The ruling Democratic Party of Korea seeks to adopt as one of the planks of its platform the enactment of a bill to strongly punish any act of spreading false information regarding the May 18, 1980 Gwangju Democratic Uprising.
If it becomes part of the platform, the party will propose the bill in the names of all of its 177 lawmakers.
The bill reportedly punishes dissemination of false information on the movement with a maximum prison term of seven years or a maximum fine of 70 million won ($57,000).
Simultaneously, the party will seek to adopt as another plank the revision of a special law to greatly strengthen the powers of a fact-finding committee on the Democratic Uprising.
The committee can ask the prosecution to request the court issue a warrant for search and seizure only if it receives “strong allegations.” But the party is said to be considering deleting this requirement in order to authorize the committee to request warrants directly. Constitutionally, warrants for arrest, search and seizure can be requested at a prosecutor’s discretion.
The motion of the punishment bill related to the May 18 movement was triggered early last year by unfounded arguments that North Korean soldiers had intervened in the popular uprising. Remarks to the effect, made by some opposition lawmakers and their supporters, caused unnecessary social conflict.
But the spread of false information or the defamation of victims to historical events can be punished with a jail term of up to five years under the current criminal law. And spreading misinformation can not only be punished by a statute, but also countered through the process of public discourse.
Nevertheless, the party tries to legislate a law to punish people more severely than the existing criminal law. This sounds more like a threat to put people behind bars if they speak ill of the incident.
The idea of banning historical distortions by law seems risky.
Academically diverse views can exist, even as historical facts remain unchanged. Furthermore, when it comes to history what counts as distortion or slander may be ambiguous.
Interpretation of past incidents changes with the changing of the times. As time passes, historical materials are accumulated and values change. To fix only one interpretation as right, force it on people and punish dissent runs the risk of suppressing freedom of speech and expression.
Efforts to discover historical facts must be a path to reconciliation and integration. Freedom of expression is in the spirit of the May 18 Democratization Uprising, as well as the Constitution.
The ruling party looks poised to push similar bills on other historical events. It is said to be considering proposing bills to probe the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion and April 3 Jeju Uprising. In October 1948, government troops suppressed a rebellion by leftist soldiers and civilians in Yeosu and Suncheon, South Jeolla Province. On April 3, 1948, an anti-American, communist-linked uprising took place on Jeju Island, and many residents died in its armed clashes with government forces.
Historians note that if the state monopolizes the interpretation of historical facts, it is prone to become totalitarian and tyrannical.
The ruling party wants Pyongyang to give a nod to the government’s offer to start exchanges and cooperation. If the party is asked to enact a bill to punish those who raise doubts about or deny the historical fact that North Korea invaded South Korea, starting the Korean War on June 25, 1950, is it willing to do so?
It is problematic for the ruling party to try to punish perceived distortions of certain incidents. It must not seek to monopolize historical issues and interpretations only because it has an overwhelming majority in the parliament.
Politicians’ monopoly of history is like defining history through their prism. It is in danger of becoming another distortion of history.