Exhibition sheds light on the history of South Korea’s National Security Act

A new online director’s guide walks you through “The Things Imprisoned in the World of Words”, an exhibition about South Korea’s National Security Act, organized and supported by hundreds of people and civil society organizations including FES Korea.

A recent exhibition in Seoul explored South Korea’s National Security Act and its wide application in the name of national security over more than 70 years. Various civil society organizations and individuals joined hands to organize The Things Imprisoned in the World of Words from 25 August to 18 October 2020 in the Democracy and Human Rights Memorial Hall, a former anti-communist interrogation office.

“I was frustrated whenever I realized that there were enormous records of past state violence that had not yet reached our eyes,” said artistic director Kwon Eun-bi. “I also thought that this exhibition would not be able to console any small fragments of the lives damaged and destroyed by the National Security Act for the past 72 years. Nevertheless, I was convinced that I must not stop asking questions about irrational times in our nation’s history.”

The National Security Act is a symbol of the country’s dark history and dictatorship. With the democratization process, numerous people, not only Koreans but also international organizations including the United Nations, have demanded the abolition of this unjust law, above all Article 7, which lays out punishments for people and organizations who seem to “benefit the enemy”. In 2004, liberal and progressive parties and civil society organizations tried to have the law abolished by the Roh Moo Hyun government. However, the effort failed because the conservative opposition party in South Korea strongly opposed the proposal above all.

South Korea’s national security has been regarded as one of the most important issues among its people ever since the Korean War, which broke out in 1950 and never formally ended. Freedom and human rights have been sacrificed in its name. The National Security Act was enacted in South Korea in 1948 to regulate “any anticipated activities compromising the safety of the State.” It has been the most crucial legal tool to restrict freedom of expression and to enforce anti-communist policies in the country. Under this ambiguously formulated law, thousands of opposition politicians, dissidents, journalists, students and artists have been arrested, imprisoned, tortured and some even executed. Their alleged crimes have historically included demonstrating against South Korean governments, showing sympathies for North Korea or Socialism, or simply possession of prohibited publications such as Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

Reading Das Kapital is no longer forbidden, and demonstrations are now largely tolerated, but the Act remains feared and criticized for its stringency and political purpose. However, although the number of people prosecuted under it has decreased, the National Security Act still today violates the freedom of expression and human rights of people in South Korea. Moreover, this law also affects the inter-Korean relations and peace on the Korean Peninsula, aggravating the image of North Korea as an enemy.

The exhibition intends to raise awareness about the human rights violations committed under the Nationals Security Act and to promote a public debate about the necessity to abolish the law. As long as the Act exists, freedom of thought and expression are not guaranteed.


Take a virtual walk through the exhibition or watch the director’s guide:

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Sung Dain is a project manager at the FES Korea Office. For more information on the work of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Korea contact the FES office in Seoul.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES

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