‘Historical Distortions’ Tests South Korea’s Commitment to Freedom of Expression

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Seoul — In the history of South Korea’s struggle for democracy, the 1980 uprising in Gwangju stands out as one of the proudest moments. Thousands of ordinary citizens took to the streets to protest the military dictatorship, and hundreds were shot dead by security forces. The bloody incident is in the textbooks “Gwangju Democratization Movement.”

However, the far-right have offered an alternative, highly provocative view of what happened: they say Gwangju was not a heroic sacrifice for democracy, but a “revolt” instigated by North Korean communists who had infiltrated the protest movement.

Such conspiracy theories, which few historians take seriously, are spreading rapidly in South Korea, where the country has its roots in a painful and often painful and often painful political division. violent modern history – powered online.

President Moon Jae-in’s ruling party has passed a list of laws, some of which have already been enacted, aimed at dispelling false narratives about certain sensitive historical issues, including Gwangju. His supporters say he’s guarding the truth. Freedom of speech advocates and Mr. Moon’s conservative enemies accused the president of censorship and using history as a political weapon.

democracies around the world struggle to cope The corrosive effects of social media and disinformation on politics discuss where to draw the line or not. fake news and freedom of speech. In the United States and elsewhere, the debate focused on the power of social media companies, condemned by the left for spreading hatred and hatred. false conspiracy theories, and on the right Banning users like Donald J. Trump.

But few democratic countries have tried to control speech to the extent South Korea thinks, and a debate continues over whether efforts to suppress misinformation will lead to broader censorship or encourage authoritarian ambitions.

Jee Man-won, a leading proponent of the theory of North Korea’s involvement in Gwangju, said: “Whether I’m right should be decided through free public debate, which is the engine of democracy.” Instead, the government uses its power to dictate history,” he said.

Debates about which messages to allow and which to suppress often have to do with national history and identity. In the United States, debate continues about the impact of racism and slavery in the country’s past and present, and how to teach these subjects in school. Supporters of the new laws say they did what Germany did to attack the Holocaust denial lie.

South Korea has long been proud of its commitment to freedom of expression, but it is also a country. go against the mainstream can have drastic consequences.

Historical issues such as collaboration with the Japanese colonialists or civilian massacres during the war have divided the country for decades. defamation is a punishable offence. It promotes revisionist narratives about sensitive issues such as Gwangju or “Gwangju” under the laws put forward by Mr. Moon’s party.casual woman​“—Korean sex slaves for Japan’s WWII army—could also be a crime.

With the pressure on misinformation, Mr. Moon fulfills his campaign promise to give Gwangju its rightful place in history. But by criminalizing so-called “historical distortions”, it is also stepping into a political minefield.

The Korean Historical Society and 20 other historical research institutes issued a joint statement last month warning that Mr. Moon’s progressive government, which presents itself as an advocate of democratic values ​​secured through sacrifices like Gwangju, is actually undermining them by using the threat of crime. Penalties for dictating history.

one live Sponsored by Mr. Moon’s party, which went into effect in January, people who spread “false things” about Gwangju face up to five years in prison. The party’s deputies also invoice In May, it calls for up to 10 years in prison for anyone praising Japan’s colonial rule in Korea from 1910 to 1945.

The bill would create a panel of experts on “true history” to detect distortions in interpretations of sensitive historical issues and order corrections, including: killing of civilians During the Korean War and human rights abuses under past military dictators.

Still another invoice “denying” or “falsifying or falsifying facts” about an event much more recent than the party would be considered a crime, Sewol ferry sinking A disaster that killed hundreds of students in 2014 and humiliated the conservative government that was in power at the time. Conservative MPs, for themselves invoice North Korea to punish those who deny sinking last month South Korean navy ship in 2010.

“This is a populist approach to history that appeals to widespread anti-Japanese sentiments to consolidate their political power,” said Kim Jeong-in, president of the Korean Historical Society, referring to the Japanese colonial rule bill. “Who will study colonial-era history if the research results are tried in a court of law?”

Family members of the Gwangju protesters welcomed Mr. Moon’s attempts to punish disinformation providers who disparaged them.

“As if losing our brothers and parents wasn’t painful enough, he slanders us as stooges of North Korean agents,” said Cho Young-dae, nephew of Catholic priest Cho Pius in Gwangju. He testified years later about the uprising and the murders. “They abused freedom of expression to add insult to our wounds,” he said.

Mr. Cho, who is also a priest, said that while people like Mr. Jee spread false information about the massacre, survivors of Gwangju suffered for a very long time. “We need the South Korean version of the Holocaust law to punish those who beautify the Gwangju atrocities of European countries, because European countries have laws against it. Holocaust denial“said.

Recent polls have revealed that the biggest conflict dividing Korean society is between progressives and conservatives, both of whom are willing to manipulate and censor history and textbooks in their favor.

Conservative dictators once arrested, tortured and execution Opponents in the name of a National Security Act that makes it a crime to “praise, encourage or spread” any behavior that is pro-North Korean or sympathetic to communism.

Conservatives today want history to highlight the positive aspects of its heroes, such as South Korea’s authoritarian founding president Syngman Rhee and a military dictator Park Chung-hee, and their achievements in fighting communism and bringing the country back on its feet. Poverty after the Korean War.

Progressives often highlight the conservative dictatorship, such as the murders in Gwangju. They also condemn what they call “China” Pro-Japanese Koreans say cooperated they worked with colonial leaders and succeeded during the Cold War by renaming themselves as anti-communist crusaders.

Still, Mr. Jee says there are progressives who nurture communist views that threaten the country’s democratic values.

Much of this debate is conducted online, where some highly partisan podcasters and YouTubers have as many viewers as national television shows.

“Ideally, conspiracy theories and irrational ideas should be publicly rejected or marginalized,” said Park Sang-hoon, a political scientist at Political Power Plant, a Seoul-based civic group. But they have become part of the political agenda here,” he said. Mainstream media “helps them gain legitimacy,” he said.

During the Gwangju uprising, a handful of journalists managed to break through the military cordon around the city. They found mothers crying for the bodies of their loved ones. one “citizen army”, people on the pavements “Down with the dictatorship!” Protesters dug up a government building for their final and doomed stand against the military.

For many South Koreans, the protesters in Gwangju won. Students across the country followed in their footsteps and revolted against the junta.

Army general Chun Doo-hwan, who seized power in a military coup prior to the protests, blamed “brutal rebels” and “communist agitators” for the violence. In the late 1990s, he was convicted of rioting and rioting in connection with the coup and the murders in Gwangju. (Later pardoned.)

“Thanks to the sacrifice in Gwangju, our democracy can survive and survive,” said Mr. Moon, when he visited the city shortly after his election in 2017. overturned warned against “intolerable” attempts to “distort and disparage” his predecessor Park Geun-hye – the daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee – and the 1980 uprising.

However, Mr. Jee said the experience of voicing discordant historical views should be a warning to South Koreans. In 2002, a newspaper advertisement claimed that Gwangju was a covert North Korean operation.

He was then taken to Gwangju in handcuffs and sentenced to 100 days in prison on charges of slander, which was eventually suspended.

He has since published 10 books about Gwangju and has fought further defamation prosecutions. Although critics accused him of selling savage conspiracy theories, his opinion attracted a following.

“I wouldn’t have come this far if they hadn’t treated me the way they did in 2002,” he said.

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