South Korea’s censorship problem isn’t just about chromosomes

One of the most bipartisan political traditions in South Korea’s young democracy is the tendency of its presidents to use tax audits, prosecutions, libel suits, and state-subsidized street violence to censor their political opponents. This has always been wrong, but in America, our condemnation of it has always been selective.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae Jung used tax audits to harass conservative newspapers. His successor, the leftist* Roh Moo Hyun, sued four right-wing newspapers for $400,000 each over what Roh called “comprehensive, persistent and massive defamation of my character that, not as president but as a human being, caused me psychological agony hard to express in words.” Roh tried to pass a media ownership law to shrink the right-wing press, used state funds to subsidize newspapers that supported him, and subsidized union goons and street thugs who intimidated and attacked his political opponents, and critics of North Korea’s human rights abuses. During rightist President Lee Myung’s term, the police arrested the members of a harmless left-wing fringe party.

Park Geun Hye has continued this thuggish tradition by dissolving (admittedly fringe) political parties, decertifying (admittedly extreme) labor unions, and prosecuting people for (non-violently) praising North Korea—all actions I criticized as they happened.

On top of this, Yonhap now reports that the South Korean government is preventing a U.S. citizen, Shin Eun-Mi, from leaving the country (update: and issued her a summons) because of “an investigation into her alleged pro-North Korean remarks” on talk shows while in South Korea. Ironically, if the state had allowed Ms. Shin to fly back to her life of well-deserved obscurity, I’d neither know nor care who she was, and neither would you. Censorship only really works when totalitarians do it. Anywhere else, it’s not just bad policy, it’s the tool of imbeciles who can’t win arguments, and who almost always lose them without saying a word.

None of this is what just caused The Washington Post to declare a censorship crisis in South Korea, however. That happened because President Park filed libel suits against “media outlets that run reports it considers unfavorable.” Ironically, The Post now quotes the editors of left-wing Hankyoreh Shinmun, which suckled contentedly at Roh Moo Hyun’s nipples for the duration of his chokehold on the Chosun Ilbo and the Joongang Ilbo. Today, the editors of the Hanky call Park Geun Hye “shameless,” which is an interesting word choice for them.

President’s Park’s abuse of South Korea’s cumbrous libel laws is indefensible and stupid. It’s also incorrect to suggest that it’s a crisis. Crisis implies rapid deterioration. This is the extension of a long, bipartisan precedent. Worse, to suggest that this is only troubling because the person doing it inherited an X chromosome from Park Chung Hee misses the point widely:

This is sparking even more unflattering comparisons for the president. “Park Geun-hye is taking a page from her dictator father’s playbook,” said Peter Beck, a Korea expert at the New Paradigm Institute in Seoul. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

No, she isn’t. Park Chung Hee locked dissidents away for years and sometimes unjustly executed them. To compare such unequal wrongs smacks of false equivalence and dishonors the dissidents who fought for democracy during Park Chung Hee’s regime.

This isn’t the only serious error with Beck’s analogy. By ignoring the bipartisan tradition of “democratic” censorship in South Korea, Beck misses the issue of what reforms are needed to end these abuses and advance South Korea’s evolution toward open democracy. I know and like Peter Beck, and I hope he still likes me after he reads this post, but I don’t remember him taking note of any of the censorship of the left when it was happening. For that matter, the international media seldom noticed or remembered it, either. Nor has it shown much concern that the left’s goon squads are still turning out to censor freedom of expression today, while the left-wing opposition tries to do the same thing by legislative fiat.

As bad as all of that may be, none of it is the second coming of Park Chung Hee. It’s a different problem that requires different answers.

Park Geun Hye’s actions today are just part of a continuum in a political culture that doesn’t respect freedom of speech or protect it with content-neutral laws. South Korea’s transition to democracy did not end the tendency of its politicians, corporations, and government agencies to censor embarrassing speech; it merely changed their methods of censorship.

In the United States, we’ve long recognized the potential for libel suits to be abused to suppress public debate. In 1964, the Supreme Court decided New York Times v. Sullivan, which raised the standard for a libel suit by a “public figure” to survive a motion to dismiss. Even then, the cost of legal fees to defend a suit can suppress free expression, which is why many states have anti-SLAPP acts that require losing plaintiffs to pay the legal fees of winning defendants. If Korea’s left and right are serious about ending the abuse of libel suits, they should amend their libel laws to provide similar protections. Failing that, Korean courts should impose them as a matter of constitutional law.

I suppose the United States hasn’t set the best example for the apolitical integrity of tax audits, but I’d offer three suggestions to limit the problem. First, a state that can’t tax protected activities fairly should exempt them from taxation entirely. Second, every democracy needs a robust equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, to allow citizens to obtain and publish government records. In the U.S. legal system, to the extent that those records show that an official violated an individual’s constitutional rights, the citizen can sue the official in his individual capacity and recover damages.

Finally, when political organizations use force or violence to suppress their opponents, governments shouldn’t subsidize them, they should sue them under anti-racketeering laws, and allow the victims of their violence to sue for conspiracy to violate their civil rights.

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* This left-right stuff never worked for me as a descriptor of political polarity in the U.S. It also works rather badly for South Korea. “Radicals” and “reactionaries” is still too simplistic. I wish I could think of a better alternative.