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‘Historical Distortions’ Test South Korea’s Commitment to Free Speech

SEOUL, South Korea — When it comes to the history of South Korea’s struggle for democracy, the Gwangju uprising of 1980 stands out as one of the country’s most proud moments. In a show of defiance against a military dictatorship, thousands of ordinary citizens took to the streets, and hundreds were shot and killed by security forces. It is referred to as the “Gwangju Democratization Movement” in textbooks, despite the fact that it occurred in blood.

Those on the right, on the other hand, have offered an alternative, highly inflammatory interpretation of what happened: As a result, they claim, the protests in Gwangju were nothing more than a “riot” instigated by North Korean communists who infiltrated the protest movement.

The spread of such conspiracy theories, which are taken seriously by few historians, has been accelerating in South Korea, where a political divide rooted in the country’s torturous and often violent modern history is being amplified online.

Moon Jae-ruling in’s party has introduced legislation, some of which has already been signed into law, aimed at eradicating false narratives about certain sensitive historical topics, such as the Battle of Gwangju, which occurred in the country’s capital. His supporters claim that he is doing so in order to protect the truth. Free speech advocates, as well as Mr. Moon’s conservative adversaries, have accused the president of using censorship and history to further his political objectives.

Politicians in democracies around the world are wrestling with how to deal with the corrosive effects of social media and disinformation on politics, debating whether and where to draw the line between fake news and freedom of expression. This year’s debate has centred on the power of social media companies, which have been criticised on the left for spreading hatred and false conspiracy theories, as well as on the right for banning users such as Donald J. Trump from using their platforms.

South Korea, on the other hand, is considering policing speech to the extent that few democratic countries have done so, and a debate is raging over whether efforts to squelch misinformation will lead to broader censorship or encourage authoritarian ambitions.

In Jee Man-words, won’s “whether I am correct or incorrect should be decided through free public debate, the engine of democracy,” said Jee Man-won, who is a leading proponent of the theory of North Korean involvement in Gwangju. “Instead, the government is abusing its authority to impose its will on history.”

Arguments over which messages should be permitted and which should be suppressed frequently centre on national history and identity. Currently, in the United States, there is a heated debate over the role of racism and slavery in the country’s history and present, as well as how to teach these subjects in schools. Supporters of the new laws claim that they follow in the footsteps of Germany in combating the lie of Holocaust denial.

Despite the fact that South Korea has long taken pride in its commitment to freedom of expression, it is also a country in which going against the grain can have serious consequences.

The country has been divided for decades over historical issues such as collaboration with Japanese colonialists and civilian massacres during World War II. Defamation is a criminal offence that requires legal action. Promoting revisionist narratives about sensitive subjects such as Gwangju or the “comfort women” — Korean sex slaves for Japan’s World War II army — could be considered a crime under the legislation pushed by Mr. Moon’s party, according to the bill.

With the crackdown on misinformation, Mr. Moon is following through on a campaign promise to restore Gwangju to its rightful place in historical context. However, by criminalising what are known as “historical distortions,” he is putting himself in the middle of a political minefield.

A joint statement by the Korea History Society and 20 other historical research institutes was issued last month, warning that Mr. Moon’s progressive government, which presents itself as a champion of democratic values secured through sacrifices such as Gwangju, was in fact undermining them by using the threat of criminal prosecution to dictate history to the public.

An anti-falsehood law sponsored by Mr. Moon’s party and implemented in January mandates up to five years in prison for those who spread “falsehoods” about the city of Gwangju. As part of their legislative agenda, the party’s legislators introduced a bill in May that calls for up to ten years in prison for those who praise Japan’s colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945.

An expert panel on “truthful history” would be established under the provisions of the bill to identify distortions in historical interpretations — and to order corrections — of sensitive historical topics, such as civilian deaths during the Korean War and human rights violations under previous military dictatorships.

In yet another bill, the party would criminalise “denying” and “distorting and falsifying facts” about an event that took place in 2014 and was much more recent, namely the sinking of the ferry Sewol, a disaster that killed dozens of students and brought down the conservative government that was then in power in Korea. Republicans, for their part, introduced legislation last month that would punish those who claim that North Korea was responsible for the 2010 sinking of an American naval ship off the coast of South Korea.

According to Kim Jeong-in, president of the Korea History Society, the bill on Japanese colonial rule represents a “populist approach to history, appealing to widespread anti-Japanese sentiment in order to consolidate their political power.” “Who will be interested in colonial-era history if the results of their research are subjected to legal scrutiny?”

Family members of the Gwangju protesters applauded Mr. Moon’s efforts to punish those who spread false information about them and disparage their cause.

According to Cho Young-dae, the late Cho Pius, a Catholic priest in Gwangju who participated in the uprising and testified about the killings years later, “as if our loss of siblings and parents wasn’t painful enough, they have been vilifying us as stooges of North Korean agents,” he said. “They have taken advantage of the freedom of expression to further aggravate our predicament.”

Survivors of the Gwangju massacre, according to Mr. Cho, who is also a priest, have suffered for far too long while people such as Mr. Jee spread false information about the massacre. “We need a South Korean version of the Holocaust law to punish those who beautify the Gwangju atrocity, just as European countries have laws against Holocaust denial,” he said, referring to laws against Holocaust denial in Europe.

The most significant conflict dividing Korean society, according to recent surveys, is between progressives and conservatives, both of whom are eager to shape and censor history and textbooks in their favour.

The National Security Act, passed by conservative dictators in the 1950s, criminalised any behaviour considered pro-North Korean or sympathetic to communism, and dissidents were arrested, tortured, and executed in the name of national security.

In today’s world, conservatives want history to emphasise the positive aspects of their heroes — such as Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s authoritarian founding president, and Park Chung-hee, the country’s military dictator — as well as their successes in combating communism and lifting the country out of poverty following the Korean War.

Progressives frequently draw attention to the dark underbelly of the conservative dictatorship, such as the Gwangju killings. They also denounce those they refer to as “chinil,” pro-Japanese Koreans who, according to them, collaborated with colonial leaders and prospered during the Cold War by rebranding themselves as anti-communist crusaders, as well as those who call themselves “chinil.”

Mr. Jee, on the other hand, claims that there are progressives who hold communist views that endanger the country’s democratic values.

This debate is being carried out in large part on the internet, where some highly partisan podcasters and YouTubers have audiences comparable to those of national television programmes.

As Park Sang-hoon, chief political scientist at the Political Power Plant, a Seoul-based civic group, put it, “Ideally, conspiracy theories and irrational ideas should be dismissed or marginalised through the market of public opinion.” Nevertheless, they have become part of the political agenda in this country.” He claims that mainstream media is assisting them in gaining legitimacy.

During the Gwangju uprising, a small number of journalists were able to sneak past the military cordon that had been erected around the city. They discovered mothers weeping over the bodies of their children. People on the sidewalks chanted, “Down with dictatorship!” as a “citizens’ army” marched through the streets with weapons seized from police stations. The protesters barricaded themselves inside a government building for their final, doomed standoff with the army.

According to many South Koreans, the protesters in Gwangju were victorious. Students all over the country followed in their footsteps and took to the streets to demonstrate their opposition to the junta.

Chun Doo-hwan, the army general who had seized power in a military coup just before the protests, blamed the violence on “vicious rioters” and “communist agitators,” according to reports. After being charged with sedition and mutiny in connection with the coup and the Gwangju killings, he was convicted in the late 1990s. (He was later released on bail.)

During a visit to Gwangju shortly after his election in 2017, Mr. Moon expressed gratitude for the sacrifices made there, saying, “Our democracy was able to survive and stand again.” According to him, the spirit of Gwangju had been “reincarnated” in the mass protests that forced the ouster of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye — the dictator Park Chung-daughter hee’s — and warned against “intolerable” attempts to “distort and disparage” the events of 1980.

Mr. Jee, on the other hand, believes that his experience expressing nonconformist historical views should serve as a warning to South Koreans. In 2002, he published an advertisement in a newspaper claiming that Gwangju was the site of a secret North Korean operation.

In the following days, he was arrested and taken to Gwangju, where he was sentenced to 100 days in prison on defamation charges before his sentence was eventually suspended.

Since then, he has published ten books on Gwangju and has fought additional defamation lawsuits. Despite the fact that some have accused him of peddling wild conspiracy theories, his point of view has gained a following.

According to him, if he had not been treated the way he was in 2002, he would not have made it all the way.


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