They’re the last three hunger strikers standing. Actually, they’re sitting—just outside the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea. The weather is turning cold, and they’re bundled up against the wind.
The three men are legislators. Two of their number have already collapsed and ended up in hospital. In November, the government attempted to ban their political party—the United Progressive Party, the third largest in the country—for essentially being a proxy for North Korea. The party leader, meanwhile, is on trial for treason under South Korea’s National Security Law.
This is not the only political spectacle in town. At the same time, the government’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) stands accused of intervening in last year’s presidential election on the side of the ruling party’s candidate, Park Geun Hye, the daughter of one-time South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee. She won the election with a little over 51 percent of the vote, giving the conservatives another five years of presidential power. Initially, President Park dismissed reports of the NIS sending out a couple dozen insinuating tweets about her rival candidate by suggesting that such a minor infraction could not possibly have influenced the election one way of another. But late last month it was revealed that this initial tweet estimate was a major underestimate. The NIS apparently sent out 1.2 million tweets, and the Cyber Command responsible for dealing with North Korea added another 23 million.
South Korea is a democracy, a thriving one if measured by the sheer size and energy of its civil society and the stability of its political institutions. It’s not on a return trip to its dictatorial past or on a path of convergence with its dictatorial neighbor up north. The hunger strikers in front of the parliament are, alas, not themselves exemplars of democracy. Their party is not united, and the UPP is frankly an embarrassment to many if not most progressives in the country. It’s also quite small. Being the third-largest political party in a country dominated by the ruling Saenuri Party and the opposition Democratic Party translates, after a post-election fission, into a mere six representatives.
But what is happening in South Korea today is deeply disturbing nonetheless. Last year, Amnesty International published a report on how the government is using the longstanding but dangerously obscure National Security Law to restrict freedom of speech, prosecute critics of the government, and limit the right to organize associations. “The number of new NSL cases increased by 95.6 per cent—from 46 in 2008 to 90 in 2011—between 2008 and 2011,” the report notes. “The number of those charged under the vaguely worded clauses of the NSL rose by 96.8 per cent—from 32 in 2008 to 63 in 201—in the same four year period.”
These cases range from disturbing to downright ludicrous. In the latter category is the case of Park Jeong-geun, who sent around tweets and photos satirizing North Korea. He should have known that intelligence agencies are notoriously deaf to irony. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison for “praising” the object of his derision. The South Korean government has gone after the Capitalism Research Society (an academic organization that looks at alternative economic models), People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (a huge civil society organization that publicly questioned the government’s official report on the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan vessel), and the Socialist Workers League (an organization that, ironically, is highly critical of North Korean-style socialism).
It gets worse.