Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Korea's democracy in danger -Letter to the President

Hello everyone (anybody there?),

When I started this blog, I didn’t think I would get to write about politics. As it happens, it looks pretty much like I couldn’t help but write something that might be considered as such. But hey! First, this is my own little baby blog, and second, politics is not only about left versus right, communism versus capitalism or trying to get elected. Politics is about good government, and when we talk about a democratic system, it is about a government of the people by the people for the good of the country and its citizens. Therefore, politics is about life, about civil liberties and about everything that allows a people to live together, and so much more. In that sense, I might have been writing about politics even from the start of this blog (without even realizing it…).

So, to come back to my little contribution to Korean politics, I happened to write a letter to the Korean President (I remind you it’s NOT Kim Jong-il…hem…) a few days ago and had it published in the Korean online newspaper “Ohmynews”, with a little preamble exposing why I felt the urge to sent this letter.

For those of you interested, here’s the link to the newspaper. It’s written in Korean. My Korean language skills are not too bad, but my wife helped me a lot in correcting mistakes, especially when translating the letter itself (more so than the pre-letter section, which is less complicated). The letter, in English, is in the second section. Just click here.

I wrote and sent this letter in English because I wanted to control what was being said and how it was said. Obviously, one does not write the same way when writing to a President, so writing in Korean would have meant, for me, because of my still-to-be-improved-Korean-skills, some loss of control from my part on the content, and I did not want that.
In addition, the present Government has placed so much emphasis on the importance of English education at school that it is only fair to email them in English, in order to check whether they would respond to it.

So, to go back to the main story.

As some of you must know, a guy using the nickname “Minerva” has recently been arrested by the Korean authorities on charges of spreading false information on the internet about the government policies.

Here is a link to Reuters, summarizing the case, as well as from Reporters without Borders.

This person happens to be unemployed, in his thirties, and to have near to no education in economics, or in not much else, but claims he was interested in/passioned by economy since middle school. He did several predictions on his blog about the economy and the government policies that happened to be true. Needless to say that his predictions were about things that were going to go wrong, like a fall in the stockmarket and in the won, predictions that did not go too well with the present Government, given the dire economic situation worlwide.

This Minerva also claimed to be a specialist in economy and finance while it seems he wasn’t. Those of you who know Korea a bit, in particular those who have lived in Korea, will know how important education is for every Korean, and how different people will consider you depending whether you are highly educated or not. A university professor will have one of the highest status in Korean society, while someone like our guy, “Minerva”, will just be a nobody.
Based on this knowledge, it is not surprising to hear that he lied about his background, otherwise nobody would have even thought giving any sort of consideration to his articles.

The reality is that after having a few “predictions” right, more people started paying very close attention to his writings, believing he was some kind of retired financial expert, when he wasn’t.

What is important to mention is the fact that, as far as I know, he was not earning a living with his articles, and did not commit any fraud, but that he has just been arrested on charges of advancing falsehood on the Internet.
Basically, it is just like anybody writing a blog and expressing views about the economy of a country, getting facts wrong or even having fun and inventing what is going to happen or pretend to know what the government economic policy is going to be, and be arrested for it.

How cool is that?

Let’s have a look at his mischieval behavior :
- He used a nickname and not his real one. How surprising for a blog?!
- He then got some facts wrong. What about the Korean president predicting at first a 7% growth, or so, before being elected and now warning growth could be near 0%, or that Korea could even face a recession in 2009. Bring the charges!
- He lied about the government policies, spreading rumours. Well, since he’s just a basic citizen, is he not entitled to say whatever he wants about this kind of things? If some people, including people in the Korean government, are stupid enough to believe anything that is written in a blog whose author is anonymous, I think it is their responsibility first and foremost to use their analytical skills (if they have any – looks like some people don’t know the meaning of “being critical”) to judge whether it is reasonable to believe in the economic predictions of some anonymous blogger. To me it sounds, as least, unreasonable and foolish.
- He lied about his background. Oh… And…you mean…I can get arrested for that? So what if I say I can speak perfect Korean on my resumé? Does it count as a lie or not ?… I guess the police is going to be busy in the near future then.

Minerva is also blamed by some (extremely unreasonable) parties for the government loss of about 2 billion dollars on the currency exchange market, because he supposedly influenced the market so much by spreading rumours that people would have sold the Korean currency and buy dollars in vast quantities to protect themselves from a hard fall, provoking the fall of the Korean currency (most Korean financial analysts say this is just not possible, even if nobody denies he had some influence).

In short, the main issue about this case is freedom of expression and civil liberties. If the Korean government starts arresting people because of what they say or write in their blogs or elsewhere, it basically means a return to “traditional” Korean authoritarian regimes of the past. Do Koreans want that? No. Not one of them. Except maybe those whose interest it is to keep people under control so that they can better exploit them, ie. politicians in power and their friends in business.

This case is extremely serious. If I didn’t think it were, I would not be writing this post.

Below follows my letter. As it stands, it seems it hasn’t even been read yet(was sent on the 12th of January). If by tomorrow this email is not opened, I will (re)send it through recorded physical mail this time.

I know many people might think there is no point in doing such things. But they would be wrong. Through this letter, and through its publication in the online Korean newspaper “Ohmynews”, it seems it has contributed to stimulating the debate over this issue even more. It is indeed a hot issue in Korea, with or without this letter, but if can contribute to add just a little bit more pressure through this action, or incite people to be more active citizens, I think it will have been worthwhile.

Do not hesitate to spread the word. Not about this letter in particular of course, but about this Minerva case. Every one of us, foreigner or not, living in Korea or not, is concerned by this case.

Anyway, here is the beast:

Dear Mr President,

I am taking the time to write this letter because I am very concerned about the development of a case that has been reported in the news these last few days.

I am referring here to the "Minerva" case.

I am deeply troubled by the fact that a person could be arrested on charges of supposedly advancing false arguments in one of his articles.

If Korea claims to be a democracy, it surely cannot arrest anybody on account of such charges. If it does arrest people in this manner, it will therefore mean that the Goverment of South Korea has decided to ignore the rule of law and freedom of speech, which is inscribed in the Korean Constitution itself.

I have the right, if I choose so, to express an opinion that might be against the government policy, or that might be wrong. I even have the right, as a private individual, to tell wrong facts about the government policies as long as I am not expressing these views to operate some fraud. After all, many people spend their whole life lying by omission, especially in business and politics, and never get arrested. People are free to listen, or not to listen, to any views, and to consider or not to consider them. But to arrest someone because of what he has written is, without a doubt, a return to authoritarian practices not worthy of the great country that is the Republic of Korea.

If people were to be arrested on this basis, the present Korean Government would probably need to arrest, or investigate, thousands of people expressing personal views displeasing some government officials. Since Korea prouds itself in being a vibrant democracy, there can be no such thing as an arrest on the basis of some personal view expressed, because the power of any democracy resides in its ability to allow all kinds of dialogues to take place and all kinds of views to be expressed and, in particular, views that oppose Government policies and that are the proof of a sane and dynamic democracy.

The power of a democracy resides in its people. I shall remind you of a few articles of the Korean Constitution, on which all laws that exist in Korea are based and which is the foundation of Korea's democratic system of government.

Chapter I - General Provisions
Article 1
(1) The Republic of Korea shall be a Democratic Republic
(2) The sovereignty of the Republic of Korea shall reside in the people, and all state authority shall emanate from the people.

Article 7
(1) All public officials shall be servants of the entire people and shall be responsible to the people.
(2) The status and political impartiality of public officials shall be guaranteed as prescribed by act.
(Source: "Labor Laws of Korea 2005" - Publisher: Ministry of Labor)

As you will have observed, and as you already know, the word "people" is the key word of these articles.
Therefore, when one "people" is arrested in the manner as "Minerva" has been, it has serious implications for all the other "people" of the Republic of Korea. Namely, the potential outstripping of their personal liberties.

Mr President, you have been elected by the people to serve the people. As previous events during your presidency have shown in 2008, your role is to serve the people as President, the most illustrious position any Korean can hope to reach through hard work, talent, dedication and personal sacrifice.

I have no doubt you are aware of the supreme honour that is being President of the great Korean people, and I also do not doubt that your life has been dedicated to the advancement and betterment of your country, like so many other hard-working Koreans of your generation. Ordinary citizens know this and are thankful to you for having fulfilled this task of the most honourable manner. Nonetheless, the events I was referring to at the beginning of this letter are worrying in the extreme, because they threaten one central tenet of a democracy: freedom of speech; the right of all individuals to express their views, be they for or against the government.

If that basic tenet becomes threatened, we will witness no less than a threat to democracy itself.

Mr President, it is the proof of a sane and vibrant democracy when opposing views can be expressed without fear of being arrested by the Government in place. If that were to disappear from the Korean political life, it would mean no less that a return to the days of authoritarian regimes that Koreans had to live through for many years and during which so many people suffered.

Please, do not impose on Koreans a return to darker days nobody really wishes for any more. Even though I am only an ignorant foreigner coming from France and living in Korea since 2002, and therefore I might not be someone to listen to when it comes to Korean internal matters, I am not ignorant in the principles of democracy. In that, you can trust me. That is why I am hoping your Government will eventualy realize it is not in Korea's interest to arrest people based on anything they might have said or written.

I might even say that it could be probably be considered anticonstitutional. Athough I am not myself a lawyer, please let me quote here again the beginning of another article of the Korean Constitution.

Chapter II - Rights and duties of citizens
Article 21
(1) All citizens shall enjoy freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of assembly and association.
(2) Licensing or censorship of speech and the press, and licencing of assembly and association shall not be recognized.

Mr President, with all due respect to your position, I humbly urge you, for the sake of Korea's democracy and future among the democracies of this world, to consider this letter with all due attention, and take appropriate measures to ensure the fundamental right of freedom of speech is not trampled upon.

Thank you very much for your attention.

Respectfully yours,

Bruno Payen


Anonymous said...

My name is Minjee Kang and I am a student of Sookmyung Women's University in Korea.

First of all I appreciate your consideration about Korea. I would like to introduce Korean culture more, so would like to me send you an e-mail address?

My e-mail address is
I will wait your e-mail. Thank you very much. :)

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year!

i'm Minjee Kang.:)

i read your article on omynews homepage. i felt so much.
i wrote my feeling on my blog.한국에-사는-프랑스인이-이명박-대통령에게-쓴-편지

if you want, please visit my blog. of cours, i wrote only Korean. but i think you can read it, right?:)

seriously, i really thank you so much!