South Korean censors fine lawmaker $4300 for telling the truth about Minbyun (updated)

South Korean National Assemblyman Ha Tae-Kyung invites a particular potency of venom from both the hard left and the hard right. The hard left hates him because he used to be pro-Pyongyang and they still are. Ha was imprisoned under the old right-wing dictatorship for his activism and for (by his own admission) his former pro-Pyongyang sympathies. He later turned against Pyongyang and became an activist for human rights for the North Korean people, for which he has received threats to his life and his family. The hard right hates Ha because he was viewed as a Korean Rino for being insufficiently loyal to Park Geun-hye during her impeachment.

I also disagree with Ha about some things, including sanctions, but I respect him nonetheless. I met Ha when he came to Washington for a fellowship some years ago. We have not stayed in contact, but one night, as I drove him home from an event we both attended, he recounted the time he’d spent in prison. On his return to Korea, he went on to found Open Radio for North Korea and win a seat in the National Assembly.

Today, NK News reports that the hard-left lawyers’ guild Minbyun, the incubator of former President Roh Moon-hyun and current presidential front-runner Moon Jae-in, has “won” a libel suit against Ha Tae-Kyung for accusing it — accurately, as I will argue — of “defending North Korea.” The suit originates from the slashing of U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert by a pro-North Korean fanatic in 2015, after which Ha said the assailant’s lawyer was a member of Minbyun and that Minbyun was “defending North Korea.”

Two points of order here: first, Minbyun denies that the lawyer was a member, and second, even knife-wielding Commie fanatics are entitled to the representation of counsel. But those statements were not the basis of the suit. The basis of the suit was that Ha referred to Minbyun’s members as “jongbuk,” a term used for pro-North Korean radicals.

Ha initially prevailed in the suit, but Minbyun appealed, and the higher court reversed and ordered Ha to pay them 5 million Korean won, or just over $4300. When I say that Minbyun “won” the case, I use scare quotes, because not even lawyers of Minbyun’s caliber can come cheap enough that a measly $4300 would cover the time and costs of the suit. Now, listen to the court’s reasoning.

“In South Korea, the term Jongbuk has the negative meaning of ‘following North Korea unquestioningly’ thus ‘denying constitutional ground order and the identity of the Republic of Korea (ROK),” the court ruled on Monday.

“(Lawmaker Ha Tae-kyung’s) statement was enough to give the impression that Minbyun leaned towards defending pro-North entities, deviating from its original purpose of providing legal support for the protection of human rights.” [NK News, J.H. Ahn]

This implies that under South Korean law, it’s defamation to make a political criticism solely because it’s inflammatory or hurts someone’s feelings. Really? Isn’t truth even a defense? Even parliamentary immunity (as in Europe) or “speech and debate” protections (as in the U.S.) cannot exist in South Korea if a lawmaker can be sued for a political criticism. But that turns out to be precisely the case.

A few minutes of research will quickly reveal the serious threat that South Korea’s libel laws pose to free speech and open debate. They have been used by corporations and politicians to silence both columnists and journalists. When Park Geun-hye tried to use them to silence reporters, Human Rights Watch criticized her and called for the criminal defamation law to be repealed. Worst of all, it is no defense that the “defamatory” statement is true. As long-time Korea-based lawyer Sean Hayes writes: “In South Korea, people may be held civilly liable and may be criminally punished even for a true statement.”

By now, the more clever readers among you are wondering about Minbyun’s own position on the criminal defamation law. Well, on the one hand, Minbyun’s Media Committee “supports the Act on the Press Arbitration and Damage Redemption, etc. which protects people from defamation of character.” On the other hand, Minbyun cried “freedom of speech” when the government used the defamation law against the MBC network after it published a scurrilous (and subsequently retracted) report that American beef causes mad cow disease, a report that instigated weeks of mass protests. Minbyun has written that the government should “consider” decriminalizing defamation — except in “the most serious of cases,” which may include “hate speech,” however Minbyun defines that. That is to say, South Korea’s “liberal human rights lawyers” are against the use of criminal defamation laws to censor political speech, except when they aren’t.

I’m guessing that, given what he’s been through, the $4300 means less to Ha Tae-Kyung than vindicating the truth. J.H. Ahn, the NK News reporter, does that cause no service when he airbrushes Minbyun’s involvement in a case that’s of special interest to me, the case of 12 North Korean restaurant workers who defected to the South from Ningpo, China last year. Ahn describes Minbyun’s involvment in these cases as speaking “on behalf of the North Korean parents” of the 12. This is nonsense. In any defamation case — particularly one about political speech about controversial issues with public and global interest — that a statement is true, or offered in good faith, should always be a defense.

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Plenty has been written (including at this site) about the Korean right’s censorship of peaceful free expression, but most of the news media have a blind spot for censorship from Korea’s left, which I’ve also described here. Because truth is no defense to a defamation suit in Korea, both sides have repurposed the courts as their censors. South Korean society is poorer for this. Provable accusations with genuine public interest are held back. Rather than make charges they can defend, accusers plant them as anonymously sourced rumors in the newspapers or online. Instead of reading and judging the evidence, citizens drift toward whatever alternative truth suits their predispositions.

To review the truth of Ha Tae-Kyung’s charge about Minbyun, let’s begin one year ago, when 12 North Korean women and one man employed at a North Korean restaurant in Ningpo, China defected to the South, apparently with the help of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. The incident was a major embarrassment to Pyongyang, which feared that it would set a precedent for more group defections (which it did). Twelve of the 13 were promptly appointed a lawyer, Park Young-sik, who was recommended by the respected Korean Bar Association (it isn’t clear why the 13th case wasn’t litigated). They appeared before a South Korean court to claim asylum, in keeping with their rights under the Refugee Convention. Also in keeping with their internationally recognized rights, those proceedings were absolutely confidential. The reason for that confidentiality is obvious — by asking for asylum, a refugee implicitly criticizes the state she fled and exposes those she left behind to retribution.

[12 of the Ningpo 13, and 5 colleagues who stayed behind.]

To mitigate its embarrassment, Pyongyang accused South Korea’s National Intelligence Service of kidnapping the 13. Using their families as hostages, it sent a thinly veiled message to the women, and to anyone else who might be watching: “[O]ur leader Kim Jong Un is waiting for you, parents and siblings are waiting for you, please come back.” (As if that message would be persuasive to an actual kidnap victim.) Any North Korean would understand the meaning of this.

North Korea publicly executed six officials in charge of supervision of its workers overseas in May following the defection of 13 workers at a North Korean-run restaurant in China a month earlier, a local Pyongyang watcher said Friday.

“North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered six officials, including intelligence officials, to be executed publicly on May 5 due to their lack of control over overseas (North Korean) workers,” Choi Seong-yong, chairman of the Abductees’ Family Union, claimed, citing people familiar with the matter.

Eighty public officials and 100 people who have their family members working overseas were forced to watch the execution, he said.

In early April, a group of 12 women and one man fled from a North Korea-run restaurant in China’s eastern port city of Ningbo and defected to South Korea. In the following month, three female workers at a North Korean restaurant in the midwest city of Shanxi reportedly defected to the South.

“North Korea locked the families of the defectors up and forced them to take ideological education at a training facility in Myohyang Mountain, in the northern part of the communist country,” Choi said. [Yonhap]

Of course, the theory that the NIS had kidnapped the women was implausible on its face. Surely the Chinese authorities would have said something as the NIS hustled the women past customs, or even after their arrival in South Korea, if there were any truth to it. How could the NIS ever allow the 12 to reenter South Korea’s open society — where they would be free to talk to bloggers, reporters, and even Minbyun — if any of them might reveal that the NIS had abducted them? (All 12 were released into South Korean society eight months ago. They have since entered a South Korean university. None have come forward to say they were abducted.)

Pyongyang could not advance its strategy in a South Korean court itself, so it lawyered up. Minbyun, with its long history of defending pro-North Korean radicals, was its natural choice. Pyongyang arranged, either through an unnamed U.S. citizen in China or a Chinese journalism professor (the details still aren’t clear) to grant Minbyun power of attorney to intervene in the proceedings as representatives of the families of the women back in Pyongyang. Minbyun then filed a habeas corpus petition “to check whether the defectors moved to South Korea on a voluntary basis.”

At one point, the left-wing Hankyoreh Sinmun even reported — falsely — that the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights office in Seoul would send staff to Pyongyang to interview the family members of the 13 refugees to investigate the abduction claims, but the OHCHR later denied this.

Had Minbyun’s habeas petition been granted, everything the women said to Minbyun would surely have been relayed back to Minbyun’s clients in Pyongyang, and to the North Korean government itself (as the women surely knew). But the habeas petition was transparently cynical. After all, if Minbyun’s true purpose had been to ensure that the women had not been abducted, why not ask the court or a representative of U.N. High Commission for Refugees to question them in a closed proceeding, and to afford them the option of voluntary repatriation, before granting their asylum petitions?

Pyongyang’s obvious purposes were to sow enough public doubt to mitigate the damage to its propaganda narrative, to intimidate the women into re-defection, and to deter any other would-be defectors who might follow. To grant Minbyun’s habeas petition would have been tantamount to a South Korean withdrawal from the U.N. Refugee Convention, because no North Korean would ever seek asylum there again. As an official of the South Korean Unification Ministry observed,

“If this is how it works, whenever North Korean defectors come to South Korea, and if someone who claims that he or she has been commissioned by the defectors’ families in the North file a lawsuit, the court should determine whether those defectors voluntary defected or not. It is like conducting collective interrogation of the defectors in public before North Korea,” a South Korean government source said. “If so, we doubt whether any North Koreans will dare to defect to the South.” [Joongang Ilbo]

Thus, by establishing a right to interrogate these 12 young women and forcing them to reaffirm their asylum claims in public, Minbyun would effectively present them with a terrible choice: renounce their claims and be sent back to whatever fate awaits them in North Korea, or affirm their claims and further endanger their loved ones. That is why family members in the country of origin do not have a right to intervene in asylum proceedings. That is why any attempt to breach the confidentiality of asylum proceedings against the petitioner’s will is itself an abuse of the petitioners’ human rights, the legal process, and legal ethics.

The women opposed Minbyun’s petition and asked the court to deny it and let them stay in South Korea. They denied any interest in meeting with Minbyun and, citing a fear of “possible reprisals against their relatives in North Korea,” asked it to butt out. Eventually, they also filed a complaint with local prosecutors. As their lawyer, Park Young-sik, asked, “What’s going to happen [to] a defector’s family if the defector’s motivation and process of defection is revealed?” Park cited his clients’ fear that “their families’ lives [would] be threatened if they openly testify that they fled the North of their own free will,” and their fear of media exposure in a country where North Korean agents have repeatedly attempted to assassinate refugees in recent years.

Those fears have a firm basis. In some cases, Pyongyang’s agents in the South have been arrested for collecting information about refugees. In other cases, they have contacted refugees and used threats against their families to coerce them into returning to North Korea and giving press conferences claiming that they were abducted. I have written in detail about the North sending assassins to murder politically active refugees in the South. “In this situation,” Park argued, “forcing them to appear and testify in open court might seriously infringe [on] their human rights” — rights that are well recognized under international law.

When the judge denied Minbyun’s habeas petition, Minbyun demanded that the judge be replaced. The court refused, Minbyun appealed that decision, and an appellate court also refused to remove the judge.

[From the Ministry of Unification, via NK News]

Certainly in this case, Minbyun was “defending North Korea” with legally frivolous arguments, knowing that Pyongyang was using these terrified families as a cat’s paw. The motive for this is clear — the defection of the Ningpo 13 wasn’t just a tremendous embarrassment to Pyongyang, it’s a threat to the very stability of the regime. A group defection of a dozen vetted daughters of the Pyongyang elite is so unprecedented — so unthinkable — that it threatens to become a preference cascade by other members of the elite. It was followed by a smaller group defection from another restaurant, an astonishing mass protest by 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait, the defection of two other workers in Qatar, rumors of yet another group defection from China, a group defection of construction workers in Russia, and the defection of multiple North Korean diplomats including Thae Yong-ho. This, despite Pyongyang’s redoubling of the indoctrination of its overseas slaves and extra precautions to keep them under control.

On the other hand, at least one unconfirmed report claims that Minbyun’s habeas petition caused a senior North Korean defector to choose to flee to a third country instead of South Korea.

In its desperation to maintain the grip of terror over its people, Pyongyang’s last resort has long been to use their loved ones as hostages. What Pyongyang needs now, as if its survival depends on it, is stooges with briefcases who would discard all notions of legal ethics, human rights, or international law to terrorize other North Korean refugees away from South Korea. It looks to have found them. 

Perhaps the journalists who still refer to Minbyun as “liberal” and “human rights lawyers” have their own subjective definitions of those terms. From where I sit, you cease to be liberal when you use the law to bully and terrorize the defenseless and suppress free debate. You cease to stand for human rights when you make yourself an instrument of their violation. And in a just world, you would cease to be a lawyer when you use the courts to subvert the law and persecute the innocent. 

3 Comments

  1. Shhh… Joshua you’re interfering with “The Narrative” of the Western establishment which holds that Park Geun-hae is a “Daughter of a Dictator”TM and Korea’s leftists are fighting a repressive Yanqui puppet regime. Ahn Cgeol-soo wants to criminalize “cutting down or distorting,” Gwanju? How can this be? I never read Choe Sang-hun’s outrage about it in the New York Times! Those new South Korean history textbooks on the other hand….




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  2. Park Geun-hye’s conviction shows that authoritarianism is no longer a requirement for ROK society. Being proDPRK is a wrong. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Jongbuk types are too naive to see that the DPRK is not reformist. The DPRK is killing its own leaders relatives. Ha Tae-Kung has evolved even if Minbyun lawyers will never. History praises reformers although they often suffer from their contemporaries.




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  3. There is certainly some weird ‘legal-norm’ here. I was once advised against writing up a negative review of a product that I actually bought. I was told that I could be sued by the company for libel. Unbelievable…




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