SEOUL — Within the historical past of South Korea’s combat for democracy, the 1980 rebellion in Gwangju stands out as one of many proudest moments. Hundreds of abnormal residents took to the streets to protest a army dictatorship, and a whole lot had been shot down by safety forces. The bloody incident has been sanctified in textbooks because the “Gwangju Democratization Motion.”
Proper-wing extremists, nonetheless, have provided an alternate, extremely inflammatory view of what occurred: Gwangju, they are saying, was not a heroic sacrifice for democracy, however a “riot” instigated by North Korean communists who had infiltrated the protest motion.
Such conspiracy theories, which few historians take significantly, have been spreading shortly in South Korea, the place a political divide — rooted within the nation’s torturous and infrequently violent trendy historical past — is being amplified on-line.
President Moon Jae-in’s governing celebration has rolled out a slate of laws, a few of which has already change into legislation, geared toward stamping out false narratives about sure delicate historic subjects, together with Gwangju. His supporters say he’s defending the reality. Free speech advocates, and Mr. Moon’s conservative enemies, have accused the president of utilizing censorship and historical past as political weapons.
Democracies world wide are struggling to take care of the corrosive results of social media and disinformation on politics, debating whether or not and the place to attract strains between pretend information and free speech. In america and elsewhere, the talk has targeted on the ability of social media firms, castigated on the left for spreading hatred and false conspiracy theories, and on the fitting for banning customers like Donald J. Trump.
However few democratic international locations have curtailed speech to the extent that South Korea is contemplating, and a debate is underway about whether or not the efforts to squelch misinformation will result in broader censorship or encourage authoritarian ambitions.
“Whether or not I’m proper or flawed ought to be determined via free public debate, the engine of democracy,” stated Jee Man-won, a number one proponent of the idea of North Korean involvement in Gwangju. “As a substitute, the federal government is utilizing its energy to dictate historical past.”
Arguments over which messages to permit and which to suppress are sometimes about nationwide historical past and id. In america, debates rage concerning the affect of racism and slavery within the nation’s previous and current, and about methods to train these subjects at school. Supporters of the brand new legal guidelines say they do what Germany has accomplished in attacking the lie of Holocaust denial.
South Korea has lengthy prided itself on its dedication to free speech, however additionally it is a rustic the place going in opposition to the mainstream can have steep penalties.
Historic points, like collaboration with Japanese colonialists or wartime civilian massacres, have divided the nation for many years. Defamation is a legal offense. Beneath the payments pushed by Mr. Moon’s celebration, selling revisionist narratives about delicate topics like Gwangju or the “consolation girls” — Korean intercourse slaves for Japan’s World Warfare II military — is also against the law.
With the crackdown on misinformation, Mr. Moon resides as much as a marketing campaign promise to present Gwangju its rightful place in historical past. However by criminalizing so-called “historic distortions,” he’s additionally stepping right into a political minefield.
The Korea Historical past Society and 20 different historic analysis institutes issued a joint assertion final month warning that Mr. Moon’s progressive authorities, which presents itself as a champion of the democratic values secured via sacrifices like Gwangju, was really undermining them through the use of the specter of legal penalties to dictate historical past.
A legislation sponsored by Mr. Moon’s celebration, which took impact in January, mandates as much as 5 years in jail for individuals who unfold “falsehoods” about Gwangju. The celebration’s lawmakers additionally submitted a invoice in Could that requires as much as 10 years in jail for many who reward Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945.
The invoice would arrange a panel of consultants on “truthful historical past” to detect distortions — and order corrections — in interpretations of delicate historic subjects, together with killings of civilians through the Korean Warfare and human rights violations below previous army dictators.
Yet one more invoice from the celebration would criminalize “denying” or “distorting or falsifying details” about a way more current occasion, the sinking of the ferry Sewol in 2014, a catastrophe that killed a whole lot of scholars and humiliated the conservative authorities then in energy. Conservative lawmakers, for his or her half, submitted a invoice final month that will punish those that deny that North Korea sank a South Korean naval ship in 2010.
“It’s a populist strategy to historical past, interesting to widespread anti-Japanese sentiment to consolidate their political energy,” stated Kim Jeong-in, head of the Korea Historical past Society, referring to the invoice on Japanese colonial rule. “Who’s going to review colonial-era historical past if their analysis outcomes are judged at a courtroom of legislation?”
Members of the family of the Gwangju protesters welcomed Mr. Moon’s makes an attempt to punish purveyors of disinformation who disparage them.
“As if our lack of siblings and oldsters was not painful sufficient, they’ve been vilifying us as stooges of North Korean brokers,” stated Cho Younger-dae, a nephew of the late Cho Pius, a Catholic priest in Gwangju who participated within the rebellion and testified years later concerning the killings. “They’ve abused the liberty of expression so as to add insult to our harm.”
Mr. Cho, who can also be a priest, stated Gwangju survivors had suffered too lengthy whereas folks like Mr. Jee unfold false details about the bloodbath. “We want a South Korean model of the Holocaust legislation to punish those that beautify the Gwangju atrocity, as European international locations have legal guidelines in opposition to Holocaust denial,” he stated.
Current surveys have discovered that the most important battle dividing Korean society is between progressives and conservatives, each of whom are desirous to form and censor historical past and textbooks to their benefit.
Conservative dictators as soon as arrested, tortured and executed dissidents within the identify of a Nationwide Safety Act that criminalized “praising, inciting or propagating” any conduct deemed pro-North Korean or sympathetic to communism.
Conservatives right this moment need historical past to focus on the optimistic elements of their heroes — akin to Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s authoritarian founding president, and Park Chung-hee, a army dictator — and their success in combating communism and lifting the nation out of poverty after the Korean Warfare.
Progressives typically emphasize the underbelly of the conservative dictatorship, just like the killings in Gwangju. In addition they denounce these they name “chinil,” pro-Japanese Koreans who they are saying collaborated with colonial leaders and thrived through the Chilly Warfare by rebranding themselves as anti-communist crusaders.
Mr. Jee believes there are progressives who harbor communist views that threaten the nation’s democratic values.
A lot of this debate is being carried out on-line, the place some extremely partisan podcasters and YouTubers have as many viewers as nationwide tv applications do.
“Ideally, conspiracy theories and irrational concepts ought to be dismissed or marginalized via the market of public opinion,” stated Park Sang-hoon, chief political scientist on the Political Energy Plant, a Seoul-based civic group. “However they’ve change into a part of the political agenda right here.” Mainstream media is “serving to them achieve legitimacy,” he stated.
In the course of the Gwangju rebellion, a handful of journalists had been capable of slip via the army cordon across the metropolis. They discovered moms wailing over the our bodies of family members. A “residents’ military” carried weapons commandeered from police stations, as folks on the sidewalks chanted “Down with dictatorship!” The protesters dug right into a authorities constructing for his or her final, doomed standoff in opposition to the military.
To many South Koreans, the protesters in Gwangju received. College students throughout the nation adopted of their footsteps and rose up in opposition to the junta.
Chun Doo-hwan, the military common who had seized energy in a army coup earlier than the protests, blamed “vicious rioters” and “communist agitators” for the violence. Within the late Nineties, he was convicted of sedition and mutiny in reference to the coup and the killings in Gwangju. (He was later pardoned.)
“Because of the sacrifice in Gwangju, our democracy may survive and stand once more,” Mr. Moon stated when he visited the town shortly after his election in 2017. He stated the spirit of Gwangju had been “reincarnated” within the mass protests that ousted his predecessor, Park Geun-hye — the dictator Park Chung-hee’s daughter — and warned in opposition to “insupportable” makes an attempt to “distort and disparage” the 1980 rebellion.
Mr. Jee stated his expertise voicing nonconformist historic views ought to be a warning to South Koreans. In 2002, he positioned a newspaper commercial claiming that Gwangju was a secret North Korean operation.
He was subsequently hauled to Gwangju in handcuffs and jailed for 100 days on defamation expenses, till his jail time period was finally suspended.
He has since revealed 10 books on Gwangju and fought extra defamation prosecutions. Though critics accused him of peddling wild conspiracy theories, his view has drawn a following.
“In the event that they didn’t deal with me the way in which they did in 2002, I’d not have come this far,” he stated.