The opposition United Progressive Party (UPP) quits the political arena. On December 19, 2014, the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Korea delivered the decision to dissolve the party and deprive its five members, who are members of the National Assembly, of their deputy status.
Let us recall the background of this notorious case. The United Progressive Party was formed in December 2011. It put together the progressive forces, actively protected workers’ rights, spoke in favour of cooperation with Pyongyang and also often criticized, in a sharp manner, the government in place in the Republic of Korea. The UPP rapidly achieved visible success, having turned into the third-ranking influential party in South Korea. However, afterwards the party started being rocked by scandals. At first, it was related to the process of distribution of places on the party lists, and later the party was accused of activities for the benefit of the North Koreа, though, judging by their programme, the UPP are not followers of “chuch’e” but “Euro-Communists”.
On August 28, 2013, officers of the National Intelligence Service searched the dwellings and offices of the UPP members and “discovered” audio recordings of the party activist meetings, at which they had been discussing seizures of arms and ammunition warehouses and police stations “in order to help the North Korea”, also mentioning a terrorist act at some oil processing facility. As established later, the case had been initiated based on a denouncement for which the author of the denouncement had received a substantial monetary compensation.
After some time, the audio recordings of the treacherous plans were made public and the alleged head of the conspiracy, deputy Li Sok Ki, was placed in custody. The persons involved in the case did not contest the true nature of the statements but they said that in some instances the words were just jokes and in some places the facts were taken separate from the context and mounted in the appropriate manner.
On November 12, 2013 Li Sok Ki and other seven members of the party were put to trial. During 46 court hearings it was established that Li Sok Ki was the head of a revolutionary organisation which had developed “the plan for destruction of various strategic objects in the Republic of Korea”, attacks on key infrastructure objects in the country and seizure of power in case of a new war beginning on the Korean Peninsula. In addition, Li “stored materials in support of North Korea” and even sung the songs “The Red Flag” and “The Revolutionary Comrade” prohibited in the Republic of Korea. The fact that, long before his election to the Parliament in 2012, Li Sok Ki had already been convicted for violation of the Law on National Security, also played its role.
However no proof of North Korean funding of the underground organisation’s activity have been found, nor has there been found proof for a number of charges brought in at the first stages of the investigation (planning of acts of sabotage or preparation of terrorist acts).
Though “singing revolutionary songs in secrecy” does not much differ from the North Korean “insufficiently sincere applause during the Leader’s speech”, in February 2014 Li Sok Ki was found guilty of violating the Law on National Security, preparation and instigation of conspiracy with the aim of changing the existing state order, and sentenced to 12 years of deprivation of liberty and deprivation of rights for the period of 10 years. “Though the plans have not been implemented, the organisation posed a threat to the norms of liberal democracy and existence of the state in itself”.
On August 11, 2014 the higher instance court mitigated the penalty as it “has not found sufficient proof of existence of an anti-state conspiracy and anti-state organisation”. Li Sok Ki was found guilty of violation of the Law on National Security and sentenced to nine years of deprivation of liberty and deprivation of rights for the period of seven years.
So, as it was found out, there was no revolutionary organisation as a secret society inside of the party, nor was there any conspiracy against the state implying seizure of buildings and acts of sabotage. Notwithstanding this fact, on November 5, 2013 the Ministry of Justice of South Korea applied to the Constitutional Court requesting to deliver a decision to dissolve and ban the activities of the UPP, believing that its work presented a threat to the constitutional order and the state’s basic democratic values. In the government’s opinion, the party put as its target undermining the foundations of democracy and constitutional order, while the UPP argued that the scandal was a separate incident not connected to the general goals of this political force.
Till November 25 the parties held 18 open discussions submitting their arguments. The decision of the Constitutional Court has been awaited for more than a year. The judges in their private conversations admitted that they would be facing a difficult decision. On the day of announcement of the verdict the police mobilized about one thousand officers, fearing conflicts of followers of different political forces; it prohibited any meetings and pickets in front of the main entrance to the court, though mass demonstrations – both for and against the dissolution of the party – were held at some distance from it. The left-wing forces mobilized youth and the right-wing forces relied on army veterans and conservative church parishioners.
As expected, the judges’ opinions divided but to a lesser extent than predicted. By eight votes against one the Constitutional Court ruled that the activities and targets of the UPP harmed and threatened the basic democratic values of South Korea’s society and its political system. From that moment on, the UPP’s activity in South Korea was banned; its property and other assets were subject to confiscation, the members of the Parliament and regional legislative assemblies from the party were deprived of their mandates. Moreover, the Electoral Committee of South Korea announced sequestration of all bank accounts of the UPP.
Dissolution of a political party happened for the first time in the country’s modern history, after adoption of its Constitution in 1948, and produced an ambiguous reaction. The Prime Minister Chon Khon Won noted that the government respected and welcomed the taken decision. “It was proved that the UPP put as its goal the building of North Korea type socialism in our country”, emphasized the Head of the South Korean government, supporting the court verdict which was supposed to serve as the reason for strengthening of the people’s unity and principles of free democracy. He stressed that organisations and individuals who disagreed with the Constitutional Court must in any case respect its decision and stated that the government would not allow any attempts to harm democracy and put under doubt the legitimacy of the South Korean authorities.
OPP leader Li Chzon Khi stated that the decision was worthy of a dictatorship and noted that dark times were again coming in the country; she also announced the beginning of a protest campaign. The management and ordinary members of the party participated in a meeting in defence of democracy organised in Seoul in Chkhonghe Square. The party members intended to further take part in similar events held by various oppositional organisations, as they were not able to hold such events independently due to the Constitutional Court’s decision. On December 22, 2014 five former deputies from that party applied to the Seoul Administrative Court with a request to stay the validity of the decision depriving them of their deputy status. They argue that the Constitutional Court has taken the relevant decision in the absence of any existing legislative provisions to this extent, the more so as the country’s Constitution is the guarantee of their deputy mandates.
The governing Saenuri Party highly appreciated the court’s decision, emphasizing that it was strict but fair tribunal for unfriendly forces in the country and that the subsequent protests were open refusal to obey to the Constitutional Court’s decision.
The representative of the oppositional Democratic Coalition for New Policy Pak Su Khyun stated that the opposition accepted the court’ decision at the same time expressing its concern by violation of one of the main democratic principles – the guarantee of freedom for political parties. In addition, the Coalition’s concern was caused by the possibility of intensification of pressure on the opposition as a whole and by the fact that the Constitutional Court’s decision might have a negative impact on the country’s political situation.
Conservative public organisations met the court decision with exultance. Nevertheless, there are enough persons who believe that South Korea has made a step backward on the way of democratic development. The people sticking to this point of view believe that the scandal was used to liquidate a political force unwanted by the existing government. The international human rights organisation Amnesty International also immediately circulated a statement criticizing the verdict. “The ban on the activities of the UPP raises serious doubts as to the country authorities’ commitment to the principles of the freedom of speech and association”, said Roseann Rife, representative of Amnesty International in the Asia-Pacific Region.
The reaction from Pyongyang was also evident and expected. As noted in the Statement of the DPRK Committee for Peaceful Unification of Korea, published on December 21, 2014 such decision “is the evidence of violation of elementary political freedoms and democratic rights and is a crime against humanity”. The statement of the authority which supervises inter-Korean relations in the DPRK says that such actions prove that South Korea “still remains a “cold desert” from the point of view of human rights protection”.
Summary: They were going to ban the party based on the fact that it had been preparing a conspiracy against the constitutional power. Later on it was found out that there had been o conspiracy, but the party was banned. Just because it was a wrong one.
This is how democracy looks.
Konstantin Asmolov, Cand. Sc. (History), a senior research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.