Debates and Sentiment toward the National Security Act in South Korea 

By and | March 29, 2024 | No Comments

Legislation that curtails basic freedoms is not in keeping with the fundamentals of a consolidated democracy, and thus, one might ordinarily expect such legislation to eventually be abolished. Yet South Korea, after 35 years of democracy and eight elected administrations, has not jettisoned one such controversial and repressive law – the National Security Act (NSA). This legislation, in force since the Republic of Korea was mere months old, is plainly incompatible with liberal-democratic values, especially Article 7 of the law.

That is not to say there has never been criticism of the NSA. On the contrary, it has been attacked at home and abroad for being too broad and vague and much too often used to suppress political dissent and restrict freedom of speech. The law has been used to target groups the government considers a threat, including labor unions, student activists, and religious groups.

However, progressive lawmakers tend only to aim for scope-limiting revisions to protect civil liberties, or, as happened under President Moon Jae-in, they address failings in other areas of the legislative landscape where there is more traction to be gained. Conservatives argue forcefully that abolishing the law would imperil national security. The result is a legislative inertia that finds tacit approval in public sentiment and a political equilibrium that leans toward preserving the status quo, albeit with modest scope for adjustments. Why?

Recent data indicates that public support for abolishing the NSA is not as overwhelming as one might expect, but this perception is influenced by how questions are framed. The 2018 World Values Survey reveals a divided public opinion, with 48 percent disagreeing with the statement, “The National Security Act should be abolished.” Notably, the East Asia Institute’s surveys from 2015 and 2020 show a majority favoring the status quo when asked whether they think the act “should be kept as it is” or “should be revised or abolished.”

In addition to finding evidence that an otherwise illiberal law might not be strongly opposed, the findings underscore the importance of question-wording, as combining distinct options like revision and abolition might confuse respondents and raises construct validity concerns. This issue points to the need for better measurement.

To address the methodological concerns and more accurately gauge South Korean public opinion on the NSA, our newly published article in the open-access journal Democratization makes use of a conjoint design to present unambiguous and realistic policy options regarding what the public would like to do with the law.1)Green, Christopher, and Steven Denney. “Why do democratic societies tolerate undemocratic laws? Sorting public support for the National Security Act in South Korea.” Democratization 31, no. 1 (2024): 113-131.

Using a survey administered to 2,009 respondents in a nationally representative survey from late 2021, we asked respondents to evaluate competing proposals about what legislatures should do with the law. After giving respondents a brief summary of the law to ensure a minimum level of understanding, respondents are randomized to different policy proposals regarding the Act. These include “abolishing it altogether,” “keeping it as it is,” “limiting its scope,” or “expanding it.” They are also provided information on whether one of the two major political parties endorses the proposal (People’s Power Party and Minjoo Party) and various ‘policy rationales’ for why any given position should be supported, including: “it’s the right thing to do,” “it will safeguard liberal democracy,” and “it will strengthen national security.”

You can view an English-language example of the experimental design here. Each respondent evaluated eight competing policy proposals, selecting the most preferred one for each.

We also replicated the WVS question to establish a baseline of support for the Act. The figure below situates that baseline based on our direct question vis-à-vis the existing data reviewed above. In our survey, approximately 53 percent of respondents opposed abolishing the NSA. This proportion is slightly higher than the 2018 WVS survey (48%) and, predictably, differs considerably from the differently worded questions from the East Asia Institute’s 2015 and 2020 surveys.

Our experimental findings provide a better overview of South Korean public opinion on the National Security Act. The report presents marginal means for various policy positions. These marginal means represent the average likelihood that the survey respondents preferred a profile featuring a specific policy position, controlling for the influence of other attribute values in the profile (party endorsement and rationale for choosing said policy position — not shown in the figure). 

We see that the policy position with the lowest level of support is the proposal to abolish the NSA, with a marginal mean of .41. This indicates that, on average, only 41 percent of the survey respondents selected profiles that included this policy position. The proposal with the highest level of support limits the law’s scope (57 percent of profiles). Support for the status quo (leave it as is) still generates support (a mean of higher than .5 means more than half of all profiles with this proposal were chosen). While expanding the scope of the NSA is not a supported position, it is not strongly opposed — and, notably, is considerably more popular than abolishing the law altogether.

Another finding explored in the full paper is the difference in attitudes by political subgroups: progressive and conservative partisans. We find that they align in their opposition to the scrapping of the law altogether (a most notable finding in and of itself, we argue), but they differ in attitudes towards other proposals. This difference in opinion is moderated by the policy rationale provided. The figure below shows the difference in opinion by political subgroups, interacting the policy position with the rationale. Some notable observations can be made here. 

First, conservatives are motivated to expand the scope of the NSA if the policy change is framed as a matter of strengthening national security. Progressives, on the other hand, are the most likely to favor adding additional restrictions for the purpose of protecting the country’s liberal democracy — although conservatives are supportive, too, just relatively less so. And although progressives can be persuaded to at least consider abolition by either a pro-democracy or pro-national security rationale (evidenced by a marginal mean at .50), neither group can be motivated to support abolishing the law. It is Hardly surprising that as one former progressive politician we consulted during the research put it to us, nobody in power is ready to spend — one might alternatively say waste — political capital on a project like abolition.

Despite its consolidation as one of the few liberal democracies in East Asia, South Korea maintains the National Security Act (NSA), a piece of legislation that limits political liberties and is used at times to prosecute citizens, highlighting the tension between national security and democratic freedoms. The continued application of the NSA, albeit less frequently than during the military dictatorship, and its amendments in the democratic era, underscore its persistent yet moderated role in the country’s political system. Conditional public support for the NSA, favoring revisions and opposing abolition, reflects some recognition of the trade-offs between safeguarding democratic principles and promoting national security.

1 Green, Christopher, and Steven Denney. “Why do democratic societies tolerate undemocratic laws? Sorting public support for the National Security Act in South Korea.” Democratization 31, no. 1 (2024): 113-131.

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