A strange penaltyPosting derogatory materials of the president can be a crime in Korea. A judge in Daejon District Court ruled a fine of 500,000 won ($414) on a 25-year-old man for “infringing on a building structure” by putting up several hand-written posters critical of President Moon Jae-in on bulletin boards at the Cheonan campus of Dankuk University in November last year. The court deemed the action an “illegal intrusion” as he had entered the campus and posted the material without prior approval from the university.
But the penalty came even as the school authority expressed that it did not want the defendant to be punished as the university was not harmed by his actions. During the trial, a university representative told the bench that “Korea is a country where freedom of expression is respected. Why this case is even being tried is incomprehensible.” Still, the judge delivered a guilty verdict for the defendant. A young man in his early 20s can be labeled a criminal just for putting up five anti-government posters.
If the ruling is applied to other cases, it can criminalize any salesmen who posts or hands out fliers on a campus or any civilian who strolls onto university premises. Yet the law enforcement offices and court singled out the intruder and found him guilty for criticizing the president. The ruling goes against the constitutional right of freedom of expression and fair principle.
According to the university, police found the posting “slanderous” and the writer “anti-government” and “subversive.” The property intrusion would have been a pretext to punish the act of making malicious comments toward the government public. The police would not have gone through the trouble of examining the CCTV camera footage or car black-box records to track down the suspect if he had been all-praising of the government on the posters.
Members of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), government and even the president were once student activists who challenged law enforcement authorities by distributing fliers and protesting against the military regime. They criticized the past conservative governments citing their “rights to free expression.” Now that it became the ruling power, critical and injurious behaviors toward the president have become a crime. In a radio interview, even Rep. Park Yong-jin, a lawmaker from the DP, recalled that he had posted fliers on campuses of other universities in his student days. “After all the fights against the military regimes, it would be comical to sit silently while someone is punished for putting up a poster criticizing the government,” he sarcastically said. During campaigning, Moon said that people have the right to criticize heads of state at any time. But why such act has become a crime under him is just bewildering.
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