Our essential freedoms

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Our essential freedoms

The Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index ranks the countries according to the level of visa-free access their citizens enjoy. The ranking is based on the number of countries citizens can visit without a visa or with a visa obtained upon arrival. It is an indication of passport power.

In terms of passport power, Korea’s travel freedom is among the best in the world. Korean passport holders can visit 172 countries without obtaining a visa. Passports that allow more access than Korea are those of the United States, United Kingdom, Finland, Germany and Sweden, whose citizens can visit 174 countries without visas, and Canada and Denmark, 173 countries. Korea is ranked third, along with Japan, France, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Visa-free access to more countries means more freedom for Korean citizens. So much has changed from the days when we had to stand in line for hours at foreign embassies and consulates, prepare required documents, pay visa fees and nervously wait for the result.

Last week, an arrest warrant was denied for a young Korean man who burned the Korean flag, and it did not garner much attention amid the MERS outbreak. The police sought an arrest warrant for a 24-year-old man identified as Kim on a charge of desecrating the national flag. Kim burned a paper flag at the rally marking the first anniversary of the Sewol ferry tragedy.

According to Article 105 of the Criminal Act, “A person who damages, removes or stains the national flag or the national emblem for the purpose of insulting the Republic of Korea shall be punished by imprisonment or imprisonment without prison labor for no more than five years, suspension of qualification for no more than ten years or a fine of no more than 7 million won.”

However, the court denied the arrest warrant as “Kim seemed to have damaged the flag accidentally and impulsively as he was in a state of agitation at the rally.”

The court found he did not intend to insult the nation by burning the flag.

Just as I did not choose my parents, I did not choose to be born in this country. I became a citizen of the Republic of Korea because my parents are Korean nationals. To me, the national flag is a symbol of the country that I belong to and shall protect, nothing more or less. It is a symbol of a red and blue Taeguk in the center, with four black trigrams on a white background. The concept of insulting the flag, which is not an object of character or religion, does not make sense.

In 1989, the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated a Texas law that prohibited desecrating the American flag, as the First Amendment protects such activity as political expression. Punishing a citizen for burning the American flag practically damages the precious liberty the flag symbolizes. On the same grounds, the Korea Association of Criminology proposed abolishing the related law, since punishing desecration of the flag may be unconstitutional and violates freedom of speech.

A few days ago, hundreds of leaflets condemning President Park Geun-hye were distributed in Jongno and Hongdae, Seoul.

The leaflets distributed in Jongno were in the name of “Citizens Wishing for Democracy” and state, “We are more scared of the president than MERS” and “People have to take care of themselves as the government does not take responsibility. This is no country at all.” The leaflets given out in Hongdae contained a caricature of Park, saying “MERS is the same as the Sewol ferry.”

It is not the first time leaflets criticizing the president have been distributed. There had been a number of cases around the country since last year. Every time, police cracked down on the organizers and searched and seized. But there is no law to punish them.

The crime of defamation of the state, which was considered to be defamation of the state leader, became invalidated after democratization in 1987. The president is not a monarch, but the head of the executive branch and head of state entrusted with power for five years. Criticizing and condemning the president cannot be a crime.

If distributing leaflets criticizing the North Korean system is freedom of speech, distributing leaflets criticizing the president is the same. If the president feels her personal honor was defamed, she should initiate a libel suit. It is not an issue in which the public authorities should get involved.

It is a good thing that Koreans get to visit more countries without a visa and have expanded spatial freedom. But when desecration of the national flag is still prohibited and criticizing the president is controlled by law enforcement officers, Koreans’ psychological freedom, which is more precious than spatial freedom, is restricted. The core of psychological freedom is freedom of speech. The flag is a flag and the president is a president.

Oppressing personal freedom in the name of the state is not democracy.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 9, Page 31

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

by Bae Myung-bok
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