SEOUL – In the history of the South Korean struggle for democracy, the 1980 Gwangju uprising stands out as one of the proudest moments. Thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest against a military dictatorship, hundreds were gunned down by security forces. The bloody incident was sanctified in textbooks as the “Gwangju Democratization Movement”.
Right-wing extremists, however, have offered an alternative, highly inflammatory view of what happened: Gwangju was not a heroic victim for democracy, but a “riot” instigated by North Korean communists who infiltrated the protest movement.
Such conspiracy theories, which few historians take seriously, have quickly spread in South Korea, where a political divide – rooted in the country’s agonizing and often violent modern history – is intensifying online.
President Moon Jae-in’s ruling party has enacted a number of laws, some of which are already law, to stamp out false narratives on certain sensitive historical issues, including Gwangju. His supporters say he is defending the truth. Free speech advocates and Mr. Moon’s conservative enemies have accused the President of using censorship and history as political weapons.
Democracies around the world are grappling with the destructive effects of social media and disinformation on politics and discussing whether and where lines should be drawn between fake news and freedom of expression. In the US and elsewhere, the debate has centered on the power of social media companies whipped on the left for spreading hatred and false conspiracy theories and on the right for banning users like Donald J. Trump.
But few democratic countries have tried to control the speech to the extent that South Korea is considering, and a debate is underway over whether efforts to suppress misinformation will lead to broader censorship or encourage authoritarian ambitions.
“Whether I’m right or wrong should be decided through free public debate, the engine of democracy,” said Jee Man-won, a leading proponent of the theory of North Korean participation in Gwangju. “Instead, the government uses its power to dictate history.”
Disputes over which messages should be allowed and which should be suppressed often involve national history and identity. Debates are raging in the United States about the impact of racism and slavery, past and present, and how these issues can be taught in school. Proponents of the new laws say they are doing what Germany did by attacking the Holocaust denial lie.
South Korea has long been proud of its commitment to freedom of expression, but it’s also a country where breaking the mainstream can have serious consequences.
Historical issues such as working with Japanese colonial rulers or civil massacres in times of war have divided the country for decades. Defamation is a criminal offense. Under the laws of Mr. Moon’s party, promoting revisionist narratives on sensitive subjects like Gwangju or the “comfort women” – Korean sex slaves for the Japanese Army of World War II – could also be a crime.
By fighting misinformation, Mr. Moon is fulfilling his campaign promise to give Gwangju his rightful place in history. By criminalizing so-called “historical distortions”, however, he is also entering a political minefield.
The Korea History Society and 20 other historical research institutes issued a joint statement last month warning that Mr Moon’s progressive government, presenting itself as defenders of the democratic values backed by victims like Gwangju, is actually undermining them by using the threat of criminal penalties to dictate the story.
A law sponsored by Mr. Moon’s Party, which went into effect in January, provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for those who spread “untruths” about Gwangju. The party’s legislature also tabled a bill in May providing up to 10 years in prison for those who praised Japan’s colonial rule in Korea from 1910 to 1945.
The bill would set up a “true history” panel of experts to uncover biases – and corrections – in interpretations of sensitive historical issues, including the killing of civilians during the Korean War and human rights abuses among former military dictators.
Another bill from the party would criminalize “denying” or “falsifying or falsifying facts” about a much more recent event, the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, a disaster that killed hundreds of students and then humiliated the Conservative government in power. For their part, Conservative lawmakers tabled a bill last month that would punish those who deny North Korea sunk a South Korean naval ship in 2010.
“It’s a populist approach to history that appeals to widespread anti-Japanese sentiment to consolidate its political power,” said Kim Jeong-in, director of the Korea History Society, regarding the Japanese colonial rule bill. “Who studies colonial history when their research results are judged in court?”
Family members of the Gwangju protesters applauded Mr. Moon’s attempts to punish disinformation providers who vilified them.
“As if our loss of siblings and parents wasn’t painful enough, they vilified us as the henchmen of North Korean agents,” said Cho Young-dae, a nephew of the late Cho Pius, a Catholic priest in Gwangju who participated in the uprising and said Years later about the murders. “They abused freedom of expression to insult our violation.”
Mr. Cho, who is also a priest, said that Gwangju survivors suffered too long while people like Mr. Jee spread false information about the massacre. “We need a South Korean version of the Holocaust law to punish those who embellish the Gwangju atrocities as European countries have laws against Holocaust denial,” he said.
Recent polls have shown that the greatest conflict dividing Korean society is between progressives and conservatives, both of whom seek to mold and censor history and textbooks to their advantage.
Conservative dictators once arrested, tortured, and executed dissidents in the name of a national security law that criminalized “praising, inciting, or promoting” any behavior deemed pro-North Korean or sympathetic to communism.
Conservatives today want the story to highlight the positive aspects of their heroes – like Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s authoritarian founding president, and Park Chung-hee, a military dictator – and highlight their success in fighting communism and the country’s post-Korean poverty.
Progressives often emphasize the downsides of the conservative dictatorship, such as the Gwangju murders. They also condemn those they call “chinil,” pro-Japanese Koreans who they say worked with colonial rulers and thrived during the Cold War by calling themselves anti-communist crusaders.
But Mr Jee says there are progressives who harbor communist views that threaten the country’s democratic values.
Much of this debate takes place online, where some very partisan podcasters and YouTubers have as many viewers as national television programs.
“Ideally, conspiracy theories and irrational ideas should be dismissed or marginalized by the market of public opinion,” said Park Sang-hoon, chief politician of the Political Power Plant, a citizens’ group based in Seoul. “But they have become part of the political agenda here.” The mainstream media “helps them gain legitimacy,” he said.
During the Gwangju uprising, a handful of journalists managed to slip through the military chain around the city. They found mothers wailing over the corpses of loved ones. “Down with the dictatorship! The protesters dug themselves into a government building for their final doomed standoff against the army.
For many South Koreans, the demonstrators in Gwangju have won. Students across the country followed in their footsteps and rose against the junta.
Chun Doo-hwan, the army general who took power in a military coup before the protests, blamed “vicious rioters” and “communist agitators” for the violence. In the late 1990s, he was convicted of sedition and mutiny in connection with the coup and the Gwangju murders. (He was later pardoned.)
“Thanks to the sacrifice in Gwangju, our democracy was able to survive and stand again,” said Mr. Moon during his visit to the city shortly after his election in 2017. He said the spirit of Gwangju was “reborn in the mass protests that were ousted “Became his predecessor Park Geun-hye – the daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee – and warned of” unbearable “attempts to” distort and denigrate “the uprising of 1980.
But Mr. Jee said his experience of expressing inconsistent historical views should be a warning to South Koreans. In 2002, he published an advertisement claiming that Gwangju was a secret North Korean operation.
He was then dragged in handcuffs to Gwangju and detained for 100 days for defamation until his sentence was suspended.
Since then, he has published 10 books on Gwangju and fought against other charges of defamation. Although critics accused him of spreading wild conspiracy theories, his view has attracted a following.
“If they hadn’t treated me like they did in 2002, I wouldn’t have gotten this far,” he said.