Globally recognised for its oppressive regime and enforcement of mass censorship, North Korea makes South Korea seem like a model democracy in comparison.

Though South Korea is undeniably more democratic, liberal and progressive than its totalitarian neighbour, it too is guilty of violating Koreans’ freedom of expression and privacy.

While Moon Jae-In has made headlines for his positive involvement with USA – North Korea negotiations, he has simultaneously been at the helm of a fair less admirable system of censorship that has largely gone unnoticed by international communities.

In the wake of new internet laws set to infringe even further on South Koreans’ digital rights, it’s time to consider the possibility that the country is less free than it may first seem.

SNI Snooping

On the 7th of March, the KCC (Korea Communications Commission) announced that all internet-related organisations would have to abide by domestic laws regarding user data and privacy.

This followed the countries decision to start SNI snooping, a method of viewing which sites users are attempting to access in order to block blacklisted content. Together, these acts suggest South Korea are seeking to gain complete domestic control over internet access, a move which has critical implications for the rights of users in the country.

SNI snooping allows the KCC to see the hostname of servers that users are attempting to access. This allows ISPs to block users from visiting sites that appear on the countries national blacklist.

This is a significant development from the countries previous use of DNS blocking which could be circumvented by simply connecting to the secure, HTTPS counterpart of blocked sites. Now, the only way around the site-blocking is to use a VPN, a tool that encrypts and diverts a users internet connection via a remote server.

The implementation of SNI snooping was met with protests by South Koreans rightly concerned about their privacy and the ease in which these methods could be used to exert mass censorship, a tactic already used in China.

Pre-Existing Censorship in South Korea

Though these new laws allow South Korean authorities to spy on internet users with new-found ease, they should not come as a surprise. They are just the next logical steps taken by a state who already monitor, censor and punish individuals for as little as mentioning North Korea.

Since 1948, South Korean’s have had to abide by the National Security Act. This prohibits the ‘praising, encouraging, or propagandizing’ of North Korea and came out of the state’s separation after World War II. It can result in imprisonment for up to seven years for those convicted of ‘supporting’ North Korea.

Though the motivation for this law is understandable, the broad wording leaves it open to abuse by South Korean authorities who can use it to target and punish civilians and political opponents.

An example of how this act can be used to unfairly convict Koreans is the case of Kim Ho. In August 2018, tech entrepreneur Kim Ho was arrested under the National Security Act for supposedly leaking military secrets to North Korea. In fact, he had neglected to alert South Korean authorities that he been using engineers in North Korea to help build facial recognition software.

The National Security Act is not the only law in place that encourages self-censorship and punishes innocent Koreans. The Act on Anti-Terrorism for the Protection of Citizens and Public Security enables the NIS (National Intelligence Service) to remove any content posted online they deem a threat to security. Significantly, this law also allows the NIS access to personal conversations and a whole host of other data, including financial records and location data.

The Information and Communications Network Act proactively encourages companies to self-censor their websites, with those most actively censoring likely to be granted leniency in any future court proceedings.

Even the Constitution of the Republic of Korea provides contradictory information on free speech. It states that ‘all citizens shall enjoy freedom of speech’ while maintaining that such speech should not ‘violate the honor or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics.’ In other words, Koreans are only allowed to express views in line with government values.

Clearly then, censorship in South Korea is no new thing. SNI snooping and the enforcement of domestic law on foreign companies will only enhance internet control in a country which still operates under unfair censorship laws.

Why now?

The introduction of these new practises may come as a surprise given Moon Jae-In’s global recognition as a liberal and democratic leader.

However, they become less so when viewed as a way the South Korean president can preserve his increasingly diminishing support. The countries stagnant economy and rising unemployment are two factors which have contributed to this, causing particular discontent amongst young men.

Moon may be seeking to increase censorship as a way of preventing dissent. After all, this method has been used to great effect already in China.

Conclusion

Censorship in South Korea has largely flown under the radar of global concerns regarding internet freedoms. This is despite the continued enforcement of laws such as the National Security Act which have long put user freedom and privacy at risk. Further regulation of foreign companies and routine SNI snooping will inevitably lead to increased censorship and site blocking in the country.

By undertaking these actions, South Korea is following the global trend of increasingly autocratic digital governance. Other Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Thailand have been steadily increasing censorship and violating user privacy, with the latter passing a new law in March allowing the government to access computers without a warrant.

Western countries are also invoking similar measures. Acts such as the Snoopers Charter in the UK and Assistance and Access Bill in Australia allow governments access to personal information that would otherwise remain encrypted

Clearly, South Korea is far from alone in its attempts to regulate internet use. However, by being viewed in juxtaposition with China and North Korea, it has managed to escape much critical discussion.

It is important that more people become aware of these new laws and their implications, as well as South Korea’s pre-existing censorship methods. Koreans are entitled to unrestricted access to the internet and should not have to self-censor their behaviour out of fear.

This article was originally published on Geopolitical Monitor.