Peace, A New Beginning — National Security Law, Our Task Ahead

by Kim-Hwang Kyung-san (General Secretary, Korean Women’s Peasants Association)

On April 27, 2018, Chairman Kim Jong-un crossed the military demarcation line to be greeted by President Moon Jae-in in the South Korean side of Panmunjom. After a few exchanges, with the eyes of the world still on them, Kim and Moon held hands, then crossed into the North and back to the South. Stepping over the border diminished that which held us back: separation, war, conflict.

The Panmunjom Declaration was announced: “There will be no more war in the Korean Peninsula. A new era of peace will open.” It was further declared that the ceasefire agreement would become a peace treaty, thus ending war. Peace has found its way to the Korean Peninsula. The declaration dared us to imagine a life free from threats, conflicts and confrontation. Maybe our lives could also change.

Yet, for a brief moment, conservatives clamored that Moon’s crossing into North Korea for ten seconds before returning back into the South violated the National Security Law (NSL) for infiltration and escape [1].

However, against the yearnings for peace inspired by the North-South Summit, the conservatives’ clamors about the the NSL simply went down as the obstinate cries of those stuck in the past. The April 27 Panmunjom declaration made clear that the National Security Law impedes peace, reunification and democracy and must be abolished. 

The National Security Law in the Era of Peace
The origin of the NSL was the Maintenance of the Public Order Act under Japanese colonization to imprison those fighting for liberation and independence from the Japanese. In 1945, we were liberated. Then the regime that pushed for South only elections ratified the NSL in 1948. Utilizing the Yeosun Uprising of Nov. 1948, the NSL was ratified to eliminate left-wing forces in the South.

The law, different only in name, was used to catch and lock up those that opposed the dictatorship or demanded peaceful reunification on the Korean Peninsula. It wasn’t possible to even express one’s thoughts freely in daily life. Simply uttering criticism of the government or speaking favorably of North Korea while having some drinks could get a person arrested. This earned it the nickname “Makkeoli (Rice Wine) Security Law.”

What’s Wrong with the National Security Law?
The NSL violates freedom of belief and conscience as guaranteed in article 19 of the Constitution. As a result, no criticism was allowed of the existing structure and state. Yet, if you don’t criticize what is wrong, then it cannot change. By shutting down critical thinking, it shuts down the source and the growth of people’s creative processes. Based on its prohibition of communist and socialist convictions and beliefs, the NSL punishes those that join such organizations, make such speeches, or own or read such books. As such, it violates the freedom to develop and maintain one’s beliefs or conscience freely. By also punishing those that fail to report such actions, it not only forces relatives and friends to report on each other but also prevents a critical discussion of the NSL.

The NSL also violates freedom of expression as guaranteed by article 21 of the constitution. Freedom of expression is the freedom to express one’s beliefs and opinions through language or writing to unspecified and varied people as well as the right to know, to access news media, and to speak in public. Article 7 violates this basic right by punishing anyone for praising, propagating, inciting or even agreeing with the activities of an enemy organization or a member or person who has received orders from it.

The NSL can even punish actions that don’t pose a serious threat to the state such as buying government banned books.

Furthermore, the NSL counters the constitution’s article on peace and reunification. The NSL designates North Korea, our counterpart in peace and reunification, as an anti-state organization. Despite the constitution’s clear pursuit of peace and reunification, the government has ratified a law that goes counter to this pursuit and arbitrarily enforces it based on who is in power.

The Struggle to Abolish the National Security Law
After passage of the NSL, it was used to harshly arrest and punish those that opposed its passage and the division of north and south. From 1981 to 1987, 1,512 people were prosecuted under the NSL with 13 of them being executed and 28 of them being imprisoned for life — this is why some say that the struggle to abolish the NSL started in the 1980s. At this time, there were many individual and group victims to the NSL. Torture was a given, with some dying.

The fiercest struggle against the NSL was in 2004. On Sept. 5 of that year, President Roh Moo-hyun stated in a televised interview that the NSL was not for the security of the country but for the security of regimes. He claimed that as it symbolized a barbaric era, it should be abolished. The Uri Party even incorporated the abolishment of the NSL into their party platform.

On Nov. 2 of 2004, the People’s Alliance to Abolish the NSL set-up a tent in front of the National Assembly. In the cold bitter winter, a thousand people gathered and started a hunger strike. Some fasted for almost 60 days. At the end, there were some that didn’t even drink water or take salt, putting their lives on the line during the hunger strike. Ultimately, political horse trading between the Uri Party and the conservative party sidelined the bill abolishing the NSL. Consequently, the Uri Party removed its abolishment from the party platform. The Grand National Party blocked introduction of such bill. Thus, the NSL continues today.

The National Security Law Must Be Abolished in This Peace Era
In 2001, a warrant for my arrest was issued simply for being a delegate for the Federation of Korean University Student Councils (FKUSC) that had been designated an enemy organization. Clause 3 of Article 7 of the NSL punishes anyone who is a member or joins an enemy organization. The arbitrary application of this clause meant that many student and labor movement organizations were designated enemy organizations. This violated the Constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of assembly.

The NSL designated the FKUSC an enemy organization. In 2000, by a vote of the female students, I took up the role of president of my university’s  Women Students Association. After the arrest warrant, the police even visited my parent’s home. They said that if I signed a statement withdrawing from my position, they would not arrest me. In a country where the freedom of political belief was guaranteed by the constitution, they were blocking my freedom of belief and forcing me to act against my beliefs. I refused, believing it improper to issue an arrest warrant simply for being  a democratically elected representative of the students. So, starting in 2001, I became a fugitive. While the police were prohibited from entering the campus, nothing prevented them from apprehending me the moment I stepped outside of it. For three years, I lived on campus. After being elected president, Roh Moo-hyun promised to abolish the NSL. Starting in 2003, a full-fledged struggle against the NSL began. However, the NSL still failed to be abolished. In 2003, the Roh Administration rescinded the arrest warrants of some of the FKUSC delegates. As I was included in that list, I turned myself over to the police. However, in 2004, I was prosecuted nonetheless for violation of the NSL. I was sentenced to a year probation, with a violation resulting in 6 months in prison. The Roh Administration had betrayed its promises.

The restart of peace is calling into question the basis for the NSL. The NSL obstructs reunification. Now after the North-South Summit talks, the North Korea-US Summit talks will take place. The relationship between North and South and between the North and the U.S. is transforming. We can’t build an era of peace and reunification with laws that breed enmity. The NSL is an outdated and unjust law holding back our times. It’s not a law, it is an injustice. Because an injustice should not be law, it needs to be repealed. And all those incarcerated for trying to build a better future for the people and for peace and reunification should be allowed their freedom of conscience and be freed.

I dream of a tomorrow where North and South Korean peoples can freely cross back and forth across the military demarcation line. Let’s eliminate that which drew the military demarcation line and that divides people’s hearts in two, endlessly sowing conflict and confrontation. Let’s welcome the warm spring of Peace and Reunification.


  1. Article 6 of the NSL states that “any person who has infiltrated from, or escaped to an area under the control of an anti-government organization, with the knowledge of fact that it may endanger the existence and security of the State or democratic fundamental order, shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than ten years.”