Time to revise outdated martial law

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Time to revise outdated martial law

Those who remember the spring of 1980 still shiver when they hear fearful phrases like martial law, martial law command and martial law troops. Koreans had martial law before, but the last martial law declared on May 17, 1980, left a traumatic shock for Korean citizens.

I am not trying to bring back the panic, but we need to consider it in the event of a state of emergency over North Korea’s threat of war. If that happens, martial law will become an undeniable reality. If North Korea’s provocation leads to limited or full-scale warfare, the president has to declare martial law.

The problem is that martial law is generally perceived as a military tool to seize power as a means to suppress the people. The perception comes from our unfortunate past. However, martial law is originally a system for national emergencies, such as a war or internal conflict.

France was the first country to legislate martial law. In 1791 during the French Revolution, France defined the laws on maintenance and classification of military zones, which became a modern standard for the imposition of martial law. Korea’s martial law system was introduced in the constitution in 1948. Article 64 states that the president may declare martial law in accordance with the Constitution. A year later, the legislature defined what constitutes martial law.

It basically copied the martial law from imperial Japan. In 1882, the Meiji government first declared martial law through Daijo-kan, or the Grand Council of State. In 1889, Article 14 of the Meiji Constitution authorized the Emperor to declare martial law. Gye-eom, or martial law, originates from late Ming Dynasty dictionary Zhengzitong, or the Correct Character Mastery. The terms for emergency martial law and security status martial law were taken directly from the Japanese.

Also, before the martial law was legislated, the government had used the Japanese martial law for the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion in October 1948. And no major revision was made on the martial law.

The law made by imperial Japan more than 130 years ago still remains in 21st-century Korea, like a fossil. It is a serious disgrace, as it is directly related to the security of the nation and lives of the people.

Can we properly respond to a national emergency in the 21st century with this outdated system? Can we leave our valuable society to martial law forces in a state of emergency? It is about time to review our martial law system to ensure that it has political legitimacy and functional utility.

What concerns me most is the excessive authority given to a martial law commander. According to the martial law act, the commander oversees all administrative and judiciary operations during emergency martial law. Can the military manage the complicated and highly specialized administrative and judiciary functions smoothly? Experts are skeptical.

For example, the martial law command would control media censorship. In the past, they dispatched tanks to newspapers and broadcasting companies. But now, how can they censor thousands of online media? How about social network services like Twitter and Facebook?

If the president cannot control the mighty martial law commander, we cannot rule out the possibility of further confusion or catastrophe. That’s why we need to define in detail civilian government control over the martial law command. When the line is clearly defined, the military will focus on its original duty of national defense. Only then, will the people not fear martial law, and the military can save itself from misconception.

If we leave the martial law as it is now, we effectively leave the option of the backward, fearful and shady martial law to restrain our lives. It should be revised to a more reasonable, functional and modern direction.

If you consider martial law revision an absurd exercise, you are trying to escape from reality. It is too late to fix it once it happens. While martial law is best left only within the law books, we need to prepare for unavoidable situations. Bringing it up for discussion is in itself is a meaningful step. Korea’s composed and serious attitude would make Pyongyang and pro-Pyongyang groups nervous. No doubt a healthy relationship and cooperation between civilian and military authorities constitutes the biggest threat to the North.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Nahm Yoon-ho
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