To the Editors:
The international press has heralded the election in South Korea of its first civilian president, former opposition leader Kim Young Sam, as a signal that the process of democratization begun in 1987 is finally complete.
But the January 7 sentencing of a socialist publisher, Choi Il-bung, to two years in prison suggests that the old military-security apparatus still holds much influence in South Korea.
Choi was arrested in October 1992 and charged with violations of the country’s notorious National Security Law, a law dating from the regime of military strongman Rhee Syngh Man which gives the government wide powers to suspend civil liberties.
Government officials justify the law as necessary to meet the military threat from North Korea. Yet Choi, a member of the International Socialists of South Korea, is far from being a supporter of the North Korean regime. He has published a wide range of Western Marxist literature that is highly critical of Stalinism and of regimes like North Korea. He has also published books by South Korean trade union activists.
Since its founding in 1987, Choi’s publishing house, Shinpyongron (New Reviews) has published a number of books that are widely available in North America and Europe. Among the titles he has published in Korean translation are Leon Trotsky’s “Permanent Revolution” and Moshe Lewin’s “Lenin’s Last Struggle.”
Choi is thirty-five years old. He is married and has three small children. Police harassment has made his wife ill and has sent his mother to the hospital.
French human rights expert Christine Chanet told a United Nations committee in July 1992 that South Korea was a “state without rights” and that the National Security Law was used to prosecute opposition figures who had no links to North Korea.
Choi Il-bung is not alone. There are thousands of political prisoners in South Korean jails.
In our opinion, Choi is being imprisoned for exercising the right to free speech which, we are given to understand in the West, the South Korean state now recognizes. We are particularly concerned that President-elect Kim Young Sam has specifically excluded “socialists and rapists” from his inauguration amnesty—as if socialists can be equated with those who sexually assault women.
The London-based Committee to Defend South Korean Socialists, an international committee of trade unionists, socialists and human rights activists, is conducting a campaign to win Choi’s release. It has involved pickets of the Korean embassies in London, Tokyo and Canberra and Korean consulates in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago.
The Committee asks New York Review readers to endorse its statement of protest to the South Korean government:
“We, the undersigned, condemn the South Korean government’s January 7 sentence against Choi Il-bung, a South Korean socialist, under the country’s National Security Law. Choi was sentenced to two years in prison for publishing socialist literature that is freely available in Europe and the US. We demand that new President Kim Young Sam use his powers to pardon Choi Il-bung and stop the persecutions of those, like Choi, who simply exercise their elementary right to free speech.”
Among the more than 200 endorsers of the campaign to free Choi Il-bung internationally include: Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbin, Bernie Grant, MPs, Britain; Pete Camarata, co-chair, Teamsters for a Democratic Union; Prof. Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Julie Christie, actress; Prof. Sam Farber, Brooklyn College; Paul Foot, Daily Mirror (London); Phylis and Julius Jacobson, co-editors, New Politics; Robin Holliday, FRS, CSIRO-Australia; Ron Kaminkow, president, Local 634, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Joanne Landy, Campaign for Peace and Democracy; Zhores Medvedev, author and scientist; Ralph Miliband, editor, Socialist Register; Kim Moody, Labor Notes; Harold Pinter, playwright; Ahmed Shawki, editor, Socialist Worker.
If you would like to add your name to the list of endorsers or to find out more information on the campaign, please write to the Committee.
Choi’s case is a test of whether South Korea, under its new president, will genuinely tolerate dissent.
Committee to Defend
South Korean Socialists
PO Box 16085
Chicago, Illinois 60616
June 10, 1993