70 years after the Korean War, visiting North Korea is prohibited, as is any communication with it. An online firewall prevents access to North Korean electronic media. Because printed periodicals were imported and put into a library run by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) the impact of internet censorship received little attention.
But no new North Korean print publications have reached the South for three years now. This has effectively cut off South Koreans from most basic information on the other half of the peninsula. Fearing transmission of COVID-19, North Korea halted most trade — including the export of print publications — in early 2020. A handful of websites, which are all censored in South Korea, and the main North Korean state TV channel, KCTV, aired via satellite, have become the only sources of information.
In July 2022, South Korea’s new conservative government suddenly announced that censorship would be lifted, but half a year later nothing has changed. In October 2022, South Korea’s Minister of Unification Kwon Young-se confessed that while he could imagine North Korean TV in South Korean homes, he could not imagine lifting online censorship. TV content from North Korea can already be watched at the Ministry of Unification library or on any of the larger video-sharing platforms. Yet content from censored North Korean websites is not available to the public anywhere.
The ministry argued that ending censorship would help restore ‘ethnic homogeneity’, increase pressure on North Korea to do the same and help South Koreans to ‘understand’ the other side. Kwon later added that citizens were now ‘mature’ enough to be exposed to North Korean content and there were no legal hurdles to end censorship.
Not once has the government admitted that the censorship is problematic under international and domestic law. South Korea is a signatory to the International Convention for Civil and Political Rights. It should guarantee the ‘freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers’.
Domestically, the Korea Communication Standards Commission (KCSC) controls censorship of North Korean websites.It abuses a clause of South Korea’s internet law that allows for the censorship of ‘information with content that commits an activity’ prohibited by the National Security Act.
The National Security Act is infamous for preventing objective debate on North Korea, although a safety clause was added in 1991 to limit its application and prohibit the restriction of fundamental human rights. Despite this, KCSC bans entire North Korean websites instead of carefully censoring specific content. The Seoul Court of Appeals reprimanded censors in 2017 for violating the principle of ‘minimal regulation’ but the KCSC refused to rethink its approach.
Former South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s progressive government (2017–2022) won a majority in parliament but did not adjust legislation despite the problem being obvious by early 2020. Though the unification ministry is collecting banned online texts, it did not create any alternative ways to access them for the public. The ministry claims copyright rules prevented it from putting content collected online into its public library — but that sounds more like an excuse. So far it could boast only of a single successful acquisition of new materials. In October, the ministry announced it was able to legally purchase digital issues of a North Korean newspaper of 2020 and 2021 via China.
The current censorship policy is not just legally questionable — it is also ineffective and contradictory. Anybody tech-savvy enough can get around the firewall — like many journalists do every day. Nobody is prosecuted for accessing North Korean websites, although most South Koreans believe they could be, and registering an account is considered legal. Because Virtual Private Networks are required to access censored websites it is impossible to monitor who engages in prohibited ‘communication with the enemy’.
But there is a surprisingly easy solution.
South Korea need only exempt the Japan-based Korea Press Media from internet censorship or convince the company to make its commercial database accessible to South Koreans offline somehow. For more than a decade, that database has released digital versions of main North Korean newspapers within hours after they are printed and dozens of journals in social and natural sciences with some delay.
Politicians and civil society in South Korea should have been aware of this possibility — their silence highlights the effectiveness of censorship. Even worse, South Koreans have yet to publicly criticise the fact that their right to access North Korean information was severely violated for three years.
South Korea’s outdated censorship rules and COVID-19 have thrown analysis of North Korea back to the Cold War — barely any content is available to citizens and there is no end in sight. International society should not watch in silence and ignore this issue like the US State Department’s most recent human rights report on South Korea did. Eventually, all will be worse off if South Korea’s policy on North Korea is driven by ignorance and misunderstandings, instead of facts and analysis.
Martin Weiser is an independent researcher based in Seoul.