Goyang (South Korea) (AFP)
The provocative decision by a South Korean publisher to publish the memoir of the founder of the North, Kim Il Sung, has sparked a heated debate over Seoul’s decades-long ban on propaganda from Pyongyang under national security laws.
Critics of the measure claim southerners are politically mature enough to judge this material for themselves and argue it amounts to unnecessary censorship in a vibrant democracy that is one of the most wired and educated countries in the world.
But the South remains officially at war with its impoverished neighbor equipped with nuclear weapons, with legislation to match.
The National Security Law dates back to 1948, before the outbreak of the Korean War, and still prevents ordinary citizens from accessing most of the content produced by North Korea, including its official journal Rodong Sinmun.
Reproduction or possession of prohibited pro-Pyongyang materials is punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Despite this, publisher Kim Seung-kyun published the North Korean founder’s eight-volume memoir, “With the Century,” in April, telling AFP he had done so to promote inter-Korean reconciliation.
An anti-North civic group filed a criminal complaint, police opened an investigation, and within days major bookstores across the country – which had received it through a publishers association – pulled it from their shelves.
It briefly remained available online for 280,000 won ($ 250) for the full set, but last week it was no longer available on the popular Naver web portal, while searches on local book sales platforms Kyobo and Yes24 did not yield any results.
These measures sparked a debate about censorship and whether people really needed to be protected from reading Kim Il Sung’s words.
“South Koreans already have a high level of judgment,” said Ha Tae-keung, a lawmaker from the Conservative People’s Power Party – who was jailed under the National Security Act as a student activist.
“No one will be deceived by fantastic memories of Kim Il Sung anymore,” he told AFP. “We must now actively guarantee freedom of expression. “
– Personality cult –
Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of current northern leader Kim Jong Un, ruled the world’s most reclusive country for nearly five decades until his death in 1994, with a mix of his own brand of Stalinism and a shameless personality cult.
The memoir, first published by Pyongyang in 1992 and available in some 20 languages around the world, portrayed him as a heroic Korean guerrilla leader against Japanese colonial forces, often denying and downplaying his Chinese and Soviet relations.
Researchers largely describe it as a “work of fiction” with Soviet archival evidence refuting some of its main claims, but add that it has value regardless of historical inaccuracies.
Despite its “astounding prose,” the book revealed Pyongyang’s “propensity for lies” and “personality cult”, said Sung-yoon Lee, professor of Korean studies at Tufts University in the United States.
Suzy Kim, professor of Korean history at Rutgers University, said she demonstrated how the Pyongyang regime “derives its legitimacy from its anti-colonial roots.”
To date, she added, many challenges in the North are “often justified as sacrifices made to resist the continued imperialist policies imposed by the Japanese and US governments.”
– Democracy and war –
The National Security Act technically makes simple possession of pro-North material punishable by up to seven years in prison – while visiting the country without government permission carries a maximum penalty of 10 years.
The United Nations has said the law poses a “seriously problematic” challenge to free speech in the South, and the US State Department regularly criticizes it in its annual human rights reports.
Thousands of people have been jailed under the law by the authoritarian military governments that have ruled the South for decades, often accused of engaging in pro-Pyongyang activities or spying for the North.
Editor Kim – who originally obtained the text several years ago for government-authorized restricted distribution to research institutes – has said he has no intention of benefiting Pyongyang.
The publication of the text was “a way of loving my country” by promoting inter-Korean understanding, the 82-year-old told AFP at his home in Goyang.
“If it is considered a crime, I am ready to be punished. “
Police confirmed to AFP that their investigation into whether Kim violated the national security law was continuing.
New Paradigm of Korea, the group that filed the complaint, insisted the general public was susceptible to “manipulating totalitarian propaganda.”
Authorizing the distribution of the book would be “comparable to handing over a nuclear bag to the enemy on a spiritual level,” he added.
But Professor Lee said, “Let the publisher and the consumer act freely and let the market, including the market for ideas, determine the fate of the book.
“Freedom of speech, even false and scandalous speech that embellishes the contemptible, should be protected in a true democracy. “
© 2021 AFP