The Public Sphere in South Korea: Kim Young-hwan on the National Security Act

By | September 26, 2012 | 1 Comment

Kim Young-hwan has, since his "conversion," positioned himself in the active sphere as an activist for North Korean human rights, insisting that the issue is not merely an internal issue but an international one worthy of global attention. | Image: NK Net

Kim Young-hwan has, since his “conversion,” positioned himself in the active sphere as an activist for North Korean human rights, insisting that the issue is not merely an internal issue but an international one worthy of global attention. | Image: NK Net

The Public Sphere in South Korea: Kim Young-hwan on the National Security Act

by Steven Denney, Introduction by Chris Green

Introduction: a Primer on Kim | In the run up to former pro-Juche revolutionary, alleged torture victim and human rights activist Kim Young-hwan’s guest lecture at Yonsei University on Wednesday, September 12, a tempest of controversy had been aroused by the New York Times after it published a somewhat sensationalized piece on Kim in which he was described as a go-getting sort of James Bond character rather than the shy, retiring analytical man whom those closer to him would have described in the event that they had been asked.[1]

The Times article was not the reason for Kim’s decision to give the lecture, which had been a while in the making, but it certainly added to the level of interest in what he had to say. After all, most people have not read The Shadow of Progressivism [진보의 그늘], the book another former pro-Juche leftist, NKnet president Han Ki-hong, was inspired to write in 2011 by the entry into public life of a number of supposedly pro-North Korea figures who stand accused of failing to renounce their former beliefs and of holding ongoing membership of the North Korean Workers’ Party—a phenomenon analyzed in more detail below.

However, had the audience members read that substantive text, then the truth is that they would have learned considerably more about Kim’s past than the man himself was prepared to offer up during his relatively brief remarks.

Perhaps because it bores him to recount the same 20-year old story again and again, or perhaps because he much prefers to discuss North Korean human rights instead, Kim did not proffer forth a stirring run down of his past, at one point managing to gloss over in about four minutes the best known single event of his entire career as a failed revolutionary: a secret 1991 trip to Pyongyang by speedboat and helicopter that included almost six hours of meetings with Kim Il Sung. (Notably, Kim Il-sung offended his then-disciple by proving indisputably that he had not even the self-respect required to learn the basic tenets of Juche, the philosophy upon which his national fiefdom was then supposedly based). Nevertheless, during the Q&A session, Kim managed to delve into a topic of contemporary political and social importance.

Taking on the National Security State | Kim may now be a nominal opponent of the North Korean regime, but his position in South Korean politics is also that of a critic. Among the things said by Kim, the bit that stood out as most meaningful—indeed, unexpected — was his comment in response to a question about the necessity of South Korea’s National Security Act (NSA;국가 보안법), namely, whether it is still necessary. Kim managed to make some waves—and certainly caught the attention of many audience members familiar with Kim’s life story—by declaring that he supports the repeal of the NSA’s article 7, which currently makes it illegal to say or do anything that could be construed as supporting or praising the country of North Korea.

It is worth nothing that Kim also stated the National Security Law is no longer abused, relative to times past—though this is certainly an interesting point worthy of further analysis and discussion. Before entertaining Kim’s point that article 7 is outdated, and its implications for South Korean body politic and the country’s still consolidating democracy, we first need to dip into the realm of the historical-theoretical by way of Jürgen Habermas and his theory on the “public sphere.”

The “Public Sphere” in South Korea | The “public sphere” is a spatial concept expressed by Jürgen Habermas in his work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas explores the historical roots of the social space wherein private individuals[2] interact with each other to reach general conclusions regarding state and society based on “informed and critical discourse,” abetted by journals, newspapers and other forms of print media.

The stringent restrictions on freedom of speech during the years of authoritative rule in South Korea had the effect of distorting the public realm to the extent that Habermas’ vaunted “public sphere” never developed. However, much of this changed following the culmination of the democratic movement in the 1980s. The rise of civil society in Korea following democratization in 1987 can be alternatively understood as the appearance and legitimization of the public sphere. Though still monitored, the ability for private people to congregate, debate issues and, in the words of Habermas, “inform the public of useful truths” has, with the help of obvious and undeniably bad governance on behalf of the North Koreans, led to a general acknowledgment that South Korea, while hardly problem-free, enjoys both economic and moral superiority on the Peninsula.[3] The work of NK Net, Daily NK, and other organizations operating in the public sphere have helped propagate this view by spreading a message that North Korea’s political and economic systems have clearly failed.

Though the former authoritarian governments made great efforts to portray the North as the enemy state based on an illegitimate ideology (an effort no doubt strongly supported and enforced by mandatory military service), the rigid, top-down approach prohibited a critical and healthy appreciation of the situation. Kim Young-hwan’s defense of his anti-government, pro-socialist sentiments seems to confirm this notion. During his speech at Yonsei, Kim regularly referred to the appeal of socialist ideology in an authoritarian state as South Korea was. (This was not to deny that Kim eventually found full knowledge that the situation in the North was just as bad, if not worse—a point that played a major role in Kim’s repudiation of Juche and North Korea’s brand of Marxist-socialism).

Kim’s comment that the South Korean public has “matured” indicates that society, as a whole, has been adequately informed and accepts as “truth” that the great socialist experiment north of the 38 Parallel has failed. Moreover, despite the always volatile issue of American military bases and the US-ROK alliance, America is not perceived as a “colonizer” or, even if looked upon with a deep sense of suspicion, as the source of Korea’s existential woes, lingering Pro-North Korea sympathizers and hard left-leaning political factions notwithstanding.

Civil Society Rising | The reason Kim gave for his belief that article 7 is no longer needed is the belief that South Korean society is now mature enough to handle pro-North Korean issues in a rational and informed way. Or, understood again through a Habermasian lens, could be restated as such: the rise in the public sphere and the free flow of information through the medium of civil society has resulted in the maturation of the South Korean body politic.

A case indicative of such maturation is the public response to Lee Seok-ki and his palpably pro-North Korea statements. The response to his recent quip that being pro-American is worse for South Korea than being pro-North Korea is a case-in-point. When such comments enter the collective conscious of the public sphere, and by extension the entire body politic, Lee is collectively condemned in a way befitting a mature society with a functioning public sphere and an active civil society–even by those sitting on the right side of the political aisle, who, in the not so distant past, would have attempted to have such people jailed. In the words of Joshua Stanton:

… whereas in the past, the Korean right would have wanted men like Lee Seok Gi jailed, they are now doing what they should have done all along — making an issue of their views, attacking them on substance, and making them look ridiculous. That’s certainly an improvement over making martyrs of imbeciles.

In addition to dealing with public revelations of views sympathetic to the North, here is another important domestic-political issue related to the emergence of the public sphere and the rise of civil society as markers of the consolidation of Korean democracy (re: maturation): the ability to exploit the North Korean issue (by South Korean politicians) and the ability to use a “North Wind” to affect South Korean politics. Comments here bring us into the orbit of BR Myers and his theory on the effects of North Korean provocations on domestic politics in the South.

Mounting a Challenge to Myers’ De Facto Orthodoxy | Myers asserts that because of the particular race-based, state-distrusting nationalism characteristic of Koreans, provocation from the North can actually result in the strengthening of pro-Pyongyang political parties and the adoption of a less confrontational North Korean policy.[4] In Myers’ own words:

As  counterintuitive as  it  may  sound  to Americans  unfamiliar  with  South  Korean  ethno-nationalism, the  DPRK  can  more  effectively  strengthen  South  Korean  parties  sympathetic  to the  North  by  seeking  conflict  with  the  ROK.[5]

Kim Young-hwan’s point about article 7  of  the NSA, and its interpretation a la Habermas, can be interpreted as a challenge to the de factor orthodoxy of Myers, a scholar-critic who has gained much acclaim in the last few decades for being unapologetically polemical and largely correct in his analysis/projections (though he has yet to spill much ink from his home base in Busan in the cleansing aftermath of The Cleanest Race, the above footnote notwithstanding).

Written in 2010, Myers’ thesis could be defended if one takes the public response to the 2010 North Korean provocations and the projected North Korean policies of the current conservative and liberal presidential candidates. People were not as upset with North Korea as they were disappointed in their own government’s handling of the situation—a consequence, noted Myers in a NYT op-ed, of the particular brand of ethno-nationalism on the Korean peninsula, particularly in South Korea. Thus, if we follow Myers’ argument to its logical conclusion, whether a conservative or a liberal is elected to office at the end of this year, a new and less confrontational posture towards Pyongyang is likely to be taken (as has been noted elsewhere).

Though Myers’ position is arguably correct, Kim’s comment and the analysis provided in this article beckon a broader view of South Korean public perception of North-South relations as well as the acknowledgement that, despite his track record, Myers’ central claim may, in fact, be outdated. If Kim Young-hwan is correct about the maturation of the public sphere and Korean civil society, it would be hard to maintain the notion that the North can significantly affect the domestic political situation in the South. If the public sphere has actually matured to the level believed by Kim, then those responsible for the dissemination of information and the shaping of public opinion should be effective at convincing the public at-large that provocations from the North are a consequence of a tried and true scheme of brinkmanship and risky foreign policy, not the consequence of a sub-par South Korean administration.


[1] The “007” characterization of Kim Young-hwan appears to have been an invention of the Times’ editors, not their reporter in Seoul.

[2] Habermas refers to these individual as the bourgeoisie class, loosely defined as those with property and education and access to means for the dissemination of information, e.g. a journal or newspaper. In the context of modern Korea in the digital age, this covers a large swath of the population.

[3] The notion that the emergence/creation of a legitimate public sphere came about as a result of democratization can find much support in the literature. Despite the rise of civil society and a public medium through which private citizens can meet, discuss, and refute ideas, South Korea’s public sphere is of questionable value, since much of it is state funded or, if not aided by the state’s coffers, funded by large conglomerates—a business phenomenon that seems to fall somewhere outside of Habermas’ conceptual framework.

[4] Regarding provocations as the topic, it’s important to note that North Korea still likely thinks it can continue to affect the political sphere in South Korea, regardless of whether it actually can. Whether or not the North decides to go ahead with a third nuclear test later this year when South Korean presidential hopefuls are spending their days and nights on the political stump.

[5] BR Myers, “Inside the Authoritarian State: North Korea’s State-Loyalty Advantage.” Columbia Journal of International Affairs 62, no. 1 (2011): 127.

One Comment

  1. Steven – Love the article and the way ROK’s may think about the issues with the North as more of an expression of dissatisfaction with their own government.

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