Banned ‘red’ books fall into gray areaAround 6 a.m. on a Monday in 1998, Ha Young-jun, then a 26-year-old Hanyang University student, heard somebody knocking on his door. At the time, his house was for sale, and the person at the door said he was interested in looking around.
It wasn’t the ideal time, but Mr. Ha opened the door, which, he now recalls, was a big mistake. At least five hulking men stampeded into his home, carrying in cardboard boxes. They started to search every nook and cranny of Mr. Ha’s place.
After they filled the boxes with Mr. Ha’s books about Karl Marx and other eminent scholars, they forced him to accompany them to a house in Jangan-dong, northern Seoul.
Once he entered the place, Mr. Ha knew it wasn’t just any old house. The room he was in had soundproof walls and a bathtub.
Surrounded by two officers, Mr. Ha was told that he was accused of violating the National Security Law. Mr. Ha’s posting of a summary of works by Alex Callinicos and Chris Harman, noted professors and scholars of Marxism, on an online club called International drew the attention of authorities.
During his trial, prosecutors called him “ijeok,” meaning “aiding the enemy,” with the enemy being North Korea. The term has long been used to define activists in the South accused of violating the National Security Law, first established in 1948, which is largely intact and still enforced to this day.
Mr. Ha was accused of violating Article 7 of the National Security Law, which says those who “produce, import, copy, carry, deliver, circulate, sell or obtain documents, drawings or other presentations” of material that threatens the existence and safety of the state or the free democratic fundamental orders will be prosecuted.
The law also mandates prison time for those who “admire, encourage, propagate or sympathize with anti-state groups.”
Recently, some members of the governing Uri Party and other activists have been calling for the abolishment of the law. Branding books as “ijeok” is a throwback to Korea’s authoritarian past, but the reality is that prosecutors still go after violators today, just on a more selective basis.
In 2001, the Sarangbang Group for Human Rights counted more than 1,220 books that the government has categorized as “ijeok.” The list includes not only Marx but a number of classics like “Escape From Freedom” by Erich Fromm, books by Lee Yeong-hee, one of Korea’s most acclaimed ideologists, and even novels such as “Song of Ariran,” a story about an independence fighter with communist ideas who battled Japanese colonial rule.
Nicknamed “red books” because they’re mostly related to communism, the government has long considered possession of these books as proof of pro-North Korean sympathies. Authorities cracked down especially hard on such activists during the military regimes of the 1970s and the 1980s, when the anti-communist sentiment was much stronger.
These days, the Gong-an Munje Yeonguso, or the Institute for Public Security under the Korea National Police University, and the Minju Inyeom Yeonguso, or the Research Center of Democratic Ideas under the prosecutors’ office, are in charge of identifying such books.
An administrative member of the Institute for Public Security said the researchers who screen books are just following their consciences. When asked for the researchers’ contact information, he said they weren’t available for comment.
Even though “red books” are illegal under the National Security Law, anyone can buy the books that got Mr. Ha arrested. At Kyobo Bookstore, the five-volume set of “Das Kapital” costs 108,000 won ($90), and the store carries titles by other socialist authors as well.
According to Sarangbang Group for Human Rights, many of these books were actually banned by the military regimes in the 1970s and the 1980s. Nowadays, however, such books can be used as an excuse by authorities to arrest activists and other “agitators” they consider dangerous to the security of the state.
Lee Joo-young, a member of the Sarangbang Group for Human Rights, says, “It’s not that every single person who has read or has the copies of the books is the object of punishment, which is the big irony here. The authorities just act willfully to use the books as a tool to arrest the activists on their black list.”
Mr. Ha cannot agree more. “The authorities just take liberties with the law, which is just too arbitrary and absurd,” he says.
When Mr. Ha was arrested in 1998, it was not the first time that he had been accused of breaking the National Security Law. Several years earlier, Mr. Ha had been detained while distributing leaflets as a labor activist and sentenced to one year of probation.
However, by 1998, Mr. Ha had abandoned his social activism to focus on his academic career. The works by Callinicos and Harman were fundamental to Mr. Ha’s history studies and were also recommended by his professors.
Mr. Ha told his interrogator that academic freedom allowed him to possess such books. “Academic freedom exists only for those who have doctorate degrees, or at least a master’s,” he was told.
His professors filed an appeal, saying that Mr. Ha’s postings had nothing to do with “aiding the enemy,” only to see it rejected by the court. Mr. Ha insisted to authorities that he opposed the North Korean regime, but it was in vain.
Time in prison
Mr. Ha was initially sentenced to serve one year in prison, but after an appeal, it was reduced to eight months. He could have appealed to the Supreme Court, but decided to give up.
“The only thing I could think back then was, ‘I just want to end this.’ The sooner, the better,” Mr. Ha recalls.
Activist groups urged him to continue his protest, which would make him a “prisoner of conscience,” to draw international attention to the absurdity of the National Security Law.
Mr. Ha, however, decided to just go to jail quietly. The fatigue and fear brought on by the investigation, during which threats were made against his friends and even his girlfriend, wore him down.
As he served his sentence in a prison in Gunsan, in North Jeolla province, Mr. Ha was puzzled over what he did wrong and found himself paranoid about his intellectual pursuits.
“I vomited when I tried to read a book. The saddest part, however, was that I found myself self-censoring what I was writing and reading. I was tamed by Big Brother,” he says.
He questions the criteria the government researchers used in identifying books as “ijeok.”
“One big problem here is that they set a standard of whether the books benefit North Korea, which cannot be more ambiguous, even if the books are a great heritage for all mankind,” he says.
In his own case, “I’m not very sure whether they read the book or not,” Mr. Ha says. “When I was on trial in 1998, a member of the research groups showed up to testify. He said Rosa Luxemburg, a legendary German Marxist with a Jewish heritage, was an Italian.” When Mr. Ha corrected him, the researcher just mumbled an excuse, saying, “It’s been such a long time since I read the book that my memory has faded.”
Mr. Ha is now working on his doctorate degree while teaching history in an undergraduate course as a member of the Research Institute of Comparative History and Culture. As an American history teacher, he half-jokingly says that he pays extra attention to make sure his classes have nothing to do with books by Marx or Hegel.
It might be a prudent move, as the enforcers of the National Security Law are still more than willing to prosecute lawbreakers.
Last year, a college student who had just started his mandatory army service told his fellow soldiers that he could not understand why South and North Korea should be enemies instead of brethren. He was soon arrested and was sentenced to two years in jail.
And just last week, as North Korea marked the 10th anniversary of Kim Sung Il’s death, South Korean police were scouring local Web sites that praised the North Korean leader for clues to the posters’ identities so they could bring them in for questioning.
“Anyone, even you, can be caught at any time if you happen to carry a book of Marxist ideas in your bag,” Mr. Ha says. “Isn’t that just scary?”
by Chun Su-jin