Friday, June 12, 2009

Internet Censorship, Free Speech and Miranda Rights in South Korea

Here's the question:

You mentioned that some gay sites are blocked or filtered in Korea. Does that mean that web activity is monitored, big-brother style? Are there Miranda Rights in Korea? (e.g. Right to remain silent, right to an attorney, etc...)

...and his second question:
What's the deal with needing a registration number to access Korean websites? I understand this is how a blogger was caught and arrested for blogging about North Korea. Also, I heard that gay themed websites and porn sites are censored. South Korea seems more and more fascist to me as I learn more about it.

First of all, I must say that Korea is very far from fascist. Some left-wing fringe groups like to make that claim, but they usually do so for political gain. It appears the information you're finding is not very accurate, so let me try to give you some reliable links and information.

There are some sites that are banned in Korea. Some pornographic sites have made it on the list, but for the most part, you'll find that a handful of sites on North Korea have been banned. When a site it banned, you'll usually see this banner.

It pretty much says that the site you're trying to connect to contains some illegal material. I don't know if your IP address is reported or it just denies access, but if you see that message, chances are you will not be able to access that site. (Try it for yourself. If you click here in Korea, you'll be denied, but I assume if you click it anywhere outside the peninsula, you'll be allowed access.) It is a little Big Brother-ish, but South Korea has dealt with spies, assassins, international taekwondo groups and other sympathizers from the North for decades, so blocking North Korean sites is kind of a necessary evil. Blocking porno is pretty bad, but considering how sexuality is viewed in Korea, it's not a surprise. That said, Koreans are among the world's highest consumers of internet porn (HT Brian), so to say that it's totally or even partially blocked is very misleading.

You'll read a lot about how Koreans value national and communal solidarity over personal freedoms (I disagree) and even when preparing to travel to South Korea, the guide books warn not to bring in (among other things) porno and North Korean literature. That's more for show, but there is an increasingly touchy issue that is getting more traction these days and that is the monitoring and criminalization of netizen dissent.

Korean public opinion is very easily manufactured, manipulated and can change very quickly. President Lee Myung-bak won the election by a large margin and less than five months after taking office, the beef protests were in full-swing. The government tends to blame the internet. Just like people all over the world, tens of millions of Koreans rely on the internet for their news. The difference is that here, they don't trust anything they see on TV (save for PD Notebook), so the internet is their best bet. Of course, that creates the current culture we have now where one guy can alter the public opinion of millions, encourage the implementation of misguided laws (see Minerva and "Real Name System") and cause the government to panic and acquit jail someone for voicing his opinion.

As you probably know, free speech doesn't have a long history in Korea (neither does true democracy) and even after the pro-democratic movements of the 80's, we still see limits on how far said speech can go. Much of it is over-sensationalized on Daum and Naver forums, but it does highlight the fact that the Korean government has yet to come up with an effective way to handle online dissent. They appear to be under the impression that by banning key words, phrases, individuals or groups from the web will end their problems, but so far no results have come from it. Korea needs a little time to work out the kinks, but in the end, all of this censorship and mudslinging is a direct result from political posturing and manipulation of public opinion for petty gain. I will say that Korea is not Iran and is certainly not China when it comes to this. Nowhere close.

While discussing the internet, you also mentioned a registration number. You can access Korean websites without a number, but sometimes you can't purchase items from them without a national Korean ID. That is a separate issue that I will discuss in another post.

Also, the blogger that was arrested for blogging about North Korea sounds made-up. There are tons of (in-country) K-bloggers out there blogging about North Korea and many of them constantly rail into the South Korean government with absolutely no concern of legal retribution. Being critical of the government's North Korea policy is pretty safe since Koreans themselves are highly divided on the subject.

Miranda Rights in Korea is something that I have no experience with, so I'll have to rely on the words of others. According to EFL-Law, there are Miranda Rights in Korea and you do have the right to remain silent and not incriminate yourself. However, as an expat in Korea, the law tends to break in favor of Koreans as The Metropolitician discovered a couple years ago.

I think that once you arrive in Korea, you'll discover that many of your concerns have no real effect on you. As a new teacher in Korea, it's great to be informed, but sometimes searching too much before you have any perspective can lead you in the wrong direction, i.e., "South Korea seems more and more fascist." Sure, Korean journalists might be awful and the government might not control its people well, but once you're here, you should have no problem looking at North Korean porno while criticising the government for not doing enough to keep Nork spies from telling South Korean kids to kill themselves.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.


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