Liberty and National Security

[Editor’s note: On July 11, two students, Kim Yong-chan and Kim Jong-gon, of Konkuk University in Seoul, were arrested for possession and propagation of enemy-benefiting publications including For Marx (by Louis Althusser), Capital (Karl Marx), The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (George Katsiaficas).  They were prosecuted on July 24 under the National Security Law. 

 â€œEnemy” refers to North Korea.  Article 7 of the National Security Law punishes the act of benefiting North Korea by praising it, encouraging it, and siding with it, or conspiring any of these acts, with the knowledge that it will endanger national security and the survival of the free and democratic order.  However, the three books that were used as evidence by the government against the students are freely available at any good bookstores in South Korea.  What makes the case more outrageous is that the current justice minister Kang Gum-sil had to resign as a judge under the military government in 1989 when her husband were arrested under the National Security Law for publishing Capital.

 The two student activists, who are members of the Korean Democratic Labor Party, appear to have blipped onto the police radar screen in July of last year when they were active in the solidarity campaign for the urban poor.Kim Jong-gon were also prosecuted under anti-Molotov cocktail legislation for his role in a protest by about 100 dwellers of a shanty town and student activists that turned into a melee with more than 300 thugs hired by real-estate developers.  As of today, none of the thugs and the developers have been arrested while it was they who used firebombs first. By Kap Su Seol [email protected]]
The recent arrests of Kim Yong-chan and Kim Jong-gon under Article 7 of the National Security Law represent a step backward for the expansion of liberty in South Korea. As part of the evidence that these Konkuk University students have engaged in “enemy-benefiting” activity, the government cites their possession and use of Marx’s Capital, Louis Althusser’s For Marx and my book, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968. Apparently, the students also quoted sections of these books in a pamphlet they wrote. As the only author of these three books who is still alive, I feel it is my duty to respond to the government’s action.

The great victory of the Korean people over the military dictatorship has resulted in economic prosperity for many Koreans. Simultaneously, the new climate of openness and free expression has undoubtedly improved the quality of life for tens of millions of Koreans. People no longer are tortured and killed for their political views. Gone are the gulags (Samchongkyoyukdae). No more do the police arrest people en masse for being in the wrong place at the wrong time (as they did at Konkuk University on October 28, 1986 when 1525 students were arrested). Citizens no longer glance over their shoulders when discussing social issues, and a plethora of NGO’s has helped prevent environmental degradation, won increased rights for women, and mitigated the military madness of the Cold War and its tragic continuation on this peninsula. The wanton impunity with which US servicemen commit crimes against South Koreans has been brought onto the public radar screen. Sasam and 5.18 have begun to be understood and compensation sometimes has been paid. Revelations about the No Gun Ri massacre have brought forth dozens of similar cases. Free trade unions have helped increase the standard of living of many working people. While much remains to be done in all these areas, there is no question but that great progress has been made.

South Korea serves as an inspirational model for oppressed people around the world—from Sri Lanka (where more than forty thousand people have “disappeared”) to Cambodia and Burma. In particular the example of Gwangju’s ultimate victory has turned tears of sadness and despair into joy and hope. When people from Sri Lanka first came to Mangwoltang Cemetery, they said, “We must build a memorial for our dead.” With the help of Gwangju Citizens’ Solidarity and artist Hong Song Dam, they did just that.

With the arrest of these two students, however, we see the ominous beginning of a rollback of progress. Unlike in the 19th century, it is generally understood today that history is not unilinear. Progress yesterday does not guarantee it tomorrow. We can move backwards all too easily. Witness Hitler’s rise after the period of Weimar democracy. To take a more recent example, the people of the Philippines successfully expelled US troops from their country in 1992. Yet today, American servicemen are back there as the US “war on terror” replaces the decades long Cold War that brought devastation to Korea and many other countries. Thus, South Korea’s democracy and prosperity today is no guarantee that future generations will continue to enjoy them—unless people refuse to cave in to new dictates by government officials more interested in “national security” than in peace, liberty and prosperity.

Few South Koreans would disagree that the US government put its own geo-political interests ahead of the human rights of the South Korean people when they sanctioned the suppression of the Gwangju Uprising. With the “Patriot” Act in the US and the rollback of a host of restraints on the police, FBI and CIA, it appears to many Americans that their government now values the global interests of the US military-industrial complex (a term coined by President Eisenhower) more than the liberties of Americans. In the name of “national security,” the government has ethnically cleansed cities of Arab and Muslim residents and severely curtailed permits for demonstrations and rallies. It has recruited thousands of electrical workers, cable television installers and others who visit people’s homes for routine services as government spies. Patriot Act 2, waiting in the wings for the right moment (presumably the next Al-Queda attack with in the US borders), would criminalize free expression and permit the government to strip people of US citizenship. Is South Korea following a similar path?

National security is a term all too often abused by those in power, not only in the US, but in Burma, the former Soviet Union and nearly every country in the world. Who defines “national security” and “enemy-benefiting activities”? The arrest of Kim Yong-chan and Kim Jong-gon should be seen in the context of this question. Their cases are especially arbitrary and abusive since the current Justice Minister resigned as a judge in 1989 after her husband was arrested for publishing Capital. At that time as today, Chapter 2, Article 21, Clause 1 of the constitution guaranteed freedom of expression and association—yet the Roh Tae-woo government arrested her husband just like that of Roh Moo-hyun has done to Kim Yong-chan and Kim Jong-gon. Will future historians talk of Roh 1 and Roh 2 in the same breath? I hope not!

The books Kim Yong-chan and Kim Jong-gon possessed and cited are today available in dozens of bookstores, and their publishers enjoy freedom of expression—at least for now. Logically speaking, these bookstores and publishers (as well as the husband of Kang Gum-sil and myself) could all be subject to the same measures faced by the students. In my own defense, I would like to say that the New Left advocated the expansion of liberty and equality, the rights of the poor and downtrodden as well those of the vast majority of citizens. In fact, in my book no fewer than 13 pages are devoted to an incisive critique of the anti-humanist theories of Althusser and Soviet Marxism. I enumerate and celebrate the actions of New Left movements against the Soviet-dominated governments of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. And I applaud Thomas Jefferson and the expansion of democracy.

Before his election, Roh Moo-hyun insisted he would abolish the National Security Law. He now feels the time is not yet right. In my view, the tragic cases of Kim Yong-chan and Kim Jong-gon indicate precisely the opposite. They should immediately be freed and the NSL abolished before anyone else is victimized. The path from democracy to dictatorship is a slippery slope. The people of South Korea have sacrificed far too much to risk losing the freedoms which they only recently have won.
George Katsiaficas is a Fulbright Fellow, a student of Herbert Marcuse, a long-time activist, and currently professor of humanities and social sciences at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, Massachusetts.  He is a prolific author.  Katsiaficas’s recent works include The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 and The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization.  For more information about him, please visit his Web site at

*“Liberty and National Security: Can We Have Both?,” due to run in Hankyoreh, South Korea’s independent daily, on August 6, 2003, appears on this Web site under special arrangement with the author.

Related Links
Korean Democratic Labor Party

George Katsiaficas’s personal Web site

Human Rights Sarangbang, the publisher of South Korea’s finest human right daily report

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