The Fall of Democracy and the Return of Dictatorship? The Portrait of South Korea in March 2016


image:  “NIS Stop!” by People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (참여연대) 

rsz_profileby Wint Jan

“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” – Benjamin Franklin

Since February, South Korean citizens have experienced some rather extraordinary political events, the likes of which they have not experienced for two decades. These events remind them of the meaning of democracy, primarily concerning issues of security and civil rights. It is because the anti-terrorism law, which was introduced by the ruling Saenurie Party and President Park Geun-hye. This has caused a number of controversies amongst South Korean citizens in light of its contents and introduction process in the national assembly. When considering its contents, the most controversial points are related to civil rights and the privacy of individuals. The law allows and provides rights to the NIS, the South Korean intelligence association, for agents to inspect an individual’s data – their internet and smart phone access, the status and breakdown of bank accounts, SNS information, and their movements – without any warrants all in the name of preventing terrorism from ISIS and North Korea. However, South Korean citizens and the opposition parties have pointed out problems with this new law and these can be summed up by the following four points.

  1. South Korea already secured anti-terrorism institutes and systems during Roh Moo-hyun’s 2003-2007 administration. Why has the current government and ruling party introduced this new law which intensifies the power of the NIS?
  2. The US fully recognized the negative effects of the Patriot Act which had been imposed by the George W. H Bush administration after 9/11. This new South Korean law bears a lot of resemblance to it. However, President Obama and his cabinet repealed the Patriot Act in 2015 due to its less competitive utilities to prevent terrorism and the issue of personal rights violation. So why do the Korean people suddenly need this new kind of oppressive law?
  3. The NIS, which was founded by Park Chung Hee (the past dictator and father of the current president) did a number of terrible things like murdering citizens and suppressing their rights during Park’s dictatorial era from 1961 to 1979. The might of the NIS continued with the support of subsequent dictators until the democratic administrations of 1987 to 2007 reduced its power stage by stage. Why did the current government revitalize the NIS? For what reason? Hasn’t Park Geun Hye learned from her father’s past mistakes?
  4. NIS still does not provide any of faith or trust amongst citizen in light of current issues of hacking famous messenger of the state in 2015, and secret intervention of last presidential election in 2012. The institute has utterly seemed like loyal for political power and dictatorship but not for security of whole state and citizens. When regarding those, how we can believe fortified NIS with the law with what?


Although it fired a number of controversies in the Korean peninsula, the Chairman of the National Assembly, Jung Ui-Wha, put the law to the vote on the 23rd February after President Park Geun-hye had urged South Korean MPs to pass the anti-terrorism law in the national assembly on the 16th February. The Chairman insisted it was because of the state of emergency due to North Korean threats but opposition parties and citizens casted doubts over the assertion and said that threats from North Korea were a kind of annual event and were not serious events like in the past. Rather they considered it was an illegal rush for the obvious political interests of the Park administration and that the chairman was under some political pressure from the Blue House, the centre of Korean political administration. Actually, it is a fact that the president has pressured this legislature several times as her speeches in the national assembly and her official criticisms of MPs have shown her political agenda. Furthermore, she has unilaterally rushed over a number of controversial issues without properly communicating with citizens and MPs, for instance, putting forward government-approved history books and her treatment of the Comfort Women issues. It is true her actions have totally violated the separation of her power and the legal, administrative and judicial process and have accelerated her tendency of dictatorship.

The opposition parties took action before the final pass of the anti-terrorism law. They requested to the chairman that voting for the law to be cancelled. They then proceeded with their filibuster which involved the legitimate occupation of the national assembly to prevent the majority party’s unilateral race to pass the law. This filibuster turned out to be the longest recorded filibuster in human history. From the 23rd February to the 2nd March, 38 MPs made speeches against the law in the national assembly day and night totaling 192 hours and 27 minutes. One of them made a 12-hour speech without any of rest and standing the whole time. Citizens also participated by visiting the national assembly and watching the whole thing via the internet. Kim Seung-Young, a university student, said “I could not imagine before visiting the national assembly myself. It was a special experience to participate in the country’s politics. Furthermore I think the law is totally absurd without proper communication with the citizens considering its contents and the democratic passing process”.  And another citizen, Jang In-Hye, who is also a housewife, said that “this law will cause a number of violations over our rights. I think none of us want a return of dictatorship with those kind of vicious laws. Actually I voted for President Park in 2012 because she is a woman, but I cannot understand her behavior these days.”

However, the vote to pass the law was held on the evening of the 2nd March without cancelation and the law was finally passed by a majority of ruling party MPs. Even though the administration and ruling party continuously announced there will be no individual inspections by the NIS and it is purely for the security of South Korea, a number of citizens are not fully convinced by their words because they know how this law was passed and know a number of illogical assertions and undemocratic actions were performed by the Park administration in the past. Concerns over undemocratic running in South Korea were already politicized by foreign presses and institutes. The New York Times criticized the undemocratic conduct of the South Korean government several times and the Wall Street Journal condemned President Park’s speech that “masked demonstrators in the street are members of ISIS”. Furthermore, the Freedom House of Washington D.C. said “South Korea has received a thumbs down due to President Park Geun-Hye’s increased intimidation of her political opponents and crackdowns on public criticism of her performance following the Sewol ferry disaster” and that “hundreds of thousands of smartphone messenger users switched from the most popular domestic provider to an encrypted, foreign alternative due to fears of surveillance.”

Although the administration achieved their goal in March, the point the Blue House needs to know is that its citizens have started to focus on national politics with their eyes and ears due to this event. Some of them are realizing the indictments of South Korean politics and a few of them have already initiated action against the government to defend their own freedom and life because this is their civil right which is guaranteed by the South Korean Constitution. Furthermore, South Korea is one of country that citizens established democracy with their own hands. If the Park administration neglects the fact and preserving strength of citizens for democracy, it will face a number of hardships over its governance for the last two years of left tenure.

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