“Today Is the Day Democracy Is Murdered”: Wave of Repression Sweeps South Korea

On December 19, the South Korean Constitutional Court delivered a devastating blow against the progressive movement when it disbanded the Unified Progressive Party (UPP) with immediate effect.  That act came as the culmination of a long campaign by South Korean President Park Geun-hye to shackle the labor movement and smash political opposition.

The Constitutional Court case was initiated over a year ago when the Ministry of Justice filed a petition with the court to ban the UPP.  The pretext for the petition was the arrest of six prominent members of the UPP on the charge of plotting a rebellion to overthrow the government.  As evidence, the government offered a speech National Assembly representative Lee Seok-ki delivered to fellow UPP members, which was recorded by a turncoat acting as a spy for the National Intelligence Service (NIS).  The NIS released to the media a transcript of the speech that it had substantially altered, replacing ordinary words and phrases with inflammatory rhetoric.  By attributing words to Lee that he had never spoken, the NIS succeeded in whipping up hostility against the UPP.

The trial of Lee Seok-ki and his five colleagues was notable for the prosecution’s distortions and fanciful testimony.  It was clear that the state’s star witness had concocted the entire scenario of rebellion from his imagination and unsupported supposition.  The lack of evidence to back the prosecution’s case was no impediment for the staunchly conservative judge, however, and he found all six defendants guilty of plotting rebellion.  The case was appealed to the High Court, which ruled that it could not conclude that the defendants had plotted a rebellion.  The defendants were nevertheless found guilty of “incitement” and for having violated the vaguely worded National Security Law, resulting in only a modest reduction of their prison terms.  The case is now before the Supreme Court, which is expected to issue a ruling within weeks.

The timing of the initial accusation and publication of the fabricated transcript of Lee Seok-ki’s speech came at a decisive moment in the Korean political scene.  One revelation after another had been appearing in the press, showing that the National Intelligence Service had persistently and extensively interfered in the 2012 electoral campaign.  The NIS sought to sway the election by flooding the Internet with postings and tweets that defamed liberal and progressive candidates and praised conservatives, all done under the guise of originating from private citizens.

With each passing week, mass demonstrations in downtown Seoul swelled ever larger in size, denouncing the NIS for its interference in the electoral process.  The Unified Progressive Party and its allies spearheaded these demonstrations, earning the undying enmity of the conservative ruling party.

The demonstrations placed the ruling party in an embarrassing position.  It struck back by launching a campaign of lies against the UPP, which succeeded in driving a wedge between the progressive movement and liberals, and brought the demonstrations against the NIS to a halt.  Public attention was diverted from the record of NIS malfeasance.

In its decision, the Constitutional Court ruled that the UPP had a “hidden objective of realizing North Korean-style socialism” and presented a “substantial threat to society.”  The court declared that the party “aims to accomplish progressive democracy through violence.”  UPP members, it added, are “followers of North Korea, and the progressive democracy they pursue is overall the same or very similar to the North’s revolutionary strategy against South Korea in almost all respects.”

Those assertions were wholly unsupported by the evidence and reflected the conservative-dominated court’s antipathy towards the ideals espoused by the UPP.  Nothing in the party’s history or record backed the court’s claims.

Like many other Koreans across a broad political spectrum, the Unified Progressive Party wished for “peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula,” as the party program expresses it.  This widespread and non-controversial sentiment hardly makes the UPP “followers of North Korea.”

The Unified Progressive Party aimed to create “a people-centered world by being on the ground with the working class.”  Its program called for “non-discrimination and labor rights” and a half tuition fee for students.  In support of farmers, it advocated implementation of a government purchasing policy on agricultural products.  On behalf of working people, the party called for “youth employment through a youth employment quota” and a halt to privatization of government entities.  Only during an era dominated by neoliberal hegemony could such goals be considered a threat to society.

The forced disbanding of the UPP casts the party’s 100,000-some members and its many followers adrift, without political representation.  As UPP chairwoman Lee Jung-hee put it during her final testimony before the Constitutional Court: “The government’s attempt to dissolve the UPP is not just about determining the fate of the party or its representatives.  It’s about depriving workers, farmers, and the common people — who, by voting for the UPP, wanted to be equal owners of Korea — of their right to vote and freedom of political opinion.”

“The government’s key argument is that the UPP — after achieving confederation-model unification — will opt for North Korean-style socialism,” Lee continued.  “This is baseless speculation.  North Korean socialism is a system designed for North Korea and cannot be a system for South Korea.  The government says that having an omnipotent supreme leader is at the heart of North Korean socialism.  There is no reason for the people of South Korea, who rejected the prolonged Yushin dictatorship of Park Chung-hee and the indirect election system of the Chun Doo-hwan regime, and waged the Kwangju People’s Uprising and the June Uprising to achieve direct elections and single-term presidency, to throw away these achievements and choose to follow an omnipotent supreme leader.  The majority of the UPP’s staff and members participated in and dedicated themselves to these democratic struggles, and the party’s platform clearly states that the UPP follows the tradition of these struggles.”

As the Constitutional Court announced its verdict against the UPP, defense lawyer Kwon Young-guk stood up and exclaimed: “Today is the day democracy is murdered.  History will rule on this verdict.”  In what would prove symbolic of the government’s attitude as a whole towards progressives, security guards swarmed over Kwon, covering his mouth so that he could not speak, and dragged him out of court.

With the decision banning the party in effect, the witch hunt against progressives is on.  The party was directed to relinquish its government subsidies, and all of its assets have been frozen.  All five party members who held seats in the National Assembly were removed from office.  The National Election Commission then stripped six UPP officials of their seats on local councils.

A right-wing civic group filed a complaint against the UPP with the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office, asking for the arrest of all 100,000-some members of the party for violating the National Security Law.  It reveals the malevolence of the government vendetta against the UPP that such an outrageous complaint was accepted and is being pursued.  The Public Security office has begun an investigation to determine if the UPP “aided the enemy,” and the Seoul Metropolitan Police Security Unit is handling the investigation of individuals.  Although it is not likely that the entire membership will be arrested, the investigation will probably sweep up a great many of the most active.

Meanwhile, police raided the offices of the progressive organization Corea Alliance, as well as the homes of nine of its members.  Attorney Jang Kyung-wook, who successfully defended a client against the charge of violating the National Security Law, has come under police investigation.  Police searched the offices of his group, Lawyers for a Democratic Society.  Jang is under investigation for having spoken to a North Korean representative at a seminar in Germany.  “Am I not supposed to go to an international seminar I’ve been invited to if a North Korean also participates?” Jang wondered.

Similarly, police struck at the home and church of a pastor who had had a conversation with the North Korean representative at the same seminar.  The police regarded his innocuous conversation as a violation of the National Security Law’s restriction against “meeting, correspondence, or coordination with the enemy.”

Months before the dissolution of the UPP, the Ministry of Justice announced a plan to have legislation passed that would grant it authority to disband what it termed “anti-state” groups.  “The UPP is just the tip of the iceberg,” one Justice Ministry official disclosed, adding that there are many individuals and groups that the ministry wanted to go after.  The initial raids on the homes and offices of progressives mark only the beginning.  Attacks on progressives are sure to mount in the coming months.

The government has already gone after the labor movement, banning the teachers’ union and refusing to recognize the government employees’ union.  One year ago, several hundred police stormed the headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, detaining around 130 people.  Six union officials were arrested on the charge of supporting a strike by railway workers.

President Park Geun-hye is calling for “reform” of the labor market as “an urgent and important task.”  Finance Minister Choi Kyung-hwan reproached workers for being “overprotected.”  The solution, as the government sees it, is to bring “flexibility” to the entire labor force, allowing companies a freer hand in adjusting wages downward and setting schedules.  The Federation of Korean Trade Unions condemns the plan as a “gift set for capitalists” and pointed out that it would only “produce low-quality jobs.”

The ruling Saenuri Party is taking steps to ensure that progressives can never again run for electoral office.  UPP members are already banned from creating another progressive party.  A conservative assemblyman has drawn up a bill that would prevent anyone having belonged to the UPP from running for office for the next ten years.  The Ministry of Justice is planning to draw up legislation that would prohibit the creation of a political party with a program similar to the UPP.  If that legislation passes, it will make it illegal for any political party to advocate a progressive program on behalf of working people.

During the 2012 election, the Unified Progressive Party joined in an electoral alliance with the mainstream Democratic United Party (since renamed to the New Politics Alliance for Democracy – NPAD).  Such alliances should be a thing of the past, the ruling party warns.  Saenuri Party spokesperson Park Dae-chul rebuked the NPAD in a dark tone: “The party that formed an alliance with the UPP, and those central to the move, must reflect on their actions.”  Saenuri Party Chairman Kim Moo-sung demanded that NPAD “must declare the termination of its ties with the UPP.”

If the ruling party believes it can crush the spirit of progressives and silence their voices, then it is seriously mistaken.  Korean activists braved police batons, bullets, imprisonment, and torture to oppose the Yushin dictatorship and bring down military rule.  Their battle to bring democracy to South Korea was an inspiration to fighters for justice throughout the world.

In a heartfelt message to supporters following the Constitutional Court decision, UPP chairwoman Lee Jung-hee said, “The Park Geun-hye administration degraded this country to a dictatorship.  With a judgment that employed fictions and imagination, the court opened the door to totalitarianism.  Beginning today, the doctrines of independence, democracy, equality, peace and unification, and politics for the laborers, farmers, and the people, are banned.  Dark times, where freedom of expression and assembly is completely denied, lie ahead.”

“The government in power dissolved the UPP today and will tie down our hands and feet,” Lee continued.  “But they cannot dissolve our dream for progressive politics, nurtured in our hearts.  The government banned the platform of self-reliance, democracy, and unification, but it cannot ban our love for the weary and our divided peninsula.  Because they cannot stamp out our dream and love . . . we will not abandon progressive politics.”

The Korean progressive movement has a militant spirit second to none.  Do not look for the Western media to report on it, but the Park Geun-hye government can expect to face one hell of a fightback.

Gregory Elich is on the Board of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute and the Advisory Board of the Korea Policy Institute.  He is a member of the Committee to Defend Democracy in South Korea and a columnist for Voice of the People.  He is also one of the co-authors of Killing Democracy: CIA and Pentagon Operations in the Post-Soviet Period, published in the Russian language.