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The number of arrests of pro-North Korea activists in the South has surged in the last couple years.
Many raids on people suspected of pro-North activities are carried out in connection with the National Security Law, which was put in place in 1948 to stifle pro-communist activities.
Although South Korea was technically a democracy once the US moved in after World War II, political turmoil and periods of military rule kept it from being a full democracy until the 1980s. Military dictators used the National Security law to hinder pro-democracy activists until 1987, when the law fell out of use during the administration of the more liberal Roh Tae Woo.
But in the last few years, convictions have surged under the conservative leadership of President Lee Myung Bak, which many critics see as a return to heavy-handed rule.
Pro-North activists unwelcome in the South
According to government statistics, 151 South Koreans were interrogated on suspicion of violating the security law in 2010, compared to 39 in 2007. In 2008, five people were prosecuted for distributing pro-North material online; that number jumped to 82 in 2010. No figures for 2011 are yet available.
On the morning of Feb. 8, two members of Hwang's organization VKNSL, which provides legal assistance to people charged under the security law, were themselves arrested for online expression of pro-North views. They are currently in custody awaiting a hearing.
On Feb. 14, a court in the southern city of Busan sentenced two pro-North Korea activists to eight months imprisonment for possession of pro-North materials.
South Korean authorities arrested freedom-of-speech activist Park Jeongguen on Jan. 31 for retweeting the message “long live Kim Jong Il” from North Korea’s official Twitter account. Park is accused of helping “the enemy.” He maintains his retweet was a joke meant to mock North Korea.
“Imprisoning anyone for peaceful expression of their opinions violates international law but in this case, the charges against Park Jeonggeun are simply ludicrous and should be dropped immediately,” said Sam Zafiri, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director in a statement.
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Freedom of expression is also what motivates 22-year-old student activist Park Sun Ah. She led an earnest push for an altar to Kim Jong Il at Seoul National University (SNU), the country’s most prestigious school.
Some of her fellow students threatened to destroy the altar if it was built, and the school administration ultimately banned the altar.
“I feel that freedom of expression, the most fundamental prerequisite to the university functioning as a hall of learning, is not guaranteed," Park told GlobalPost.
“Kim Jong Il is someone who joined hands with us to seek peace on the Korean Peninsula," she continued. "But after his death there was ... baseless condemnation from the media, and there wasn't any memorial to honor him in the whole country.”
Hwang also blames the media for perpetuating unfair bias against North Korea.
“They do everything they can to paint North Korea in a negative light. We have to get rid of the many negative images of North Korea in the media and convey the truth of North Korea to our people in South Korea and muster our power to build one big, powerful country,” he said.
By and large, pro-North activists consider themselves victims of draconian National Security Law, which they say is abused by the government and used to stifle free speech.
But some supporters think it's a necessary piece of legislation to control the expression of pro-North Korean views and to root out traitors in South Korea.
What the critics have to say
“We need this National Security Law to protect our country from North Korean spies,” said Jeong Ji Un, spokesperson for National Cyber Security Observers, a civic group that monitors pro-North Korean activity on the South Korean internet.
Jeong expressed concern over possible collusion between the North’s regime and South Koreans. “Many people say they are just activists but really they are working for the North,” she said.
Jeong's mother was born in North Korea, and she says she grew hearing stories about how horrific life was there.
Indeed, the reality in North Korea is far from the idyllic picture many pro-North Korean activists in the South have in their minds, according to Brian Myers, a North Korea specialist at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea.
“[The North’s ideology] is a sort of catchall for everything the North Korean regime does," Myers said by phone during a recent interview.
"In reality it’s a red herring that distracts from the real ideology, which is something much more scary — a paranoid, race-based nationalism,” he said.
Shin Sung-hwa contributed to this report.