The dictator was convicted of a speech crime.
Chun Doo-hwan, who was South Korea’s president from 1980 through 1988 after leading a military coup, libeled Cho Chul-hyun, a pastor who protested against Chun’s rule and bore witness to the Gwangju Uprising, by calling him a “shameless liar” in his memoir, the court ruled. The 89-year-old Chun was handed an eight-month prison sentence, suspended for two years. Protesters, angry that he will likely not have to serve the sentence, egged his car.
South Korea is one of a handful of countries in East Asia that has criminal laws against defamation and prosecutes them aggressively. Japan and Taiwan do, too, among others, but the amount of convictions for defamation in Korea is significantly higher than in neighboring countries.
Western-based human rights advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch, PEN America, and Freedom House, as well as some Korean groups, routinely denounce Korean defamation law on the grounds that they claim it restricts freedom of speech. They cite examples of journalists and activists who have been taken to court by the government for their reporting, like Japanese foreign correspondent Tatsuya Kato who reported on rumors that then-president Park Geun-hye was having an affair at the time the Sewol ferry sunk in 2014. Kato was acquitted, but PEN staffer Manyan Lai wrote the trouble of defending oneself from such a lawsuit still “creates an atmosphere of constrained expression.”
However, there are a whole lot of Korean human rights groups, including those based in Gwangju, that use the defamation law to protect their reputations and those of marginalized groups from government and societal abuse. When I met with staff and volunteers at the May 18th Memorial Foundation in Gwangju in 2016, one of their lawyers was talking about how they were bringing a suit against a right-wing commentator who denied the massacre of protesters in Gwangju.
That is similar to the Chun case. Cho’s nephew, Cho Young-dae, brought the complaint on behalf of his uncle, who was deceased, after the dictator attacked Cho for testifying that he saw civilians shot by military helicopters there in 1980.
After Chun took de facto control of the country, he implemented martial law and shut down universities in May 1980. Protesters were the most formidable in the southeastern Jeolla region, with the metropolitan city of Gwangju as the epicenter. When students at Chonnam National University occupied their school grounds to protest its closing, paratroopers sent from the ROK Special Warfare Command began beating students and onlookers wantonly. When they killed Kim Gyeong-cheol with their clubs, the protests escalated, and the mass of the Gwangju public joined in. The army responded by firing on protesters outside of Gwangju Station. The protests turned riotous on May 20 when locals burnt down the public broadcaster’s offices in outrage over its inaccurate coverage. Protesters then formed militia and forced the military to retreat. The military returned on the night of May 26 and retook control. At least 144 protesters, and likely hundreds more, were killed, as well as 22 soldiers and an unknown number of police officers.
Gwangju became a rallying cry for democracy activists and progressives, and, after Korea’s democratization, Chun was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes stemming from his coup and his martial law orders. (His sentence was commuted.)
Yet some on the far-right who have fond memories of the developmental dictatorship of both Chun and his predecessor Park Chung-hee continue to maintain deep suspicions that the Gwangju Uprising and the related progressive movements were linked to communism and North Korea. Hence, when right-wing activists like Jee Man-won make unsubstantiated claims that the protest was associated with North Korea, progressive organizations press for charges.
In this case, Chun was found guilty of denying the extent of the government’s violence and, in doing so, libeling witnesses who saw helicopters firing on civilians outside the South Jeolla Provincial Government building. Chun’s memoir had already been subject to multiple lawsuits, with a court ruling in 2017 that he must excise thirty-three false claims about the events in Gwangju.
Subsequent evidence has proven conclusively the use of military helicopters in targeting civilians. Current president Moon Jae-in, a progressive, reopened investigation into the government’s response to Gwangju, and a government committee issued a report that found military helicopters fired on civilians on May 21 and May 27. Documents also showed that special operations commander Jung Ho-yong was present in Gwangju on May 21 and met with Chun that day. Former U.S. military intelligence officer Kim Yong-chang stated that his observations, combined with circumstantial evidence, suggest “it is highly likely that Chun had ordered the shooting.”
The revelations about the attack on civilians on May 21 doesn’t substantially change the understanding of Gwangju; already it was widely accepted that the military used force to suppress a riotous protest. The finding does, however, emphasize the scale of the military’s violence and the fact that, in the words of Kim, the initial attacks by the government forces were offensive in nature. Later that day, protesters raided nearby armories and armed their militias with rifles and a few machine guns.
Chun’s conviction should serve as an illustration of the complexity of defamation law in Korea. Concerns that the government might abuse defamation law to target critics should be balanced against the rights of people and groups, including marginalized groups, to maintain their dignity and avoid reputational abuse. As Kyu Ho Youm puts it in his 1995 paper in the Pacific Basin Law Journal, “[I]n Korea, reputation is guaranteed as a constitutional right of individuals to protection from an abuse of press freedom.”
That citizens and NGOs can file complaints over defamation gives people from across the spectrum of society the right to defend their reputations. As a result, victims can obtain justice when they are mocked. The man who stood outside Ehwa Womens University carrying a sign calling women “prostitutes” was convicted and fined.
At a time when the United States has been racked by conspiracy theories and hate speech-fueled unrest, it is easy to see that free speech absolutism brings about its own problems. If people are allowed to spread coronavirus-related lies defaming people like Bill Gates, that could fuel the anti-vaccine movement and result in more infections and deaths.
Ultimately, Korean culture takes a different view of social rights and responsibilities than that of Western individualism, and if they have different viewpoints towards freedom of expression as a result, that doesn’t make their defamation law a human rights violation.
Mitchell Blatt is a former editorial assistant at the National Interest, Chinese-English translator, and lead author of Panda Guides Hong Kong. He has been published in USA Today, The Daily Beast, The Korea Times, Silkwinds magazine, and Areo Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him on Facebook at @MitchBlattWriter.