Academic journal article Asian Perspective

The Cheonan Incident and the Declining Freedom of Expression in South Korea

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

The Cheonan Incident and the Declining Freedom of Expression in South Korea

Article excerpt

THE SINKING OF THE SOUTH KOREAN NAVAL WARSHIP CHEONAN-IN which forty-six lives were lost-during US-Republic of Korea (ROK) joint naval exercises on March 26, 2010, was a great embarrassment to the conservative Lee Myung-bak government. Although the incident exposed the incompetence of the navy and Lee's national security team, the government seemed to see a political opportunity in the incident. South Korea formally declared North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea; DPRK) the culprit, presenting quite plausible evidence for a North Korean torpedo attack, and announced various sanctions on the Pyongyang regime. These were known as the May 24 Measures. While the opposition raised suspicions about the government's political motivation-that is, to mobilize conservative voters in the upcoming nationwide local elections of June 2-the political consequences of the government's reaction to the Cheonan sinking were not confined to short-term political events. More significant were the highly negative consequences for freedom of expression and consolidation of liberal democracy in South Korea.

The decline of freedom of expression under the Lee government was surprising in two respects. Lee's electoral victory in December 2007 represented the second turnover of power since the democratic transition of 1987, which is commonly accepted as a sign of democratic consolidation (Huntington 1991). Moreover, Lee was seen as a moderate, if not a liberal, within the centerright Grand National Party; few, if any, had expected that his administration would take an illiberal or authoritarian approach with regard to media freedom. Less surprising is that freedom of expression and civil liberties have continuously declined under the succeeding Park Geun-hye government, considering President Park's political background as a daughter of the late dictator Park Chung-hee.

In this article, I do not attempt to identify the cause of the Cheonan sinking, a task beyond the scope of this study. Rather, I ask what impact the government's reaction to the Cheonan incident has had on freedom of expression and civil liberties. Specifically, I explore why the Lee government chose to suppress free speech and what enabled the government to do so.

My main findings are as follows. First, the government's response to the Cheonan incident strengthened the authoritarian elements within the administration and the ruling party, thereby intensifying suppression of dissenting views that originated in the aftermath of candlelight protests over the government's decision to import US beef in 2008. The suppression of dissent contributed to the downgrading of South Korea from "free" to "partly free" in Freedom House's ratings on freedom of the press as well as Internet freedom. Second, in order to suppress dissent, the government relied on the rhetoric of national security, labeling the critics pro- North Korea. But the main legal tools employed by the government were criminal defamation and Internet regulations rather than the National Security Law (NSL).

My article is organized as follows. First, I show the inconsistencies and weaknesses of the findings of the Joint CivilianMilitary Investigation Group (JIG) (2010) and then discuss how the government's response to the Cheonan incident strengthened the authoritarian elements within the Lee Myung-bak administration. I demonstrate how its strategies created multiple dilemmas, including the difficulty of suppressing dissenting views and convincing the broader public in spite of authoritarian tactics. I analyze the main types and cases of suppression of critics, focusing on the rhetorical and legal tools. Finally, I discuss South Korean democracy's vulnerability to erosion of freedom of expression and civil liberties.

The Cheonan Investigation: Lingering Doubts

The Joint Investigation Group's Findings

The JIG, led by the ROK military, announced on May 20, 2010, that a North Korean torpedo attack was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan , an announcement that came about two months after the incident and two weeks ahead of the June 2 nationwide local elections. …

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