Why North Korean tweets are off-limits in the South

Under the National Security Act, South Koreans can be sentenced for everything from re-tweeting North Korea's official Twitter account to reading northern propaganda.

Soeren Stache/AP/File
A smartphone display shows the Twitter logo in Berlin, Feb. 2, 2013.

On the 28th floor of Samsung’s headquarters here is a door marked “Restricted Access,” the warning emphasized by two slashing diagonal red lines. 

It does not guard the company’s plans for a next-generation smart phone, however, nor any other commercial secrets. Instead, the shelves and filing cabinets behind the door are filled with North Korean government work reports, recent editions of the ruling party’s daily newspaper, and other publications from Pyongyang

That is forbidden fruit to ordinary South Koreans, who are banned from reading them. Scholars at Samsung’s Economic Research Institute, which holds the small archive, need special clearance from South Korea’s intelligence agency to be able to consult the documents.

“And every night, I have to lock this room up,” says Dong Yong-sueng, a researcher at the institute.

South Korea’s National Security Act, a draconian law passed in 1948 that outlaws anything that might praise or promote North Korea, is a striking illustration of just how nervous this country is about its mysterious and threatening northern neighbor.

Some recent events underline the fears. Three weeks ago, for example, South Korean soldiers shot dead a man in civilian clothes who was trying to enter North Korea from the south. It was not clear why the man was trying to make the unusual journey north across the Imjin river.

Earlier this year a Seoul court sentenced a man to two years’ imprisonment because 18 years ago he made an unauthorized trip via China to North Korea and during his visit was known to have bowed to a statue of the hermit-state’s founder, Kim Il-sung.

The man then lived in Germany until he returned home last December, whereupon he was arrested for having violated the National Security Act. An appeals court last week acquitted him, ruled that the bow did not constitute a threat to South Korea’s national security.

Another appeals court last August came to the rescue of Park Jeong-geun, who had been given a 10 month prison term for re-tweeting material from North Korea’s official Twitter account. The court accepted Mr. Park’s argument that he had been lampooning the North Korean authorities; a lower court had found that he had been “supporting and joining forces with an anti-state entity.”

The last South Korean government, under hard-line President Lee Myeung-bak, made liberal use of the National Security Act; new cases under the law rose from 46 in 2008 to 90 in 2011, according to official figures. By the end of 2011 the authorities had closed 178 websites for posting “pro-North Korean” material.

It is unclear whether the new government led by Park Geun-hye, who became president in February, will pursue this approach, which earned criticism earlier this year from UN special rapporteur on human rights Margaret Sekaggya as a “seriously problematic” challenge to freedom of expression.

Just last week, Freedom House, a Washington-based watchdog, rated South Korea only “partly free” and 20th out of 60 countries in its Internet freedom report because of the way prosecutors have used the National Security Act to clamp down on online activities.

Security officials say Seoul has to keep its guard up against threats from the North, which is still technically at war with the South since the two have signed only a truce. Last month the police arrested a left wing member of parliament on charges he had plotted an armed rebellion to overthrow the South Korean government in the event of war with Pyongyang.

Young South Koreans scoff at the restrictions on their freedom of information, and laugh at suggestions that North Korea’s shrill propaganda would win anybody here over to its cause.

“These kinds of bans are the last thing that would keep South Korea safe from the North,” agrees Dr. Dong, who says the sort of newspapers and magazines he has to keep under lock and key are scarcely likely to foment Communist revolution in Seoul.

But he would be reluctant to see the law changed, he says. “The North Korea we are confronting is still stuck in a previous era,” he points out. “Times have changed, but perhaps we still need to defend ourselves in old fashioned ways because they are old fashioned.” 

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