(Original story on the New York Times here.)
In Germany, it is illegal to deny the Holocaust. In Thailand, it is considered lese-majeste (and a very serious crime) to insult the king. In the United States, it is a felony to threaten the President. In Singapore, it is an act of sedition to make a racist remark. And in South Korea, it is against the law to perform acts that benefit North Korea.
The point is that while every individual has the right to freedom of speech, that right is restricted in different ways through different laws in different jurisdictions. Know what they are before you say anything that may get you into trouble.
South Korean Indicted Over Twitter Posts From North
Published: February 2, 2012
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean prosecutors indicted a social media and freedom-of-speech activist this week for reposting messages from the North Korean government’s Twitter account.
Park Jung-geun, 23, a photographer who specialized in taking pictures of babies, was detained last month on charges of violating South Korea’s controversial National Security Law, which bans “acts that benefit the enemy” —North Korea — but does not clearly define what constitutes such acts. The Twitter account Mr. Park was accused of reposting is run by the North Korean government Web site, Uriminzokkiri.com, which South Korean news media regularly cite for their reports.
Mr. Park was indicted on Tuesday.
“This is not a national security case; it’s a sad case of the South Korean authorities’ complete failure to understand sarcasm,” Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific director of the human rights group Amnesty International, said in a statement on Thursday. “Imprisoning anyone for peaceful expression of their opinions violates international law but in this case, the charges against Park are simply ludicrous and should be dropped immediately.”
Detectives raided Mr. Park’s photo studio in eastern Seoul in the fall. They later interrogated him several times for resending such North Korean propaganda postings as “Long Live Kim Jong-il!” Mr. Kim, the longtime North Korean dictator, died Dec. 17, leaving the leadership of his socialist dynasty to his third son, Kim Jong-un.
In his Twitter postings, Mr. Park compared himself to “The Young General,” the North Korean term for Kim Jong-un, because he inherited his photo studio from his father. He also posted Web links to North Korean propaganda songs. In a North Korean poster that he altered and uploaded on Twitter, he replaced a swarthy North Korean soldier’s face with a downcast version of his own and the soldier’s rifle with a bottle of whisky.
In an interview in December, Mr. Park said his Twitter posts were meant to lampoon the North Korean regime. Mr. Park, a member of the Korean Socialist Party, said he supported its platform, which criticized the Pyongyang government’s human rights policy and its hereditary transfer of power.
“It was humiliating and ludicrous to have to wear a straight face and explain all my jokes to the detectives,” said Mr. Park, who faces up to seven years in jail if convicted.
Prosecutors charged that joke or no joke, Mr. Park’s Twitter account served as a tool to spread North Korean propaganda.
Rights advocates here say that the government of President Lee Myung-bak, as the past military dictators did, was selectively using the National Security Law to create a “chilling effect” among those critical of its policies.
The government denies the accusation. But since Mr. Lee’s conservative administration took power in 2008, the law has regained some of its past force. In 2010, 151 people were interrogated on suspicion of violating the law, up from 39 in 2007. The number of people prosecuted on charges of pro-North Korean online activities increased to 82 in 2010 from five in 2008, according to government data submitted to lawmakers. During the first 10 months of 2011, the police deleted 67,300 Web posts they believed threatened national security by “praising North Korea and denouncing the U.S. and the government,” a sharp rise from 14,430 posts in 2009.
South Korea’s military dictators had applied the National Security Law not only to prosecute spies but also to persecute political dissidents. Torture and unfair trials were commonplace. Some people even were executed in cases built upon forced confessions.
“Despite the end of military rule in South Korea, authorities — especially the police, the prosecution and the National Intelligence Service — continue to use the N.S.L. as a tool to suppress dissent, and in particular critics of the government’s policies towards North Korea,” the Amnesty International statement said.
The United Nations and human rights groups have for years called on South Korea to repeal or revise the law. South Korea still blocks its citizens’ access to North Korean Web sites, though North Korea has recently gone around the firewalls by using Twitter accounts. The South’s policy has left the delivery and interpretation of North Korean announcements in the hands of a relatively small group of officials and journalists with special access to North Korean media.