‘Historical Distortions’ Test South Korea’s Commitment to Free SpeechHistorians in the News
tags: nationalism, teaching history, Korean history
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 Mr. 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 J. 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 offense. Under the bills pushed by Mr. 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, Mr. 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.
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