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

SEOUL — In the historical past of South Korea’s battle for democracy, the 1980 rebellion in Gwangju stands out as one of many proudest moments. Thousands of peculiar residents took to the streets to protest a navy dictatorship, and a whole lot have been shot down by safety forces. The bloody incident has been sanctified in textbooks because the “Gwangju Democratization Movement.”

Right-wing extremists, nonetheless, have provided an alternate, extremely inflammatory view of what occurred: Gwangju, they are saying, was not a heroic sacrifice for democracy, however a “riot” instigated by North Korean communists who had infiltrated the protest motion.

Such conspiracy theories, which few historians take significantly, have been spreading rapidly in South Korea, the place a political divide — rooted within the nation’s torturous and infrequently violent trendy historical past — is being amplified on-line.

President Moon Jae-in’s governing get together has rolled out a slate of laws, a few of which has already develop into legislation, geared toward stamping out false narratives about sure delicate historic subjects, together with Gwangju. His supporters say he’s defending the reality. Free speech advocates, and Mr. Moon’s conservative enemies, have accused the president of utilizing censorship and historical past as political weapons.

Democracies all over the world are struggling to cope with the corrosive results of social media and disinformation on politics, debating whether or not and the place to draw strains between faux information and free speech. In the United States and elsewhere, the controversy has centered on the ability of social media firms, castigated on the left for spreading hatred and false conspiracy theories, and on the appropriate for banning customers like Donald J. Trump.

But few democratic international locations have sought to police speech to the extent that South Korea is contemplating, and a debate is underway about whether or not the efforts to squelch misinformation will lead to broader censorship or encourage authoritarian ambitions.

“Whether I am right or wrong should be decided through free public debate, the engine of democracy,” stated Jee Man-won, a number one proponent of the idea of North Korean involvement in Gwangju. “Instead, the government is using its power to dictate history.”

The nationwide cemetery in Gwangju.  The 1980 rebellion was a milestone in South Koreans’ battle for democracy.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Arguments over which messages to permit and which to suppress are sometimes about nationwide historical past and id. In the United States, debates rage concerning the affect of racism and slavery within the nation’s previous and current, and about how to educate these subjects at school. Supporters of the brand new legal guidelines say they do what Germany has carried out in attacking the lie of Holocaust denial.

South Korea has lengthy prided itself on its dedication to free speech, however additionally it is a rustic the place going in opposition to the mainstream can have steep penalties.

Historical points, like collaboration with Japanese colonialists or wartime civilian massacres, have divided the nation for many years. Defamation is a prison offense. Under the payments pushed by Mr. Moon’s get together, selling revisionist narratives about delicate topics like Gwangju or the “comfort women​” — Korean intercourse slaves for Japan’s World War II military — may be against the law.

With the crackdown on misinformation, Mr. Moon resides up to a marketing campaign promise to give Gwangju its rightful place in historical past. But by criminalizing so-called “historical distortions,” he’s additionally stepping right into a political minefield.

The Korea History Society and 20 different historic analysis institutes issued a joint assertion final month warning that Mr. Moon’s progressive authorities, which presents itself as a champion of the democratic values secured by means of sacrifices like Gwangju, was truly undermining them by utilizing the specter of prison penalties to dictate historical past.

Paratroopers beating protesters in Gwangju in May 1980. Hundreds have been killed by the safety forces.Credit…Associated Press

A legislation sponsored by Mr. Moon’s get together, which took impact in January, mandates up to 5 years in jail for individuals who unfold “falsehoods” about Gwangju. The get together’s lawmakers additionally submitted a invoice in May that requires up to 10 years in jail for individuals who reward Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945.

The invoice would arrange a panel of specialists on “truthful history” to detect distortions — and order corrections — in interpretations of delicate historic subjects, together with killings of civilians in the course of the Korean War and human rights violations beneath previous navy dictators.

Yet one other invoice from the get together would criminalize “denying​” or “distorting or falsifying facts” about ​​a​ far more current occasion, the sinking of the ferry Sewol in 2014, a catastrophe that killed a whole lot of scholars and humiliated the conservative authorities then in energy. Conservative lawmakers, for his or her half, submitted a invoice final month that might punish those that deny that North Korea sank a South Korean naval ship in 2010.

Jee Man-won with copies of a few of his books. He calls the Gwangju rebellion a “riot” and says it was instigated by North Koreans.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

“It’s a populist approach to history, appealing to widespread anti-Japanese sentiment to consolidate their political power,” stated Kim Jeong-in, head of the Korea History Society, referring to the invoice on Japanese colonial rule. “Who’s going to study colonial-era history if their research results are judged at a court of law?”

Family members of the Gwangju protesters welcomed Mr. Moon’s makes an attempt to punish purveyors of disinformation who disparage them.

“As if our loss of siblings and parents was not painful enough, they have been vilifying us as stooges of North Korean agents,” stated Cho Young-dae, a nephew of the late Cho Pius, a Catholic priest in Gwangju who participated within the rebellion and testified years later concerning the killings. “They have abused the freedom of expression to add insult to our injury.”

Mr. Cho, who can also be a priest, stated Gwangju survivors had suffered too lengthy whereas folks like Mr. Jee unfold false details about the bloodbath. “We need a South Korean version of the Holocaust law to punish those who beautify the Gwangju atrocity, as European countries have laws against Holocaust denial,” he stated.

Chun Doo-hwan, the overall who was in energy in the course of the Gwangju bloodbath, was convicted of sedition and mutiny however was later pardoned.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Recent surveys have discovered that the largest battle dividing Korean society is between progressives and conservatives, each of whom are keen to form and censor historical past and textbooks to their benefit.

Conservative dictators as soon as arrested, tortured and executed dissidents within the title of a National Security Act that criminalized “praising, inciting or propagating” ​any conduct deemed pro-North Korean or sympathetic to communism.

Conservatives right now need historical past to spotlight the constructive facets of ​their heroes — resembling Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s​ authoritarian founding president​, and Park Chung-hee, a navy dictator — and their success ​in combating communism and ​lifting the nation out of poverty after the Korean War.

Progressives usually emphasize the underbelly of the conservative dictatorship, just like the killings in Gwangju. They additionally denounce these they name “chinil,” pro-Japanese Koreans who they are saying collaborated with colonial leaders and thrived in the course of the Cold War by rebranding themselves as anti-communist crusaders.

Yet Mr. Jee says there are progressives who harbor communist views that threaten the nation’s democratic values.

Cho Young-dae, whose uncle participated within the Gwangju rebellion, stated historic revisionists like Mr. Jee “have abused the freedom of expression to add insult to our injury.”Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Much of this debate is being carried out on-line, the place some extremely partisan podcasters and YouTubers have as many viewers as nationwide tv applications do.

“Ideally, conspiracy theories and irrational ideas should be dismissed or marginalized through the market of public opinion,” stated Park Sang-hoon, chief political scientist on the Political Power Plant, a Seoul-based civic group. “But they have become part of the political agenda here.” Mainstream media is “helping them gain legitimacy,” he stated.

During the Gwangju rebellion, a handful of journalists have been ready to slip by means of the navy cordon across the metropolis. They discovered moms wailing over the our bodies of family members. A “citizens’ army” carried weapons commandeered from police stations, as folks on the sidewalks chanted “Down with dictatorship!” The protesters dug right into a authorities constructing for his or her final, doomed standoff in opposition to the military.

Family members with the coffins of slain protesters in Gwangju after the killings.Credit…Associated Press

To many South Koreans, the protesters in Gwangju received. Students throughout the nation adopted of their footsteps and rose up in opposition to the junta.

Chun Doo-hwan, the military basic who had seized energy in a navy coup earlier than the protests, blamed “vicious rioters” and “communist agitators” for the violence. In the late 1990s, he was convicted of sedition and mutiny in reference to the coup and the killings in Gwangju. (He was later pardoned.)

“Thanks to the sacrifice in Gwangju, our democracy could survive and stand again,” Mr. Moon stated when he visited the town shortly after his election in 2017. He stated the spirit of Gwangju had been “reincarnated” within the mass protests that ousted his predecessor, Park Geun-hye — the dictator Park Chung-hee’s daughter — and warned in opposition to “intolerable” makes an attempt to “distort and disparage” the 1980 rebellion.

President Moon Jae-in on the Gwangju nationwide cemetery in 2019. He has known as makes an attempt to “disparage” the protesters “intolerable.”Credit…Yonhap/EPA, by way of Shutterstock

But Mr. Jee stated his expertise voicing nonconformist historic views ought to be a warning to South Koreans. In 2002, he positioned a newspaper commercial claiming that Gwangju was a secret North Korean operation.

He was subsequently hauled to Gwangju in handcuffs and jailed for 100 days on defamation fees, till his jail time period was ultimately suspended.

He has since revealed 10 books on Gwangju and fought extra defamation prosecutions. Although critics accused him of peddling wild conspiracy theories, his view has drawn a following.

“If they didn’t treat me the way they did in 2002, I would not have come this far,” he stated.

Photos from the rebellion on show in Seoul.Credit…Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA, by way of Shutterstock