SOUTH KOREA: Rising attacks on rights defenders under the National Security Act 

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) wishes to strongly protest against the search and seizure of seven places including the offices of several rights group and of houses belonging to their staff by National Intelligence Service (NIS) on February 9, 2012 under the National Security Act (NSA) and is concerned with the increase in legal actions taken against rights defenders in South Korea.

According to the media, one organisation called ‘Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea’ was particularly targeted due to its aim for the signature of a peace treaty, the closure of US army in Korean Peninsula and against military drills. It is also reported that the NIS considers those aims as being a violation of the NSA.

The most important question here is to understand why the organisation is being targeted now although it was established in 1994 and has been pursuing such goals since then. According to the media, recently this organisation has been involved in the campaign against the construction of a naval base in Gangjeong village in Jeju Island. The police, the military and many private guards have been dispatched to the island to protect the construction of the naval base following protests. The protests continue and legal actions have been taken against more than one hundred villagers and activists there.

It is understood that the organisation’s aims are not the main reason for taking legal action against it, but that it is instead its recent campaigns against the construction of a naval base in Gangjeong village which made it the target of the NSI.

The AHRC has obtained and analysed similar cases in the past and it is necessary to look into those experiences to understand the current situation. In 2008, during a nation-wide candle light protest, in a clear misunderstanding of the reasons of the protest, the President ordered an investigation to identify its leaders. The law enforcement agencies then targeted rights groups as well as individuals who seemed to have led a group of protesters with legal action. Despite heavy criticism against this legal action taken against peaceful demonstrators, the legal proceedings went on and the court later acquitted and freed the accused. Nevertheless, the legal action had the effect of bringing the demonstrations to an end. The very motive behind taking legal action against those organisations is to create a division between the rights groups and the public and to increase fear of legal action among them.

Another motive is to tame the public so that it refrains from participating in the diversity of opinions in the society by provocation. When a Korean submarine exploded in the West Sea in 2010, an official investigation report into the cause of explosion was made public but several experts rose doubts about its findings.. One NGO submitted a different version of the report to the UN Security Council.. Government officials then repeatedly criticised this NGO through broadcasting. This instigated and provoked a group of people to protest in front of the NGO which turned into a physical attack against its staff.

Interestingly, previous similar cases show that the majority of charges brought against rights defenders have been brought under the Act on Assembly and Demonstration and the Criminal Act. In addition, the NSA is increasingly used to target human rights defenders. The case of Wangjaesan currently pending before the court since August 2011 and of Mr. Park Jeong-gun who is currently detained under the Act for tweeting about Kim Jong-il, former leader of North Korea in January 2012 are indicative.

Why has the NSA been growingly used? It is not because of national security concerns but because it is one of the laws whose ambiguity allows the most arbitrary application.. It is a verified fact that the Act had been misused for a long time by the military government to restrict the freedom of opinion and expression as well as to influence both general and presidential elections by releasing such cases prior to the Election Day.

Then, why is the NSA used against the rights organisation at this moment? As analysed above, there is a strong belief that the government’s legal action is being taken to erode the solidarity between the groups campaigning against the naval base and the villagers in Gangjeong village in Jeju Island as well as to give a warning of impeding national security threat to the people before the upcoming general election, scheduled to be held in April this year. Considering this, the legal action taken under the NSA against the rights groups simply demonstrates the government’s strategy to kill two birds with one stone.

Bearing in mind that the National Assembly decided in December 2011 to cut by almost 96 percent the budget of the ministry of national defence allocated to the construction of naval base in Jeju Island, it is extremely likely that taking against under the NSA against the organisations is nothing else than a punitive action by the government.

Recalling the government’s pledges on the strict application of the Act at the international level, the AHRC strongly condemns the legal action against the rights group and urges the NIS to refrain from any further actions. If the NSI fails to do so, it will only demonstrate that the government’s pledges are a facade and legal proceedings without legitimacy will not only victimise more people but also justify the abolition of the National Security Act which is utmost reasonable things to do in order to prevent further victimisation under the Act.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-027-2012
Countries : South Korea,
Issues : Freedom of expression, Human rights defenders,