Our timing is not great. We have been pointing out that freedom of expression in South Korea has been challenged at the margins over the last decade or so. Among the culprits: the continued criminalization of defamation; overly strict political campaign laws; a surprising uptick in censoring of internet content; ongoing state control of the media, and the conflicts of interest that result; and an anachronistic National Security Law. (Our initial posts on the topic can be found here and here; some more supporting data on indictments for criminal defamation and violation of campaign laws can be found here.) On top of that, we have the amazing case of the NIS scandal, which the Park administration has artfully dodged (or more actually stonewalled through the ability of her Saenuri colleagues in the legislature to render the National Assembly investigation toothless).
And now we have the even more remarkable case of UPP legislator Lee Seok-ki; if you have not followed it, Choe Sang-Hun provides his typically-pithy introductions at the New York Times here and here. But here are the basics. Presumably acting on a tip, the National Intelligence Service raided the homes and offices of ten or so officials of the Unified Progressive Party, a small left-wing party that won seven district seats in the 2012 National Assembly elections and was given five more national list (proportional representation) seats. The investigation team found tape recordings of Lee Seok-ki, one of the party’s national list members, addressing a meeting of over 100 party stalwarts and members of the left-wing East Gyeonggi Coalition in Suwon in May. On the tape, Lee or one of his followers appear to urge a grouping called the Revolutionary Organization (RO) to conduct a “speedy war” against the South Korean government should Pyongyang attack; someone vetted the idea of attacking telecomm and oil storage facilities.
Our first reaction was “you have to be kidding me.” It looked like a perfect deflection from the problems the NIS itself is facing, a witch hunt that confirmed our priors. But the UPP is not denying the authenticity of the tape or the fact that the meeting had taken place nor even that these issues had come up. Lee Jung-hee, the UPP leader, rather claimed that it wasn’t Lee Seok-ki that said it, that only two members had vetted these ideas, and that it was a joke. Calling the arrest a “medieval witch hunt,” Lee Jung-hee resorted to precisely the hyperbole that is now going to consign the UPP to the dustbin of history: “approving the arrest,” she said, “is the same as the summary executions carried out during the Korean War.” What?
If this was a joke, no one was laughing. Colleagues in South Korea who have looked at the transcripts which have been released say that it is not pretty (The Marmot’s Hole provides links and some commentary). Lee Seok-ki at least encouraged the participants at the meeting to discuss how to respond to a coming war and some members of the group talked seriously about taking up arms and targeting vulnerable facilities. The transcript makes clear that the loyalty of the group was to the DPRK and the US and ROK governments were the enemy. Lee Seok-ki appears to admire juche ideology and the Kim family regime, an intellectual route followed by his predecessors in the “NL juche” faction of the student movement during the Park-Chun dictatorship.
It is not just the beliefs of Lee and the group; it is the complete tin ear with respect to public opinion in Korea. North Korean behavior during the spring garnered little sympathy in the South. The idea of a fifth column in the country is exactly the kind of nonsense that stokes the fantasies of the North Korean leadership. The UPP has taken absolutely no responsibility for the matter, blaming it all on an over-reaching NIS.
Members of the mainstream left opposition in the Democratic Party either seized on the issue to get rid of the UPP annoyance on their left or were forced to join the National Assembly majority by the outrageousness of the discussion on the tape; Lee Seok-ki’s parliamentary immunity was lifted by an overwhelming majority of the National Assembly with both Saenuri and DP party members voting unanimously (Hankyoreh has a good editorial on the politics), clearing the way for his arrest. The UPP found itself without friends.
Lee will be indicted on three charges, all basically sedition: conspiring to stage a revolt; plotting to disrupt South Korean systems, including key infrastructure; and creating an organization–the RO–benefiting North Korea. Lee’s fate will be decided by the courts and the UPP’s team of lawyers. But the fate of the UPP is pretty clear: if the party is not forced to disband altogether it is not likely to see the light of election day next time around; this is not the kind of scandal from which you recover.
What are the larger lessons? Not all point to the blinders of the UPP. The NIS investigation of the case and presentation of evidence certainly deserves a skeptical eye given their involvement in political shenanigans in the recent past. The response of the National Assembly appeared to try and convict Lee in advance of a trial. But the deeper question is how has South Korea gotten so polarized on this issue. How can the political ecosystem support parties of this sort? What effect will this have on the wider debate that needs to happen around the National Security Law and other restraints on freedom of expression? Pointing the finger at Lee Seok-ki and the UPP may feel good; we all like to be outraged and in this case with reason. But something is rotten here; the Lee Seok-ki case is not a good sign of the health of democratic politics in Korea.