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South Korea: Court Upholds Military Ban on “Subversive” Books

A South Korean court has upheld a Ministry of Defense ban in the army on 23 books labeled as “subversive”, fueling public worries for the protection of free speech.

Seoul Central District Court aquitted a defamation charge filed by authors and publishing houses whose books were classified as “subversive” or “troublesome” by the Ministry of Defense on May 31, 2012. They contended the military's ban on the books infringes on the individual's right to access information, one of democratic rights protected by the Korean constitution. The Korean public echoed their worries and expressed frustration over the court's decision. The 23 books in question include a best-selling book on economics and two volumes by left-wing American linguist, Noam Chomsky.

Books for sale in Seoul

A book store in Seoul, South Korea (2008) Photo by Christopher Rose on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Defense Ministry instigated the ban in 2008, arguing that the “subversive” writings sympathize with communist North Korea and criticize the economic systems of the United States and South Korea, which could result in dampening the morale of service members. They claim they can ban any books which are considered pro–North Korea, anti–South Korea and anti-American or anticapitalist.

According to one news article [ko] by South Korea's Hankook Newspaper, the court's recent decision was criticized even by moderate conservatives in South Korea for failing to provide enough explanation of on what grounds the books were labeled as troublesome, and ignoring potential profit losses and personal damage of reputations.

Beneath the Hankook news article online, numerous comments lash out against the court's decision.

Chung Jae-hwa commented [ko]:

이게 자칭 보수들의 수준이지…. 신자유주의를 비판하거나 정부에 조금만 비판적이면 불온서적….멀쩡한 좌파도 보수세력의 눈에는 종북세력이 되버리는 현실.

This shows how (low) the conservatives are. Whenever there is criticism on neo-liberalism and the government, they label it as “subversive”. To the eyes of those right-wing people, benign left-wing groups are seen as ‘pro-North leftists’

Numerous young internet users seem not to have been aware that such a ban ever existed, while the older generation worries this could be a sign of the revival of the censorship of ideas, prevalent during the authoritative military regimes of the past. The practice of censoring books and films was common from the 1960s to 1980s when the country was ruled by military dictators. Many intellectuals critical of the government were classified as supportive of North Korea before being persecuted.

Twitter user @hanget wrote [ko]:

21세기에 불온 서적이라는게 있다는걸 오늘 처음 알았다.

I had no idea till today that we still have “subversive” books in the 21st century.

@merong2221 wrote [ko]:

지금 제가 70년대에 살고있나요? 불온서적? 이념? 아정말 유신시대로의 회귀내

Am I living in the 1970s? Subversive books? Ideology? This is a total regression to the Yusin years. [note: the Yusin era refers to a period of time when former President Park Jung-hee clamped down on personal freedoms under the provisions of a state of emergency. This era is often defined as one of the darkest times of Korean modern history.]

@blu_pn wrote [ko]:

법원이 국방부가 베스트셀러 책을 포함한 23종의 도서를 ‘불온서적'을 지정한 행위에 대해 기본권 침해가 아니라고 판결했단다. 대체 지금이 몇년도인가? 아무리 보수적으로 보아도 저건 냉전시대 논리로 21세기를 재단하는 문화적 자해행위다. 한심한…

The Court ruled that it is not a violation of basic rights for the military to label 23 books, including best-selling books, as “subversive” books. In which year are we living in? I believe such an act is, even from a conservative point of view, a cultural suicide action which assess the (things happening) 21st century with the logic of the Cold War era. It is so pathetic.
Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism

One banned book: Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, by Ha-Joon Chang.

Seoh Hae-sung, (@jiksseol) wrote [ko]:

법률 이전에 책과 지혜를 가두는 사회를 이성적 문명사회라고 보기 어렵다. [...] 이 불온을 판단한 자들이야말로 지식기반 문명사회에서 축출해야 하는 불온한 자들이다. 책을 놓아주어라.

It is hard to call it a civilized society when books and knowledge are suppressed by the law. Those people who made these “subversive” judgments are actually the one we should throw out in a knowledge-based civilized society. Loosen your grips on books.

Jeong Yu-mun (@Jymjeong) wrote[ko]:

국방부 지정 불온서적을 읽고싶은 마음이 급 땡기는건… 순전히 판사님 덕분이다.

Thanks to those judges, I feel a sudden urge to read those books labeled subversive by the military.

Many people find it difficult to understand how Chang Ha-Joon's best-selling book on the economy, “Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism”, was ever classified as “subversive”. Chang, a well-known South Korean economist at the University of Cambridge, argues in the book that poor countries should not embrace free trade but rather be protected and supported by government before entering into intense international competition.

Below is a Youtube video of a talk at the New America Foundation in the United States where Chang describes his book.

@100HyeRyun wrote [ko]:

장하준 교수의 ‘나쁜 사마리아인’ 국방부 불온서적 지정은 정당하다는 법원의 판결은 도저히 수긍키 어렵다.인터넷상 경제학 전반에 대한 부담없는 교양경제서라고 소개되어 있고 책 내용도 그러하다.이런 책조차 인정하지 못하는 지금의 우리 현실이 부끄럽다.

Professor Chang Ha-jun's book, ‘Bad Samartians’ was labeled as “subversive” books by the military, and the court upheld the ban — a decision I can never understand. There are many online reviews calling the book as “an easy to read, economics book that explains how the economy works in general,” and it really is that kind of book. I am so embarrassed about the fact that we are living in society where this book can not be accepted.

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