Censorship in South Korea

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Censorship in South Korea is limited by laws that provide for freedom of speech and the press which the government generally respects in practice. Under the National Security Act, the government may limit the expression of ideas that praise or incite the activities of anti-state individuals or groups.[1]

South Korea has one of the freest media environments in Asia, ranking ahead of Japan, China and Singapore in the Press Freedom Index.[2]

However, since the inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak in 2008, South Korea has experienced a noticeable decline in freedom of expression for both journalists and the general public.[2] South Korea's status in the 2011 Freedom of the Press report from Freedom House declined from "Free" to "Partly Free" reflecting an increase in official censorship and government attempts to influence news and information content.[3] President Moon Jae-in further reinforced media censorship by snooping on SNI traffic.[4]


South Korea's government has had a hand in censorship of media within the country since it adopted the National Security Act in 1948. The law gave the government broad control over media in order to prevent any information deemed to be a threat to the government from dissemination to the public at large.[1] The newly established Republic of Korea government created the law in response to widespread unrest due to conflict between the right-wing anti-communist government and far-left People's Committee.[5] Originally, the law was enacted in opposition to specific North Korean forces, but it was later expanded to encapsulate any "anti-state" group seen as against the views of the government.[1] Importantly, the law allows the government to punish anyone who would "praise, encourage, disseminate or cooperate" with the efforts of a group deemed to be "anti-state" with up to 7 years in prison.[1] In addition, directly working with one of these groups results in a minimum jail sentence of one year.[1]

Park Chung-hee Regime (1961-1979)[edit]

After Park Chung-hee's military coup and subsequent rise to power in 1961, his regime invalidated the Constitution as well as the democratically elected legislature. Park used the implied threat of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to imprison and torture political enemies.[1] His regime targeted artists and politicians alike, jailing leaders who would later hold the office as president as well as writers such as Kim Chi-ha.[1]

In addition, the Park regime ran a large campaign of film censorship. Scripts required approval by censor committees, and several viewings of the final version of the film were required to ensure that it represented the previously approved script.[6] Eliminating themes of rebellion, protest were the main focus of the censors. The censors also targeted any accurate depiction of the political or socio-economic climate.[6]

Chun Doo-hwan Regime (1980-1988)[edit]

After Chun Doo-hwan assumed power in another military coup, he too declared martial law in response to widespread uprisings among the country's students.[1] He also took aim at South Korea's press, systematically sacking 937 members of the press while nationalizing the country's media outlets.[1] Due to foreign and domestic condemnation of Chun's policies and actions, a new Constitution was formed which guaranteed the freedom to organize into opposition parties.[1] Although the political climate liberalized slightly with the new Constitution, the regime continued to target perceived threats from North Korea with the powers granted by the National Security Law.[1]

Roh Tae-woo Regime (1988-1993)[edit]

During the early presidency of Roh Tae-woo, student uprisings continued in the face of apparent attempts by Roh to consolidate the new regime and extend his presidential term past the constitutional limit.[7] The protests specifically targeted the government's use of the National Security Act under the pretenses of curtailing North Korean influence in South Korean media.[1]

Sixth Republic Era (1993-Present)[edit]

The dawn of the nineties brought about movements pushing for greater democracy and unification efforts for the Korean peninsula.[1] These forces sought to abolish the use of the National Security Law.[1] However, in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, student and worker protests against unemployment erupted.[1] Once more, the government suppressed these demonstrations under the auspices of the National Security Law.[1] In 2019, Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family proposed strict guidelines on their K-pop stars, essentially censoring most content deemed "unhealthy" by them, only to be met with strong opposition among fans of the genre.[8] The proposal was eventually withdrawn.

Subject matter and agenda[edit]

Speech and the press[edit]

There is an active independent media that expresses a wide variety of views, generally without restriction. Under the National Security Law, the government may limit the expression of ideas that praise or incite the activities of antistate individuals or groups. The law forbids citizens from reading books published in North Korea.[9]

On March 21, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression issued a report on his May 2010 visit to South Korea. While laudatory of progress made, the report also expressed concern about increased restrictions on freedom of expression and specifically cited as concerns laws broadly making defamation a crime (which the rapporteur labeled as “…inherently harsh and [having a] disproportionate chilling effect…”) and providing the potential for controlling the dissemination of election or candidate information and banning books.


South Korea is one of the few countries that explicitly prohibit any form of pornography. Pornographic websites, books, writings, films, magazines, photographs or other materials of a pornographic nature are illegal in South Korea. Distribution of pornography is a felony, and can result in a fine or a two-year prison sentence. Since 2009, pornographic websites have been blocked by the South Korean government. In 2012 the Ministry of Public Administration and Security released statistics that cited 39.5% of South Korean children having experienced watching online pornography, with 14.2% of those who have viewed online pornography reportedly "wanting to imitate" it.[10] In 2019 the Korea Communications Standards Commission started a nationwide censorship of all pornographic media based on filtering of Server Name Indication, their first attempt of nationwide SNI snooping.[11] As unbridled snooping and filtering of Server Name Indication is prohibited under the Korean Law, the Korea Communications Standards Commission and the Government were met with criticisms regarding their apparently illegal acts.

Public libraries[edit]

South Korea's public libraries censor a plethora of subjects in their libraries - both online and in their physical collections. Examples of censored topics include: sexuality (including educational information about the subject), homosexuality, information about North Korea, violence, anti-government materials, and political discourse.[12]

The public libraries of South Korea also censor information via discriminating against who can use the library's public meeting spaces. If a person or group wants to use the space to meet to discuss any of the forbidden topics listed above, they are refused.[citation needed]


The Constitutional Court of Korea upheld the Ministry of National Defense's order to allow the banning of certain books such as Ha-Joon Chang's Bad Samaritans and Hans-Peter Martin's The Global Trap from soldiers' hands on October 2010, despite a petition made by a group of military judicial officers protesting against the order in 2008.[13]

The South Korean military cracked down on soldiers who have "critical apps" installed in their smartphones; allegedly marking a popular South Korean podcast, Naneun Ggomsuda, as anti-government content.[14][15]


On 15 February 2011, a Handong Global University professor was penalized for criticizing Lee Myung-bak and the university chancellor.[16]


The nation of South Korea is a world leader in Internet and broadband penetration, but its citizens do not have access to free and unfiltered Internet. South Korea's government maintains a broad-ranging approach toward the regulation of specific online content and imposes a substantial level of censorship on election-related discourse and on a large number of websites that the government deems subversive or socially harmful.[17] Such policies are particularly pronounced with regard to anonymity on the Internet.

In 2011 the OpenNet Initiative classified Internet censorship in South Korea as pervasive in the conflict/security area, as selective in the social area, and found no evidence of filtering in the political or Internet tools areas.[17] In 2011 South Korea was included on Reporters Without Borders list of countries Under Surveillance.[18] The Electronic Frontier Foundation has criticized the Korea Communications Standards Commission for proposing censorship of the blog of an internet free speech activist.[19][20]

In September 2004, North Korea launched the Kim Il-sung Open University [ko] website. Also, South Korea has banned at least 31 sites considered sympathetic to North Korea through the use of IP blocking.[21] A man who praised North Korea on Twitter was arrested.[22]

In 2007, numerous bloggers were censored, arrested, and their posts deleted by police for expressing criticism of, or even support for, certain presidential candidates.[23] Subsequently, in 2008, just before a new presidential election, new legislation that required all major internet portal sites to require identity verification of their users was put into effect.[24] 51 year old South Korean novelist was arrested for praising North Korea on personal blog in 2012.[25] 5 South Koreans were arrested for distributing pro-North material online in 2008 and 83 in 2011.[26] In 2011 a South Korean was arrested for posting 300 messages and 6 videos of pro-North content and sentenced for 10 months in jail.[27] In January 2012 a South Korean freedom-of-speech activist was arrested for retweeting a tweet from North Korean account.[26][28] 53 year old South Korean blogger was arrested for demanding abolishment of anti-communist National Security Law and has praised North Korea, he was sentenced to prison for one year.[29]

"Indecent" websites, such as those offering unrated games, any kind of pornography (not only child pornography), and gambling, are also blocked. Attempts to access these sites are automatically redirected to the warning page showing "This site is legally blocked by the government regulations."[30] Search engines are required to verify age for some keywords deemed "inappropriate" for minors.[31]


In November 2010, a woman was sentenced to two years in prison for the possession of MP3s of instrumental music, on the grounds that the titles constituted praise of North Korea, notwithstanding the actual music's lack of lyrics.[32]

Songs that "stimulates sex desire or [are] sexually explicit to youth", "urges violence or crime to youth", or "glamorizes violence such as rape, and drugs" are classified as a "medium offensive to youth" by the Government Youth Commission.[citation needed]


The Korea Communications Commission is a government agency that regulates TV, radio, and the Internet within South Korea. The National Security Law forbids citizens from listening to North Korean radio programs in their homes if the government determines that the action endangers national security or the basic order of democracy. These prohibitions are rarely enforced and viewing North Korean satellite telecasts in private homes is legal.[9]

The Lee Myung-bak government has been accused of extending its influence over the broadcast media by appointing former presidential aides and advisers to key positions at major media companies over the objections of journalists who sought to maintain those broadcasters’ editorial independence. Under the Lee administration, approximately 160 journalists have been penalized for writing critical reports about government policies.[33]

Protests among workers in Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, Korean Broadcasting System, and YTN in early 2012 have raised concerns about the biased pro-Lee Myung-bak government media practices, such as the ongoing usage of censorship, to the South Korean public.[34][35]

Censorship of Japanese media in South Korea has been relaxed significantly since the 1990s, but as of 2012 the terrestrial broadcast of Japanese television or music remains illegal.[citation needed]


Film censorship in South Korea can be split into two major periods, the period of dictatorships and the period of heavy surveillance by the new military regime.[36]

In recent years, sexual scenes have been a major issue that pits filmmakers against the Korea Media Rating Board. Pubic hair and male or female genitalia are disallowed on the screen, unless they are digitally blurred. In rare cases extreme violence, obscene language, or certain portrayals of drug use may also be an issue. Korea has a five level rating systems; G (all), PG-12 (12-year+), PG-15 (15-year+), R-18 (18-year+), and Restricted.[37][38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Kraft, Diane (2006). "South Korea's National Security Law: A Tool of Oppression in an Insecure World". Wisconsin International Law Journal. 24: 627.
  2. ^ a b "South Korea : Polarization and self-censorship | Reporters without borders". RSF (in French). Retrieved 2018-03-02.
  3. ^ "South Korea". freedomhouse.org. 2012-01-13. Retrieved 2018-03-02.
  4. ^ "Is South Korea Sliding Toward Digital Dictatorship?". Forbes. Retrieved 2019-05-27.
  5. ^ 1943-, Cumings, Bruce (2005-09-17). Korea's place in the sun : a modern history (Updated ed.). New York. ISBN 9780393327021. OCLC 62042862.
  6. ^ a b "Film Censorship Policy During Park Chung Hee's Military Regime (1960–1979) and Hostess Films | IAFOR". IAFOR. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
  7. ^ "Economic-Political Unrest Erupts In Violent Protests in South Korea". Retrieved 2018-04-03.
  8. ^ "South Korea government backtracks after saying K-Pop stars look 'too similar'". CNN. Retrieved 2019-05-27.
  9. ^ a b "Republic of Korea", Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State
  10. ^ Kwon (권), Hye-jin (혜진) (2012-07-30). 청소년 14.2% "야동 따라하고 싶었다". Yonhap News (in Korean). Retrieved 2012-09-02.
  11. ^ "South Korea expands internet censorship to HTTPS with first countrywide use of SNI filtering". Privacy News Online. Retrieved 2019-05-27.
  12. ^ Lange, D. (2013). "The Republic of Korea's Public Libraries: A Critical Examination of Censorship Practices". http://pqdtopen.proquest.com/pqdtopen/doc/1460570087.html?FMT=AI
  13. ^ Kim, Eun-jung (2010-10-28). "Constitutional Court upholds ban on 'seditious books' in military". Yonhap News. Retrieved 2012-02-08.
  14. ^ "Army unit orders 'pro-N. Korea' apps be deleted, inspects individual phones". Yonhap News. 2012-02-06. Retrieved 2012-02-08.
  15. ^ Kim, Young-jin (2012-02-06). "Army units cracking down on anti-Lee phone apps". Korea Times. Retrieved 2012-02-08.
  16. ^ Kim (김), Se-hun (세훈) (2011-02-16). "비판교수 재갈물리기?"…한동대, 정부 비난 교수 징계 논란. NoCut News (in Korean). Retrieved 2011-03-12.
  17. ^ a b OpenNet Initiative "Summarized global Internet filtering data spreadsheet", 8 November 2011 and "Country Profiles", the OpenNet Initiative is a collaborative partnership of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto; the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University; and the SecDev Group, Ottawa
  18. ^ "Countries under surveillance: South Korea" Archived 2015-09-12 at the Wayback Machine, Reporters Without Borders, 12 March 2011
  19. ^ York, Jillian; Rainey Reitman (2011-09-06). "In South Korea, the Only Thing Worse Than Online Censorship is Secret Online Censorship". Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved 2011-09-09.
  20. ^ Lee (이), Jeong-hwan (정환) (2011-09-08). "EFF "방통심의위는 박경신 탄압 중단하라"". MediaToday (in Korean). Retrieved 2011-09-09.
  21. ^ Christian Oliver (1 April 2010). "Sinking underlines South Korean view of state as monster". London: Financial Times. Retrieved 2 April 2010.
  22. ^ Kim, Eun-jung (2011-01-10). "S. Korean man indicted for pro-Pyongyang postings on Internet, Twitter". Yonhap News. Retrieved 2011-03-11.
  23. ^ "Tough content rules mute Internet election activity in current contest: Bloggers risk arrest for controversial comments". JoongAng Daily. 17 December 2007. Retrieved 17 December 2007.
  24. ^ "Do new Internet regulations curb free speech?", Kim Hyung-eun, Korea JoongAng Daily, 13 August 2008
  25. ^ http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Korea/ND20Dg01.html
  26. ^ a b "Pro-North Korea activists stick it out in South Korea".
  27. ^ "SKorea teens flock online, snitch pro-North posts".
  28. ^ Sang-Hun, Choe (2012-02-02). "South Korea Indicts Park Jung-geun over Twitter Posts". The New York Times.
  29. ^ "South Korean receives prison term for North Korea praise".
  30. ^ Automatic redirect to KCSC Warning Archived 2011-04-30 at the Wayback Machine
  31. ^ "Searching For An Adult Topic? You’ll Have To Prove Your Age To Google Korea", Search Engine Land, 17 May 2007
  32. ^ "S.Korea court rules pro-North music breaches law". Agence France-Presse. 2010-11-09. Retrieved 2010-11-10.
  33. ^ "South Korea", Freedom of the Press 2011, Freedom House
  34. ^ Yoo Eun, Lee (2012-03-08). "South Korea: Journalists Stage Mass Walkout from National Broadcaster". Global Voices Online. Retrieved 2012-03-21.
  35. ^ Lee, Yoo Eun (2012-03-21). "South Korea: Three Major TV Stations Protest for Fair Journalism". Global Voices Online. Retrieved 2012-03-21.
  36. ^ "Introduction". Korean Film Council, 2006. Retrieved 2010-11-30.
  37. ^ "Statistics", Korea Media Rating Board, 2010, accessed 11 August 2012
  38. ^ "Censorship Issues in Korean Cinema, 1995-2002", Darcy Paquet, 3 December 2002

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