On March 3, 2016, the South Korean National Assembly passed the Act on Anti-Terrorism for the Protection of Citizens and Public Security, following strong criticism from non-governmental and human rights organizations, opposition political parties, and a week-long filibuster in parliament aimed at delaying the bill’s adoption. Although virtually every state adopted new (or strengthened already existing) anti-terror legislation in the aftermath of September 11, South Korea’s Act had been stalled for 14 years. This was not because of political complacency that such legislation is not necessary, despite the fact that the country has virtually minimal experience of terrorism.1 Rather, it was because the Act envisaged the expansion of the National Intelligence Service’s (NIS) powers to survey and arrest not only terrorist suspects, but also dissenters of governmental policy more broadly.
A number of incidents leading to the bill’s introduction meant that such fears were not entirely unfounded. Shortly after the election of 2012, which saw the Saenuri party rise to power with Park Geun-hye as President, it emerged that during the electoral campaign, nine NIS staff — following orders from the agency’s director — engaged in internet activities that sought to tar opposition politicians, labor activists, and other critics of the government. In 2014 the Constitutional Court outlawed the left-wing United Progressive Party because it “aimed at using violent means to overthrow our free democratic system … ultimately establishing a North-Korean-style socialist system.”
Although at the fringes of the country’s politics, the party (with five elected MPs, out of the National Assembly’s total of 300) was a vocal opponent to President Park’s policies and it was widely assumed that this was what led to its dissolution and the forfeit of all five of its democratically elected seats. Such moves against freedom of expression of dissenting voices were brought to the limelight again more recently, during the visit to the country by the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. The Special Rapporteur’s remarks that the right to peaceful assembly has been shrinking due to undue restrictions such as, among others, blanket bans on peaceful protests, highlights the sensitivity of the conservative government to criticism and dissent.
Of course, this is not the first time that an administration has sought to usurp the powers of anti-terror legislation to curtail opposition and dissent. The global War on Terror (WoT) has led liberal and illiberal states alike to pursue exceptional/-ist policies that have undermined, rather than strengthened, institutional practices and national interests. Extraordinary renditions, detention sites like Guantanamo Bay, abuses like those in Abu Ghraib, mass surveillance, and the marginalization, criminalization, and victimization of entire communities are some of WoT’s most known illiberal effects.
Although not a new phenomenon, nor necessarily more violent than in the past (at least in the West), specific political agendas have effectively shaped anti-terrorist policies and narratives in the post-9/11 world that reclassified terrorism as the greatest existentialist threat, as a result of which the terrorist label has been misused and abused. As Brzezinsky put it, “the ongoing war on terror stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue”. Asking lawmakers to blindly trust the secret evidence the government has, and which it may “some day” divulge, renders suspicions about the government’s aims understandable. A closer look at the bill’s provision highlights the arbitrariness of the terms and the sweeping and unchecked powers it gives to the NIS.
The definition of “terror” in Art.2.1(a), unless strictly interpreted, can include any activity with a purpose to impede the exercise of the authority of the state, or local government. One such misinterpretation could include demonstrations against the state’s or local government’s policies. Furthermore, according to Article 2(3) of the Act, a “potential terrorist” includes anyone “who is reasonably believed to have prepared, conspired, propagated, or incited terrorism” without a clear reference on any legal process of assigning or delisting a potential terrorist. This is of particular concern, considering that the government has many times labeled peaceful protests as acts of terror and a lack of a minimum safeguard for de-listing. As a point of reference, and for reasons of comparison, “incitement of terrorism” is defined by the Council of Europe’s Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism as “the distribution, or otherwise making available, of a message to the public, with the intent to incite the commission of a terrorist offence, where such conduct, whether or not directly advocating terrorist offences, causes a danger that one or more such offences may be committed” (Article 5 (1)).
Moreover, under Article 9 of the Act, once listed as a potential terrorist, the NIS can extensively collect personal information, including sensitive information and location data, wiretap, tail, or even apply financial sanctions. Considering that safeguards to manage and monitor such abuses of power are highly insufficient, this legislation may become a tool that facilitates illegal intervention into people’s privacy.
Similarly problematic is the broadness with which Article 12 defines “materials instigating or propagandising terrorism.” Such breadth of definition means that it is at the discretion of the government which paintings, writings, and other forms of expression will be defined as terrorist propaganda. Although South Korea is not alone in its use of “vague terms of uncertain scope”, the former UN Secretary General has criticised the readiness with which the “glorification of terrorism” has become a frequent accusation, considering it to be an inappropriate restriction on expression.
Broad policy generalizations are perhaps inevitable when terrorism, as a phenomenon, lacks an academically universal definition. But this is perhaps a minor inadequacy (other concepts — like religion, civil society, and politics among others — also come short of such definition) compared to the lack of a framework for the comprehensive evaluation of counter-terrorist strategies. As has increasingly been pointed out in research findings, counterterrorism’s foundation on prophylaxis and preparedness renders counterterrorism a self-fulfilling prophecy: its insistence on the anticipation of terrorist violence contributes to the creation of terror as much as (if not more than) terrorist violence itself.
As an emerging middle power, proud of its democratic consolidation, South Korea should (and could) do more to avoid hunting ghosts at the expense of the security of its citizens.
1. The country scored 0.23 in a scale of 10 in the Global Terrorism Index 2016, and zero in 2015. See Institute for Economics and Peace (2016), Global Terrorism Index 2016, p. 95.