“We need to preserve social order,” said Han Myeong-ho, an executive manager at South Korea’s Internet watchdog commission.
For South Koreans, 80 percent of whom use high-speed Internet, government meddling has long been a part of Web surfing: Anybody here who tries to visit an official Pyongyang Web site, for instance, will be redirected to a warning message, explaining that the site is blocked by government regulations.
But in several recent cases, critics say, South Korea has gone too far, cracking down on speech that wouldn’t draw attention in most democracies.
This week, South Korea’s Supreme Court upheld a ruling against one of the country’s most popular political commentators, who co-hosts a podcast that criticizes President Lee Myung-bak. The court said Chung Bong-ju, 51, was guilty of spreading rumors about Lee’s connection to an alleged stock fraud. Chung faces a one-year jail term.
“In America, it’s almost impossible to prove defamation against a public figure,” Chung said in an recent interview, before the Supreme Court determined his case. “Here it’s easy. . . . When people open their mouths now, they are regulated.”
The Internet watchdog
Largely, the conservative South Korea tightened regulations by using existing laws — ones that previous administrations found little use for — in more heavy-handed ways.
South Korea’s Internet watchdog, the Korea Communications Standards Commission, was created in 2008, empowered to patrol the Web for obscenity, defamation and anything that threatens national security. It’s technically an independent organization, but its nine members are appointed by the president.
One U.N. official, after a trip to South Korea in May 2010, said the KCSC “essentially operates as a censorship body.”
The KCSC doesn’t directly carry out the blocks, but its recommendations are almost never rejected; Internet service providers face large fines if they don’t comply, and message board operators can be jailed.
Three years ago, South Korea blocked some 2,000 Web sites on the grounds they threatened national security; it now blocks more than 80,000.
Just weeks ago, the KCSC created a team to monitor social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. After Kim’s death, some South Korean Web users posted tweets wondering whether they’d be punished for expressing condolences. The Justice Ministry said such messages would not violate the law.
No room for mockery
South Korea has become particularly sensitive about criticism of its politicians, as shown in the case of Song Jin-yong, 41, a financial worker in Seoul. In June 2010, Song created a Twitter account that he used almost exclusively to ridicule the president. The account’s name was part of the attack: It coupled Lee’s nickname (“2MB”) with a sound-alike reference to a common Korean curse word.