Search Asia Times

Advanced Search


South Korea's post-mortem politics
By David Scofield

The government and media of South Korea have reacted swiftly to a newly perceived "threat" to the country. No, not new revelations concerning North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but the video of Kim Sun-il's beheading. Since its release, the government has arrested at least 12 people for "illegally" downloading the gruesome video.

The Ministry of Information and Communication has declared the video too potentially scarring for the populace and has enlisted the help of South Korea's Internet service providers (ISPs) to insulate the country from the video. Kim Sun-il, 33, a student of Arabic, was working for a South Korean military contractor engaged in the US-led reconstruction of Iraq.

This censorship and arrest project involves a task force to identify and, with the help of local ISPs, block access to any site anywhere that offers the video for download. The censorship net, as is often the case with this sort of government intervention, is very wide, including many foreign weblogs. The ministry is encouraging Korea's Internet users to report offending sites to its website; IP addresses are being blocked at a breakneck pace, making South Korea's approach to cyberspace management appear decidedly Chinese.

The National Police Service has arrested 12 individuals so far for "illegally" downloading the video over person-to-person (P2P) networks, while many editorials suggest that concerned, morally upstanding "netizens" should attempt to block others from accessing the offending material - presumably by crashing sites with denial of service attacks or other illegal approaches. The media continue to fuel the censorship frenzy, carefully mentioning that many of the sites hosting the Kim Sun-il beheading video are located in the United States, a crude attempt to use latent anti-Americanism to justify the state's curtailment of people's freedom of expression.

But why would the government go to such lengths to suppress the video of Kim's beheading? The video shows a despicable act to be sure, but is the nation so concerned with the sanctity of life and reverence of the deceased that the government is compelled to take extraordinary measures to protect the inviolability of Kim's memory?
The South Korean authorities have not shown this sort of concern before. In the days immediately following the September 11, 2001, attacks, one of Korea's ubiquitous "sports" newspapers released an advertisement depicting Osama bin Laden flying a jet toward the World Trade Center. At the last minute, bin Laden becomes distracted by the new edition of the "sports" page and misses the towers. The advertisement was shown on high rotation throughout the jumbo-tron-like screens that dot Seoul's downtown core, including one screen set on a building beside the US Embassy.

The government has also been remarkably tolerant of companies that use despised characters and painful chapters of world history to make a buck. Like the Nazi theme bar located in the middle of the busy restaurant and nightclub area of Shinchon, a campy drinking hole that features all manner of Nazi paraphernalia and once had a swastika above the door. Persistent complaints by the German and Israeli embassies finally lead to some changes: the swastika's been taken down outside, but the uniforms and other Nazi trappings remain. The grievous death of thousands, or millions hasn't generated the same visceral reaction by the authorities. Perhaps it's something to do with the mode of death - beheading.

The video of Americans Nick Berg and Paul Johnson being executed are not only widely available in South Korea, but the Berg video, in its gory entirety, was shown on the Seoul-based MBC network during its prime time news cast. It was only later that the government watchdog advised the network not to show the beheading in its bloody entirety - no apologies to the Berg family for "killing him a second time", as the government characterizes the Kim video. South Koreans of all walks have been downloading video footage of people executed in this manner since the insurgents began using this strategy of dispatch to deal with those considered to be collaborating with US occupying forces. None of these graphic portrayals of bloodletting has garnered much response in South Korea.

And it's not just graphic pre/post-mortem pictures of the slain in Iraq that have received a wide audience here. After a 2002 training accident in which two Korean middle school girls were crushed to death under a US armored bridge moving vehicle, pictures of their mangled bodies were plastered across the nation's university campuses in order to fuel outrage against US forces. The pictures were extremely gruesome. It's hard to describe what a very large, tracked vehicle can do to a human body. No moral outrage by the government though. No blocking of Internet sites that might carry and distribute these horrible images. No citizens being arrested for downloading and possessing the material. It begs the question, why the change?

As far as support for the troop dispatch is concerned, the death of Kim Sun-il has so far had almost zero effect on public sentiment. While there was a substantial swing, about 20%, away from supporting the dispatch when news broke that Kim was being held and a guarantee by the government not to dispatch more troops would lead to his release, most swung back to their original opinion on the issue after he was killed. The end result has been poll results that look remarkably similar to those released in May: surveys vary depending on the demographic being polled, but roughly speaking, the nation is split down the middle on the dispatch. It is for this reason that the government has become so pious in dealing with the Kim issue.

(Since President Roh Moo-hyun promised to dispatch combat troops to Iraq to aid in security and reconstruction last October, an initial deployment of 600 medics and engineers has taken place. The subsequent promise to dispatch another 3,000 troops has been slower to materialize.)

Kim Sun-il's pleading demand "Korean soldiers, please get out of here ..." makes selling the dispatch to the Korean people that much harder. Kim's age and circumstance - stories of how he was struggling to secure the money for further university theological study - resonate with many South Koreans, especially those 20 to 30-something swing voters who hold the key to the Roh government's survival. Declarations like Kim's, condemning the planned dispatch, are being used as fodder to build resistance to the president's dispatch plan. The government's heavy-handed approach to remove the offending video, and its audio message, smacks of politics, not reverence for the deceased.

Which is a shame, that the only positive thing that could conceivably have come from the beheading is debate about South Korea's role in Iraq and the risks that it will incur. Earlier, the government had been careful to depict South Korea's involvement in Iraq, both present and future, as humanitarian only. Government statements conjured images of Korean troops being welcomed as liberators. The destination they chose was one of the most isolated and distant from the daily chaos of Baghdad, in the Kurdish autonomous zone, an area that has been free of Saddam Hussein's reach since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991. This prompted many to question just what it was they planned to reconstruct in an area that was not bombed in the latest campaign. The killing of Kim threatened the idyllic picture the government had painted of Korea and Koreans in Iraq.

But Kim's demise should stir those in South Korea who think being the target of terrorist attacks is somebody else's problem. When other nations have been targeted this way, it invariably prompts a government statement concerning the "global threat of terrorism" and how the country attacked is the "latest battlefield in the on-going war on terror". But in Korea there's been no such government reminder. Instead, Kim Sun-il has become a martyr to the anti-dispatch cause. And what of the culpability of the terrorists who killed him? An Internet poll of more than 4,500 South Koreans has found that almost 40% of respondents believe the United States is responsible for Kim's death, almost double the 23% who found those wielding the knife responsible.

David Scofield, former lecturer at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, is currently conducting post-graduate research at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Jun 30, 2004

Iraq execution stirs up hornets' nest (Jun 24, '04)

Seoul may send Iraq troops, GIs from DMZ to go (May 20, '04)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong