The myth that people are safe from persecution for having a different thinking from that of the government must be broken. The crime of thought control is being committed in many countries around the world. And this crime exists not only in north Korea as many would have us believe but also in south Korea. This crime is committed through the National Security Law (NSL).
December 1, 1998 marks the 50th year of the National Security Law in south Korea. The NSL has its roots in the Japanese colonial period, modeled after the "Chian-yuji-bop" or Law on Public Order and Security, which was used by Japanese colonial authorities to suppress and punish Korean independence activists. With the division of Korea into north and south, the establishment of the south Korean government by Syng-man Rhee, and the resulting widespread communist hysteria from the Korean War, the NSL was used to imprison countless laborers, students, artists, writers and innocent citizens.
In stark contrast to the NSL is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). December also marks the 50th Anniversary of the UDHR. In articles 18 and 19, governments declare that "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion" and that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression." This declaration was written to reemphasize the basic rights of all people as human beings.
Fifty years after the enactment of the NSL, and in spite of the recent inauguration of the new 'human rights' president, who himself was imprisoned and sentenced to death under it, this law continues to exist. The human rights community around the world expected the abolishment of this law with the coming into power of Kim Dae-jung. Instead, the NSL has been used to arrest over 300 people since February in an alarming continuity of past practices.
The NSL provides that any organization that aspires to assume government power or overthrow the state is an "anti-state organization" (ASO) and subject to criminal prosecution. Under this definition, the government of north Korea is an ASO, as are arbitrarily designated human rights, labor, or reunification organizations. All members of an ASO are subject to prosecution under the NSL, and abetting, praising, or encouraging an ASO is also considered a criminal act. Under this vague definition, people who are in possession of books by Marx, Gramsci, Cummings, etc., can be sentenced to prison.
Writers, artists, students, and activists have been arrested almost daily for disagreeing with government policies. Innocent citizens with supposed 'knowledge of security crimes' are also imprisoned. In short, the NSL violates the freedoms of thought and opinion, the very cornerstones of a democratic society.
A recent NSL case in July 1998 is the "Youngnam Committee Case" in which 17 people were arrested for allegedly forming a branch of the north Korean labor party and taking orders from north Korea. The name of this so-called committee was changed 3 times during the course of the investigation, and other extreme irregularities have been found in the evidence and investigation process (illegal wiretapping for a period of over 4 years was used to produce questionable evidence). Authorities cited the participation of those arrested in a fundraising activity to send food to north Korea as evidence to back up their claim. This claim is ridiculous as this activity was held nationwide and participated by tens of thousands of south Korean citizens. In addition, fund-raising for north Korea is allowed and encouraged by the government.
Considering the lack of evidence to support the case, doubts have been raised as to the motive of the arrests. The individuals were arrested at a key point in the Hyundai Strike, which was in Ulsan city. All of those arrested were involved in civic groups in the Ulsan area, and played key roles in supporting and publicizing the strike.
An additional cause of concern is the arrest and filing of a case against Kim Chang-hyun, the head of the Ulsan City Eastern Division, and Chun Byung-tae, member of the national assembly from Ulsan City. Widespread appeals by human rights groups have been made to release on bail many of these individuals who are suffering from disease or sickness and are not receiving appropriate medical treatment. Their trials are currently underway.
The supreme irony of the existence of the NSL lies in the changing relationship between south and north due to the atmosphere of reconciliation set by President Kim Dae-jung under his widely touted "Sunshine Policy." Economic and artistic exchanges are supposedly encouraged, as can be seen by conclusion of the first Hyundai Mount Kumkang Tour, and recent visits by singers and performers to north Korea. Yet those from the human rights community who support reunification and exchanges continue to be suppressed and punished for their interest in north Korea. For this reason, it can only be concluded that only those who officially do not criticize the south Korean government policies are allowed to take an interest in north Korea.
On December 1, 1998, human rights activists in south Korea came together to call for the abolishment of the National Security Law in the country by holding a 'Funeral of the History of the NSL.' Joining these voices in support were those of human rights organizations around the world who have closely watched the progress of human rights in south Korea, particularly the actions of President Kim Dae-jung. The reason for the close interest is two-fold: his own personal history of persecution as a past opposition leader and expectations on his leadership in the Asia Pacific region, and the fact that the violation of human rights in the name of national security is not limited to Korea but includes other countries in this region.
In examining the justification of the existence of the NSL, one must make a clear distinction between a violent action that threatens the lives of the people of a nation, and thoughts that can be peacefully expressed under the right to freedom of thought and expression. This distinction is vital to distinguishing between a repressive dictatorial state and a democratic state. Difference of opinion should not be a crime. Differences and debates are catalysts for change and manifestations of a healthy society. Ignorance only breeds ignorance and hatred, and these are the very characteristics that should be targeted for abolishment in a truly democratic society.
Given the arbitrary application of the NSL to those who have disagreed with government policies, one must conclude that the main purpose of the NSL is not to ensure national security but rather the security of political power. A reexamination of laws based on people's security, which puts a country's citizens as the main focus of protection, would embody the true spirit of human rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
One cannot help but feel disappointment in the lack of concrete actions taken to realize human rights in south Korea, and the hundreds of people who have been arrested since the inauguration of the "Government of the People." For the approximately 450 political prisoners serving sentences in cold cells this winter, in particular Woo Yong-gak, who is currently serving his 40th year in prison in solitary confinement, we must ponder whether the current government is truly committed to human rights.
On the 50th year of the National Security Law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that will be decried and celebrated, respectively, we must rejoice about the commitment to realize human rights worldwide, and rightfully decry the lack of progress on this front in south Korea.