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Under South Korean security law, praising North Korea is illegal

Associated Press - December 7, 2011

Foster Klug, Seoul After seven police officers carted off his books and computer disks, Kim Seung-kyu endured eight marathon interrogation sessions with chain-smoking investigators. His alleged crime: glorifying North Korea.

Since a conservative government took power in 2008, indictments have shot up under a South Korean security law that makes it a crime to praise, sympathize or cooperate with North Korea. More than 150 were questioned and 60 charged in 2010, up from 39 questioned and 36 charged in 2007, officials say.

In another sign of stepped-up enforcement, a South Korean government agency launched a team on Wednesday that will examine Facebook and Twitter posts and smartphone applications to cope with what it says is a growing volume of illicit content, including violations of the security law.

The National Security Law raises questions about freedom of expression in the otherwise democratic country, which ended decades of autocratic rule in the late 1980s. But calls from liberal politicians and activists to scrap or revise the law have so far come to nothing in a nation still wary of the North.

Kim was convicted, but his sentence was suspended. He is appealing. All he did, he said, was repost articles, songs and other available information about the North on his blog an attempt to provide what he calls an objective look at the often-vilified country.

Speaking in a phone interview from his home, Kim called the National Security Law a government push "to suffocate the people." South Korean Prosecutor-General Han Sang-dae defended tough measures against those who praise the North, calling it "a national misfortune if there are still people who have yet to abandon illusions about North Korea." He vowed in a speech in August to "declare war" on North Korean sympathizers: "They must be punished and removed."

The law has its origins in the founding of South Korea in 1948 as a bastion of anti-communism on the doorstep of the Soviet-backed North when strongmen ruled Seoul and anti-government leftists fought bloody insurgencies. For decades, military-backed governments often used the law to round up opposition politicians and student activists seen as challenges to the government; critics say this is still its main purpose.

"It's one of the most critical flaws in Korea's democracy," Peter Beck, a Korea analyst and research fellow at the East-West Center, said of the law. "For most people in the democratic world, posting a message praising North Korea doesn't sound like a treasonous act."

The law touches on sensitive issues in South Korea, still technically at war with the North. North Korean commandos tried to assassinate South Korean presidents in 1968 and 1983 Just last year, North Korean agents posing as defectors were arrested for allegedly trying to kill a high-profile North Korean defector in Seoul.

While diplomats from the Koreas have held tentative talks in recent months, animosity still lingers. Two attacks last year blamed on the North killed 50 South Koreans, including two civilians.

The law fires angry debate in South Korea. When about 25 people gathered in downtown Seoul earlier this year to protest the law, Jin Gyeong-bae, a 67-year-old passer-by, took notice. "What are you all talking about? We must keep the National Security Law," Jin yelled at the protesters. "We are still at war against North Korea."

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