Written by: Choe Sang-Hun
In the history of South Korea’s fight for democracy, the 1980 uprising in Gwangju stands out as one of the proudest moments. Thousands of ordinary citizens took to the streets to protest a military dictatorship, and hundreds were shot down by security forces. The bloody incident has been sanctified in textbooks as the “Gwangju Democratization Movement.”
Right-wing extremists, however, have offered an alternative, highly inflammatory view of what happened: Gwangju, they say, was not a heroic sacrifice for democracy, but a “riot” instigated by North Korean communists who had infiltrated the protest movement.
Such conspiracy theories, which few historians take seriously, have been spreading quickly in South Korea, where a political divide — rooted in the country’s torturous and often violent modern history — is being amplified online.
President Moon Jae-in’s governing party has rolled out a slate of legislation, some of which has already become law, aimed at stamping out false narratives about certain sensitive historical topics, including Gwangju. His supporters say he is protecting the truth. Free speech advocates, and Moon’s conservative enemies, have accused the president of using censorship and history as political weapons.
Democracies around the world are struggling to deal with the corrosive effects of social media and disinformation on politics, debating whether and where to draw lines between fake news and free speech. In the United States and elsewhere, the debate has focused on the power of social media companies, castigated on the left for spreading hatred and false conspiracy theories, and on the right for banning users like Donald Trump.
But few democratic countries have sought to police speech to the extent that South Korea is considering, and a debate is underway about whether the efforts to squelch misinformation will lead to broader censorship or encourage authoritarian ambitions.
“Whether I am right or wrong should be decided through free public debate, the engine of democracy,” said Jee Man-won, a leading proponent of the theory of North Korean involvement in Gwangju. “Instead, the government is using its power to dictate history.”
Arguments over which messages to allow and which to suppress are often about national history and identity. In the United States, debates rage about the influence of racism and slavery in the nation’s past and present, and about how to teach those topics in school. Supporters of the new laws say they do what Germany has done in attacking the lie of Holocaust denial.
South Korea has long prided itself on its commitment to free speech, but it is also a country where going against the mainstream can have steep consequences.
Historical issues, like collaboration with Japanese colonialists or wartime civilian massacres, have divided the country for decades. Defamation is a criminal offence. Under the bills pushed by Moon’s party, promoting revisionist narratives about sensitive subjects like Gwangju or the “comfort women” — Korean sex slaves for Japan’s World War II army — could also be a crime.
With the crackdown on misinformation, Moon is living up to a campaign promise to give Gwangju its rightful place in history. But by criminalizing so-called “historical distortions,” he is also stepping into a political minefield.
The Korea History Society and 20 other historical research institutes issued a joint statement last month warning that Moon’s progressive government, which presents itself as a champion of the democratic values secured through sacrifices like Gwangju, was actually undermining them by using the threat of criminal penalties to dictate history.
A law sponsored by Moon’s party, which took effect in January, mandates up to five years in prison for people who spread “falsehoods” about Gwangju. The party’s lawmakers also submitted a bill in May that calls for up to 10 years in prison for those who praise Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945.
The bill would set up a panel of experts on “truthful history” to detect distortions — and order corrections — in interpretations of sensitive historical topics, including killings of civilians during the Korean War and human rights violations under past military dictators.
Yet another bill from the party would criminalize “denying” or “distorting or falsifying facts” about a much more recent event, the sinking of the ferry Sewol in 2014, a disaster that killed hundreds of students and humiliated the conservative government then in power. Conservative lawmakers, for their part, submitted a bill last month that would punish those who deny that North Korea sank a South Korean naval ship in 2010.
“It’s a populist approach to history, appealing to widespread anti-Japanese sentiment to consolidate their political power,” said Kim Jeong-in, head of the Korea History Society, referring to the bill on Japanese colonial rule. “Who’s going to study colonial-era history if their research results are judged at a court of law?”
Recent surveys have found that the biggest conflict dividing Korean society is between progressives and conservatives, both of whom are eager to shape and censor history and textbooks to their advantage.
Conservative dictators once arrested, tortured and executed dissidents in the name of a National Security Act that criminalized “praising, inciting or propagating” any behaviour deemed pro-North Korean or sympathetic to communism.
Conservatives today want history to highlight the positive aspects of their heroes — such as Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s authoritarian founding president, and Park Chung-hee, a military dictator — and their success in fighting communism and lifting the country out of poverty after the Korean War.
Progressives often emphasize the underbelly of the conservative dictatorship, like the killings in Gwangju. They also denounce those they call “chinil,” pro-Japanese Koreans who they say collaborated with colonial leaders and thrived during the Cold War by rebranding themselves as anti-communist crusaders.
Yet Jee says there are progressives who harbour communist views that threaten the country’s democratic values.
Much of this debate is being carried out online, where some highly partisan podcasters and YouTubers have as many viewers as national television programs do.
“Ideally, conspiracy theories and irrational ideas should be dismissed or marginalized through the market of public opinion,” said Park Sang-hoon, a chief political scientist at the Political Power Plant, a Seoul-based civic group. “But they have become part of the political agenda here.” Mainstream media is “helping them gain legitimacy,” he said.