied to destroy lives and livelihoods, despite their commonsense-and-human rights-contravening extremism and punitiveness.
Revised and massaged several times over the years, they are still imprinted with the core genes of their intent: a political version of the Malleus Maleficarum (a medieval guide for witch hunting) to destroy “subversive” thought and movements in the South and to squelch political opposition. Like the Malleus, during South Korea’s military dictatorships, they were broadly written, malleable in interpretation and application, and relied heavily on confession extracted under torture. They are outdated and incompatible with any notion of a modern state, let alone South Korea’s much self-promoted “freedom and democracy” and “respect for individual rights.”
For example, under the South Korean National Security Law, for the act of “praising or sympathizing with” North Korea – in the legislation, the North is always referred to as “anti-state group(s)” – South Korean individuals can be imprisoned for up to seven years:
Article 7: Praising Or Sympathizing Up to 7 years in prison for those who praise, encourage, disseminate or cooperate with anti-state groups, members or those under their control, being aware that such acts will endanger the national security and the democratic freedom.
If investigation of the KCTU labor strikes shows that they were “upon orders from North Korea,” as is claimed by the government, depending on the judicial outcome and the specific crimes they are charged with, the accused could be sentenced to death for “commission of anti-state acts under the influence” of Pyongyang:
Article 4: Commission Of Anti-State Acts Members of an anti-State group or those who are under the influence of an anti-State organization who commit an anti-State act shall be punished as follows:
Those who commit an act as defined by the Criminal Code articles , , , [250.2],  or [340.2] shall be punished as set forth in the Code.
Those who commit an act as defined by the Criminal Code article  or who access, gather, leak, transmit or compromise a national security secret shall be punished as follows:
Death, life or minimum 10 years for violating Criminal Codes , [119.1], , .  or . [177.1] or .  or . , , , [250.1], , ,  or ,  or [340.1, 2]
Death, life or minimum 5 years in prison for destruction of public or government buildings or other structures essential for transportation, communication; abduction or seduction of officials; or theft or removal of ships, airplanes, automobiles, weapons or other materials related to the fore-mentioned functions.
Minimum 2 years in prison for promoting or propagating acts defined in  or  or for creating or spreading false rumors aimed at causing social turmoil.
Meeting with North Korean officials, as alleged against the organizers, could result in a 10-year sentence.
Article 8: Meeting, Corresponding And Etc. Up to 10 years in prison for those who confer, correspond, or communicate using other means with anti-state groups, members or those under their control, being aware that their acts will endanger the national security and the democratic freedom.
If any of the accused are successfully prosecuted, then those in their vicinity could be charged with “failure to inform” – that is, failure to “rat out” their friends, neighbors, colleagues, or even family:
Article 10: Failure To Inform Maximum five years in prison or a fine of 2,000,000 won for those who fail to inform the police or security officials of persons who have committed acts defined in , , [5.1, 3 and 4]. This punishment may be reduced or waved in the case of involving family members.
Filmmakers could be charged with “possessing (even temporarily) or disseminating arts” (from North Korea):
Punishments as defined in , , or  for those who create, import, duplicate, possess, transport, disseminate, sell, or acquire documents, arts or other publications for the purpose of committing acts as defined in , , or  respectively.
Outside of this article, there has been little discernible coverage or outrage in the Western media about these extraordinary developments.
By contrast, former president Moon Jae-in’s slightest peccadilloes – for example, the prevention of anti-North propaganda balloon volleys – were the subject of US congressional hearings, allegations of human-rights violations, and charges of creeping dictatorship. This new witch-hunt, a hallucinatory reversion to the 1960s, looks to have been passed over without comment or criticism in the corporate media.
The fact that Seoul even holds such national-security laws on the books gives the lie to the oft-repeated claim that South Korea is some sort of model democracy, part of an “alliance of democracies” partnering with “like-minded values” against “authoritarianism,” as the US and Korean Indo-Pacific strategies like to proclaim.
K J Noh is a journalist, political analyst, writer, and teacher specializing in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region.