In the run-up to the 2012 December presidential election, the Psychological Operations Division of the National Intelligence Service (formerly the KCIA) ran a two year smear campaign against the opposition presidential candidates involving 22 million Twitter posts (30% of posts in Korea) generated from 2,653 fake accounts. Further investigation revealed that the Ministry of National Defense’s Cyber Command and the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs also intervened in the elections via the internet by promoting Park Geun Hye and smearing her opposition. In Korea, the internet is a powerful tool in shaping public consciousness. In 2008, mass protests spontaneously erupted against US “mad cow” beef imports sparked and then mobilized by netizens through internet bulletin boards.
Yet, even after such clear meddling in elections by government agencies, investigation and prosecution has been obstructed and derailed by the Park Administration: one prosecutor (under surveillance by administration officials) was pressured to resign after a personal scandal was leaked to the media; another was removed; and only a portion of the evidence (the known Twitter posts) is under investigation. When public pressure against the slow progress of the investigation intensified, the NIS countered through various media stunts; chief among them were its investigation for armed insurrection against National Assembly Member Lee Seokki and the disbandment of the Unified Progressive Party.
Why Lee Seokki?
Lee Seokki is a member of the National Assembly for the Unified Progressive Party (UPP) – the party which was most critical of Park GeunHye in the 2012 presidential elections. Lee Seokki came into national attention after allegations of voter irregularities during the UPP internal elections for proportional representatives. Korea’s national legislature has a proportional representative system in which a portion of the 300 seats are allotted to political parties based on the number of votes they receive as a party. The candidates for these positions are ranked by the party. If a party wins 1 proportional representative seat then the first ranked candidate becomes proportional representatives; if it wins 2, then the first 2 candidates; if 3, then the first 3; and so on. The political parties have the freedom to decide how to fill these seats. Unlike the Saenuri and United Democratic Party who appoint their candidates, the Unified Progressive Party ran an internal election by which party members nominated and voted for the candidates to determine their ranking. Allegations arose of irregularities in these elections. When they became public on May 3 2012, the scandal dealt a heavy blow to the UPP, and as the leading progressive party, it also dealt a blow to the progressive movement.
Within the backdrop of intensifying public pressure against the NIS and a weakened progressive movement, Lee Seokki and the Unified Progressive Party became easy targets for political repression. On August 28 2013, NIS agents raided the home of Lee Seokki. Their investigation for armed insurrection made national headlines. A month prior to the raid, the NIS had been investigating Lee Seokki for the lesser violation of the National Security Law, yet at the time of the raid, the charges had been changed to armed insurrection. The contents of Lee Seokki’s discussion with others shocked the public. On September 4 2013, without a hearing, baited by the conservative Saenuri Party against the backdrop of a charged public, the National Assembly passed a bill stripping Lee Seokki of the immunity granted to National Assembly members. On February 17 2014, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for conspiring to carry out an insurrection even as the court acknowledged that the discussion between Lee Seokki and others had not progressed to a detailed plan.
With the internal election scandal and the armed insurrection among its members, the Unified Progressive Party has become an easy target for the Park Administration’s political witch-hunt. The Park Administration is attempting to legally dissolve the UPP because its principles and objectives “are in line with North Korean-style socialism, which goes against the basic rules of free democracy.” In short, the Park Administration is fanning the public’s fears and anxiety to dissolve the UPP for its political beliefs. The last time a political party was disbanded was in 1958. If repeated, it would topple the freedom of expression and the right to collective action essential for democracy. It would deal an existential blow to opposition parties by eliminating one of the Park Administration’s most vociferous critics.
The Conservative Trump Card
Red-baiting and the threat from the north have been used ever since the Korean Peninsula was divided into North and South. During the dictatorships, civilian and military, from the 1950s to 90s, the division and state of war justified repression of all dissent. Workers, students, peasants, and countless others were jailed, tortured, killed, or terrorized under the banner of national security. In many instances those executed were later found innocent. The most flagrant example is the 1975 execution by Park Chung Hee (Korea’s longest running dictator) of eight people accused of organizing a People’s Revolutionary Party and convicted of insurrection less than 24 hours after their appeal was rejected. In 2007, they were posthumously exonerated, and it was revealed that the “People’s Revolutionary Party” was a fabrication of the KCIA. In 1980, national security was used to invoke martial law by Chun Doo Hwan. It squashed the nascent democratic spring following the assassination of Park Chung Hee. Chun Doo Hwan then killed thousands of protestors demanding democracy in Gwangju and sentenced Kim Dae Jung (the opposition party leader from the Jeolla region and later the first opposition party member elected president) to death for sedition. It would be 18 years before an opposition party candidate would topple the ruling one.
Even after dictatorship ended with direct presidential elections in 1988, the National Security Law (NSL) remained which criminalized “any person who praises, incites or propagates the activities of an anti-government organization.” It has been used to disband organizations, incarcerate activists and intellectuals, shut down websites, censor, and instill fear. Like McCarthyism in the United States, it limits political discourse by narrowing the political spectrum in favor of conservatives. Even during the period of greatest engagement with North Korea, Presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun could not abolish the National Security Law: it was too deeply rooted in the trauma of a generation that survived the Korean and Cold War, and a population still living in an unresolved war. The National Security Law is a symbol not only of the unresolved Korean War, but also of the unrealized Korean democratization.
Peace is the Way
If the division is so detrimental to Korean society, why does it remain? Why has peace been elusive for so long? It is because war justifies US presence in Korea and consolidates and mobilizes the conservative political base. Even during moments of improved inter-Korean relations with the continuance of reunions for separated families in North and South Korea, policies and actions remain that aggravate the division and impede the path to peace. Key is the annual US-South Korea military war exercises which practice the infiltration and occupation of North Korea. No meaningful dialogue for peace between North Korea, South Korea, and the US can occur when these existential threats to North Korea continue.
Next year will be seventy years since the Korean people were divided by the United States. This earns it the World Guinness Record for longest running division in the world. Next year, women from around the world will march for peace in the Korean Peninsula. The rest of the world needs to join them for the unresolved trauma, the unrealized democracy, and peace and stability in East Asia and the world.