South Korea's Spy Agency Takes Criticism to Heart .. and Court

South Korea's top intelligence agency is suing forensic psychologist Pyo Chang-won for defamation. In his latest column [ko] in a left-leaning newspaper, Pyo lambasted the Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS), for their investigation into an agent's alleged illegal activities during the recent presidential elections. He also accused them of serving the political powerhouse for their own gains and called them “incompetent” and “declawed”.

Pyo has said that the lawsuit is a serious threat to free speech and democracy. Pyo Chang-won is a former professor of Korean National Police University and a well-known forensic psychologist who regularly blogs at Pyo Chang-won's Crime and Society [ko].

Right after being sued by the National Intelligence Service (NIS), Pyo wrote [ko] on his blog [ko]:

민주주의가 꽃피는 민주사회라면, 누구나 자신의 생각과 견해를 표명하는 데에 있어 어떠한 두려움도 느껴서는 안됩니다.[…] 국가기관인 국정원의 국민 대상 ‘명예훼손’ 고소, 그 자체가 권력적 탄압이며 민주주의를 압살하는 폭거입니다. 게다가 그 사유도 지나가는 개가 웃을 ‘언론 기고문 등에서 국정원을 무능하다고 비판했다'는 것입니다.

In a true democratic society where democracy flourishes, no one should be fearful of expressing their opinions […] The National Intelligence Service(NIS)– a government body – filing a libel lawsuit against an individual citizen is an abuse of power and a draconian act that clamps down on our democracy. And the reason for the libel is so lame that will even makes a passing dog laugh; for criticizing its incompetence in an op-ed.

The police initially planned to re-summon the agent early December last year, for working on warping public opinion by extensively posting slanderous comments [ko] with using 20 different IDs [ko] against the liberal candidate. It has been reported that the agent's mission was to “monitor North Korea-friendly leftists’ online activities [ko] in (what they think are) ‘pro-North Korean sites’. However, within less than two weeks, the police overturned its decision and released its report that they found no solid evidence of illegal activities. In South Korea, it is illegal for public servants to publicly take sides in the presidential election.

Soon after the fiasco, Pyo retired from his professor job [ko] at the Korea National Police University. In his most recent blog post published on Jan 29, 2013, Pyo added [ko]:

[…] 저도 거대 권력기관인 국정원과 싸우는 현 상황이 싫습니다. 누가 좋아하겠습니까? 제가 매달 진행하는 전국 순회강연 강연장소 확보에 어려움이 생길 때 마다, 혹시 극정원과의 싸움 떄문은 아닌가 의심하게 됩니다. 방송 출연 계획이 분명하지 않은 이유로 취소될 때에도 마찬가지입니다.

I really hate the situation of fighting against the huge powerhouse, NIS. Who would enjoy this? Whenever I have a hard time finding locations for my national lecture tour, I begin to wonder if it has something to do with my battle with the NIS. Same thing happened when some of my booked TV show appearances got canceled for no apparent reason.


Image of Censorship, By Flickr user Isaac Mao (CC BY 2.0)

Democratic coalition groups accused this lawsuit of having the sole purpose [ko] of browbeating citizens by flexing the government's muscle. Similar reactions can be easily found on South Korean Twittersphere. @blu_pn wrote [ko]: 

[…] 우선 국가기관이 툭하면 명예훼손의 주체가 된다는 것부터가 코리아 사회에 만연하는 저질 코메디다. 권력이 시민을 상대로 고소고발을 남발하면 대체 시민은 어떤 방법으로 국가권력을 견제하고 비판하란 말인가?

It is the worst comedy prevalent in Korean society; a government body becoming a claimant of libel- so often. How can citizens monitor and criticize government power if the authorities so rampantly file lawsuits against individual citizens?

Influential reporter @welovehani reminded people [ko] of the fact that a government body cannot even be considered as a

plaintiff in a defamation case:

[…] 법원은 “국가기관은 명예훼손 소송 주체가 될 수 없다”고 계속 판결하고 있습니다. 국정원이 법원 판례를 몰랐을 리 없을 것.

The Court has ruled consistently [in similar previous cases] the government bodies cannot be a claimant of defamation. There is no way that NIS was not aware of these previous rulings.

@parkhyun813 wrote [ko]:

표교수님처럼 하면 국가기관에 고소당한다~ 겁먹어라~행동하지 마라~ 하는 심산이겠죠

The message they are sending is ‘If you act like Prof. Pyo, you will be sued by a government body: Be Intimidated. Don't act.’

Some internet trolls of an extreme right-wing site, even planned on stalking Pyo's daughter [ko] as a way of blackmailing Pyo. However, Pyo tweeted [ko] on Jan 27 that even though it is not legally possible to sue these people, his daughter, is trained in various martial arts, and would be tough to tackle so his family is not threatened at all.


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