South Korea

Partly Free
A Obstacles to Access 22 25
B Limits on Content 23 35
C Violations of User Rights 19 40
Last Year's Score & Status
64 100 Partly Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.

header1 Overview

Internet freedom neither improved nor declined in South Korea, as a gradual easing of economic and regulatory constraints on online publishing was offset by a persistent lack of transparency regarding companies’ cooperation with government requests for user data. A controversial new filtering system was implemented, allowing authorities to more specifically target webpages for blocking. Also during the coverage period, women continued to face repercussions for their support of feminist campaigns and were subjected to alarming privacy violations associated with “spycam porn.” Thousands of women organized online and offline protests to focus attention on gender-based harassment, discrimination, and violence.

South Korea’s democratic system features regular rotations of power and robust political pluralism, with the largest parties representing conservative and liberal views. Personal freedoms are generally respected, though the country struggles with minority rights and social integration. Legal bans on pro–North Korean activity have sometimes affected legitimate political expression.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019

  • The number of websites or pages blocked and posts deleted in 2018 represented a nearly threefold increase over the previous year. The actions were often justified on the grounds that they were necessary to ensure national security or social order (see B1 and B2).
  • In February 2019, the government expanded its technical capacity and began Server Name Identification (SNI) filtering of HTTPS websites, allowing more precise blocking of particular webpages (see B1).
  • The number of criminal defamation cases involving online speech continued to rise, resulting in nearly 11,000 arrests in 2018 (see C3).
  • Throughout the coverage period, women organized online and offline protests and other activities in response to abusive phenomena such as cyberstalking, revenge porn, face-swap porn, and spy-camera porn—voyeuristic recordings of random targets, known locally as molka (see B8 and C7).
  • Transparency regarding private companies’ cooperation with government requests for user data remained minimal. In December 2018, a nongovernmental organization’s tort claim about warrantless access to personal information was rejected (see C6).

A Obstacles to Access

South Korea’s rates of broadband and smartphone penetration are among the highest in the world. The internet service sector is relatively diverse and open to competition, while the mobile market is subject to more state influence. Broadcasting and telecommunications activities are regulated by the Korea Communications Commission (KCC), and the content and ethical standards of these sectors are monitored by the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC). Both commissions are chaired by presidential appointees.

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 6.006 6.006

South Korea is one of the most connected countries in the world, in terms of both usage and connection speeds. Smartphone penetration was at 95 percent in 2018, surpassing other advanced economies in global surveys.1 An estimated 99.5 percent of households had internet access in 2018, according to the Ministry of Science and Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The most common methods for access in those households were wireless LAN, or local area network (100 percent), and mobile internet (99.9 percent).2

On April 3, 2019, three South Korean mobile carriers launched the world’s first commercial mobile services equipped with fifth-generation (5G) network technology. The government claimed that the accomplishment enhanced the country’s reputation as a hyperconnected society.3

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 3.003 3.003

High-speed internet is relatively affordable. According to the Inclusive Internet Index 2019 report, South Korea ranks 15 out of 100 countries surveyed for affordability, defined by cost of access relative to income and the level of competition in the internet marketplace.1 Roughly 70 percent of South Koreans live in cities dominated by multistory apartment buildings that can easily be connected to fiber-optic cables.2 There is no significant digital divide with respect to gender or income, although there is a need for further improvement in access for the elderly and rural populations.3

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 6.006 6.006

The government does not intentionally restrict connectivity. The country’s internet backbone market is dominated by a small number of companies, with Korea Telecom (KT) as the largest provider. KT was founded as a state-owned enterprise in 1981 and was privatized in 2002. The network infrastructure is connected to the international internet predominantly from the southern cities of Busan and Keoje, through international submarine cables extending to Japan and China. For national security reasons, the police and the National Intelligence Service (NIS) have oversight of the access points, but the government is not known to implement politically motivated restrictions on internet or mobile access.1

  • 1Interviews with ICT professionals, August 2015.
A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 5.005 6.006

The internet service market is relatively diverse and open to competition, with 96 internet service providers (ISPs) operating as of January 2019.1 Nevertheless, it is dominated by three companies: KT (41 percent as of February 2019), SK Telecom (26.6 percent), and LG Telecom (19 percent). The same firms control the country’s mobile service market, with 26.3 percent, 41.5 percent, and 20.2 percent market shares, respectively.2 All three companies are publicly traded, but they are part of the country’s chaebol system—a pattern of ownership characterized by large, family-controlled conglomerates that are connected to the political elite, often by marriage ties.3 This has given rise to speculation that favoritism was at play in the privatization process and in the selection of bidders for mobile phone licenses.4

In a positive development during the coverage period, the Ministry of Science and ICT announced amendments to the enforcement decree of the Telecommunications Business Act, whereby from June 2019 new telecommunications businesses would only have to register with the ministry rather than applying for and obtaining a license.5 It remained to be seen whether the change would lower entry barriers for the mobile service market in practice.

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 2.002 4.004

The KCC regulates broadcasting and telecommunications, while the KCSC monitors content and ethical standards. Both commissions, whose members are responsible to the president, have been criticized for politicized appointments and lack of transparency.

The conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak 2008–13) created the five-member KCC in 2008.1 The president appoints two commissioners, including the chair, while the National Assembly chooses the remainder. As of September 2019, the chairman has been Han Sang-hyuk.2

The first KCC chairman, Choi See-joong, was a close associate of then president Lee.3 Choi resigned in 2012 amid bribery scandals and was later sentenced to two and a half years in prison and a fine of 600 million won ($540,000) for influence peddling.4 Lee pardoned him just before the end of his presidency.5 In 2013, then president Park Geun-hye (2013–17) also named a close aide, four-term lawmaker Lee Kyeong-jae, to head the KCC.6 He was succeeded by a former judge, Choi Sung-joon, who completed his term in April 2017. Choi was under prosecutorial investigation during the coverage period for alleged preferential treatment of LG’s mobile operator.7

Founded in 2008, around the same time as the establishment of the KCC, the KCSC monitors internet content and issues censorship orders to content hosts and other service providers (see B3). The KCSC’s nine members are appointed by the president and the National Assembly.8 Park Hyo-chong, a key figure in the country’s conservative movement, led an all-male commission from 2014 to 2017. Former journalism professor Kang Sang-hyun chairs the current commission, which was formed in January 2018. The commissioners meet every two weeks to deliberate, according to a former member.9 The KCSC evaluates online content flagged by a team of in-house monitoring officers, but it also considers censorship requests from other agencies and individuals. Observers have criticized the commission’s vaguely defined standards and broad discretionary power to determine what information should be censored, arguing that these allow the panel to make politically, socially, and culturally biased judgments that often lack a legal foundation.10

B Limits on Content

Although the internet environment in South Korea features vibrant creativity, there are a number of restrictions on the free circulation of information and opinions. Website blocking and administrative deletion of posts are routinely conducted on the grounds that they are necessary to ensure national security or social order, with the number of items restricted reaching record highs in 2018. In February 2019, the government expanded its technical capacity by instituting SNI-based filtering of HTTPS—or “hypertext transfer protocol secure”—websites, which allows for more precise blocking of individual webpages. Political manipulation of online discussions has been documented in the past, and several new revelations during the coverage period indicated that such efforts are ongoing.

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 3.003 6.006

Service providers continued blocking of content that was deemed to violate the law or social norms, including threats to national security and public morality, mainly on the orders of the KCSC.1 Political content, such as that praising North Korea, can also be subjected to blocking.2

The KCSC does not publish a list of blocked sites, but it does release the numbers of websites blocked under different categories of banned content. In 2018, a reported 187,980 websites or pages were blocked and 41,000 were deleted, amounting to a nearly threefold increase compared with the previous year and the highest such numbers since the commission’s establishment in 2008.3 Among those blocked, 64,678 were targeted due to “prostitution and obscenity,” 60,553 for “encouraging gambling,” 33,875 for promoting “illegitimate food and medicine,” 17,390 for “violating others’ rights,” and 11,484 for “violating other laws and regulations.” The last category includes content that “praises, promotes, and glorifies North Korea,” which is illegal according to Article 7 of the 1948 National Security Act.4 Another report noted that 1,662 items were blocked or deleted for violations of the National Security Act in 2017, and 1,764 items were blocked or deleted for such violations between January and August 2018 (see B2). Some 99 percent of the 1,764 North Korea–related blockings and deletions were initiated by the police, with the rest prompted by the NIS (see B2 and B3).5 In many cases, the commission ordered the blocking of entire sites even though only a small portion of their content was considered problematic.

In February 2019, the KCSC confirmed that it was using a controversial new technical method to block “illegal” content, specifically pornography and pirated material, that is accessed through HTTPS.6 The new scheme uses SNI-based filtering, which entails monitoring the unencrypted SNI that shows which HTTPS sites a user is visiting.7 Just a month later in March, the KCC announced another plan to extend its blocking authority over sites that use the HTTPS protocol.8

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 2.002 4.004

In addition to blocking, some political and social content is subject to removal, mainly through the KCSC’s orders.

In 2018, the KCSC had 41,000 items deleted. Of these, 16,123 were targeted for “violating other laws and regulations,” 14,144 for promoting “illegitimate food and medicine,” 10,422 for “prostitution and obscenity,” 177 for “violating others’ rights,” and 134 for “encouraging gambling.”1

In one example of a failed bid for content removal, the police asked the KCSC to order deletions of YouTube videos claiming that the president was showing signs of dementia, on the grounds that they disturbed public order. The KCSC rejected the request—a decision that was welcomed by civil society organizations.2

Personnel at service providers that do not comply with KCSC orders face up to two years of imprisonment or a fine of up to 20 million won ($18,000), according to Article 73 of the Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection (Network Act). Individuals, the police, and other government agencies can also instruct content hosts to remove content. On receiving a takedown request from individual users, a company must immediately hide the content in question for 30 days and delete it if the content owner does not revise it or appeal within that time, on the basis of Article 44(2) of the Network Act.

Moreover, under Article 44(3) of the same law, online intermediaries are encouraged to monitor and carry out proactive 30-day takedowns of problematic content, even without being prompted by complaints.3 Companies that can demonstrate proactive efforts to regulate content would be favorably considered by the courts, while those that do not may be liable for illegal content posted on their platforms.4

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 2.002 4.004

An expansive legal and administrative framework enables the authorities to restrict a broad range of content.

It is neither easy nor straightforward for ordinary users to appeal the KCSC’s censorship decisions. Nevertheless, there have been cases in which orders are challenged in court. In 2017, the Seoul Administrative Court ruled in favor of British journalist Martyn Williams, who, with support from local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), had appealed the KCSC’s blocking of his website, North Korea Tech, for allegedly violating Article 7 of the 1948 National Security Act.1 The Seoul High Court later upheld the ruling.2

In addition to the Network Act, laws that can be invoked for content removal include the National Security Act, the Antiterrorism Act, the Public Official Election Act, and the Children and Youth Protection Act. Article 17 of the Children and Youth Protection Act places responsibility for removing child sexual abuse images on service providers, with possible penalties of up to three years of imprisonment or fines of up to 20 million won ($18,000). In 2015, Lee Sir-goo, then the chief executive of the country’s most popular mobile messaging application, KakaoTalk, was charged under this article with failing to take measures to stop the distribution of 745 videos featuring children and minors. Since holding a chief executive personally liable for user activity was unprecedented in South Korea, critics alleged that the charge was actually punishment for refusing to curb users’ criticism of the government.3 In June 2018, the Constitutional Court upheld Article 17, stating that service providers are legally obligated to prevent the circulation of child or juvenile sexual abuse images.4 Nevertheless, the Suwon District Court acquitted Lee of the negligence charge in February 2019, even as it ruled that the technical measures put in place by KakaoTalk were indeed inadequate.5

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 3.003 4.004

Some users in South Korea self-censor to avoid reprisals for their speech, including charges of defamation, which draws heavier penalties when committed via ICTs (see C2).

Resonating with the global #MeToo movement against sexual assault and harassment, survivors of such abuse in South Korea have used various social media platforms to reach a wider audience and advocate for social and legal changes. However, many survivors have self-censored to avoid being publicly shamed, fired from their jobs, or, most notably, sued for defamation.1

  • 1“S. Korean star director sues women’s rights group over ‘#MeToo damages’," Daily Mail, March 7, 2019,
B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 1.001 4.004

Online content manipulation has long been a concern for users in South Korea. The administration of former president Park, who was ultimately impeached on corruption charges in December 2016, was overshadowed from the beginning by investigations into the politicized manipulation of online comments by intelligence agents and military officials working to aid her victory in the 2012 election. Park denied ordering or benefiting from election manipulation.1 In 2017, the High Court sentenced former NIS director Won Sei-hoon to four years in prison for election interference. Won was first indicted in 2013, accused of authorizing agents to post thousands of online comments and 1.2 million tweets characterizing members of the opposition as North Korea sympathizers.2

Similarly, in 2013, the Defense Ministry’s cyber command unit, launched in 2010 to “combat psychological warfare in cyberspace,” stated that some officials had posted inappropriate political content online during the same period, but without the knowledge of the unit’s leaders. However, the ministry’s own investigation in the aftermath of Park’s impeachment confirmed that former defense minister Kim Kwan-jin had mobilized the cyber command unit for smear campaigns against opposition candidates in the 2012 election.3

Investigations surrounding the 2016 presidential corruption scandal revealed that online opinion manipulation was not limited to the 2012 election. Both Park’s administration and that of her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, were found to have maintained a “blacklist” of almost 10,000 artists, writers, and other cultural practitioners who satirized or criticized the two conservative governments.4 Those on the list were defunded, professionally disadvantaged, or subjected to systematic online harassment.5

Current president Moon Jae-in, who took office in May 2017, lost an opportunity to distance himself from this decade-long history of online manipulation when a close ally, Kim Kyoung-soo, was accused of working with a group of bloggers to rig online support prior to the 2017 presidential election.6 In January 2019, the Seoul Central District Court found Kim guilty of manipulating online comments, including by using software to post over 99.7 million fraudulent “likes” and “dislikes” on social media content, to Moon’s advantage.7 The case was being heard in an appellate court near the end of the coverage period.

Beyond manipulation around elections, the government has signaled that it is closely monitoring so-called “fake news.” In October 2018, during a cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon announced a crackdown on “fake news” online, vowing to use the country’s criminal laws to curb what officials portrayed as a threat to democracy.8 The National Police Agency has said it looked into 16 false stories that flourished on popular social media platforms. Many such stories originated from right-wing YouTube channels and portrayed President Moon as suffering from mental health problems or sympathizing with North Korea. The police have unsuccessfully tried to remove some of these videos (see B2).

While there has been no evidence that legitimate content is being suppressed, critics are concerned that the “fake news” crackdown will limit free expression and make the government the arbiter of which online information is true or false.9

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 3.003 3.003

There are no known economic or regulatory constraints that systematically hinder online content production and publication.

It was previously revealed that the Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak administrations had secretly channeled funds to progovernment news outlets, civic groups, and websites.1 However, no evidence of similar practices by the current government emerged during the coverage period.

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 3.003 4.004

South Korea’s overall media environment is partly restricted yet relatively diverse.1 Alternative and activist media outlets have developed online in part to challenge the existing restrictions.2 The country is home to the first viable model of citizen journalism, OhmyNews, which has served as an inspiration to sites of a similar nature around the globe since 2000.3 Newstapa, a user-funded investigative journalism platform, has accumulated more than 30,000 regular donors and 135 million views on its YouTube channel since its launch in 2012.4 It was a leading source of information on the 2012 election manipulation scandal,5 and it was one of the first outlets to allege systemic corruption and negligence behind the sinking of ferry Sewol in 2014, a disaster that resulted in 304 deaths.

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 6.006 6.006

South Koreans have long embraced online technology for civic engagement and political mobilization, and online mobilization platforms and websites are freely available. The public’s response to corruption allegations against then president Park Geun-hye between October 2016 and April 2017 was one of the country’s most historic examples of digital mobilization. Hundreds of thousands of citizens participated in the campaign to pressure the legislative and judicial branches to bring the president and other suspects to justice. The will of citizens, expressed through social media and a sustained series of mass candlelight rallies offline, successfully led the more conservative mainstream media and legislators to endorse the removal of the president.1

During the coverage period, South Korean women continued to use the internet to share their experiences of gender-based discrimination and violence. From May to December 2018, thousands of women organized online and offline protests against “spycam porn,” or molka, meaning “hidden camera.” This epidemic problem involves small cameras that are hidden in various places—such as toilet stalls, subways, streets, and motels—to capture images of women without their consent. The images are then shared and consumed as entertainment and pornography in various male-dominated online spaces (see C7).2

In response to the protests, the government and lawmakers amended the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment of Sexual Crimes in November 2018, imposing harsher penalties for molka crimes on both those who collect the images and those who distribute copies. In the spring of 2019, several pop-music celebrities were arrested for sharing molka videos and conspiring about date rapes in KakaoTalk chatrooms.3

C Violations of User Rights

Individual citizens have been charged with defamation or violation of other criminal laws for their online posts. During the coverage period, survivors of gender-based crimes continued to come forward and share their experiences, but they often faced negative repercussions in both their personal and professional lives. The privacy of countless women has also been violated through the epidemic practices of cyberstalking, revenge porn, face-swap porn, and spy-camera porn, in which voyeuristic images of random victims are recorded and shared.

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 3.003 6.006

The constitution guarantees the freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, and association to all citizens, but it also enables restrictions, stating that “neither speech nor the press may violate the honor or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics.” South Korea has an independent judiciary and a national human rights commission that have made decisions upholding freedom of expression. Nevertheless, the prosecution of individuals for online activities has a chilling effect and generates international criticism. Several laws restrict freedom of expression in traditional media as well as online (see C2).

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 2.002 4.004

A number of laws criminalize online activities. The 1948 National Security Act allows prison sentences of up to seven years for praising or expressing sympathy with the North Korean regime. In 2010, the Ministry of Unification issued a notice reminding citizens that the 1990 Act on Exchanges and Collaboration between South and North Koreas applies to online communications as well as offline,1 and that any active engagement with websites or pages maintained by North Korea must be reported to the government in advance.2 Anyone failing to do so may face a fine of up to one million won ($900).

Defamation, including written libel and spoken slander, is a criminal offense in South Korea, punishable by up to five years of imprisonment or a fine of up to 10 million won ($9,000), regardless of the truth of the contested statement. Insult charges, which unlike defamation cases must be initiated directly by a complainant, are punishable by a maximum fine of two million won ($1,800) or a prison sentence of up to one year. Defamation committed via ICTs draws even heavier penalties—seven years in prison or fines of up to 50 million won ($45,000)—under the 2005 Network Act, which cites the faster speed and wider audience of online communications as a basis for the harsher sentencing.3

In a positive development for free expression, a group of 10 lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party proposed amendments to the 1953 Criminal Act and the Network Act in February 2019. The amendments would broaden the “public good” exemption that defendants can claim in online and offline defamation cases.4

  • 1“Notice on the use of North Korean internet sites,” [Korean,] Ministry of Unification, April 8, 2010,
  • 2Reports of such contact, online and offline, are to be made through an online system at
  • 3“Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection,” Art. 61 amended December 30, 2005, Privacy Law Resources,
  • 4“Open Net submits its endorsement of proposed amendments to the Criminal Act and the Network Act (by Assemblyman Kim Byung-kee) to reduce the scope of defamation by truth,” Open Net, [Korean,] Open Net Notice & Press, March 12, 2019,
C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 2.002 6.006

There were fewer criminal cases stemming from online speech about North Korea during the coverage period, but the number of defamation cases continued to rise.

The number of online defamation cases increased from 8,880 in 2014 to 14,908 in 2016 and 15,926 in 2018.1 Of the 2018 cases, 10,889 led to arrests. By the end of 2019, the number of online defamation cases was expected to exceed that of general defamation cases involving offline offenses.2

In December 2018, one user was sentenced to four months in prison after posting comments on a YouTube video that insulted a woman.3 In the aftermath of a devastating wildfire in Gangwon Province in April 2019, the ruling Democratic Party filed defamation suits against 75 individuals, including opposition lawmaker Kim Soon-rye, for circulating rumors on YouTube and Facebook concerning the president’s whereabouts on the day of the disaster.4 Other recent defamation cases centered on offenses committed in private KakaoTalk chats, based on complaints from others in the same chats.5

While North Korea–related content filtering increased during the reporting period (see B2), the number of arrests and prosecutions decreased considerably. In 2018, 20 people were charged with alleged violations of the National Security Act, both online and offline, marking the lowest annual total since 2013.6

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 2.002 4.004

There are some limits on anonymous communication, though a problematic real-name system was largely dismantled in 2012. First adopted through a 2004 amendment to the Public Official Election Act,1 the system required users to submit their Resident Registration Numbers (RRNs) in order to join and contribute to major websites. The RRN is a 13-digit number uniquely assigned to South Korean citizens at birth. In 2007, the system was applied to any website with more than 100,000 visitors per day under Article 44(5) of the Network Act. The Constitutional Court ruled Article 44(5) unconstitutional in 2012, citing vulnerability to cyberattacks among other factors.2 Under 2013 amendments to the Personal Information Protection Act, website administrators are prohibited from collecting RRNs, and failure to protect an individual’s RRN is punishable by fines of up to 500 million won ($450,000).3

Mobile service providers still require users to submit their RRNs, and some other registration requirements remain in place. In 2015, the Constitutional Court upheld clauses of the Public Official Election Act that require people to verify their real names before commenting online during election periods (23 days before a presidential election and 14 days before a general election).4 Other laws, such as the Children and Youth Protection Act, the Game Industry Promotion Act, and the Telecommunications Business Act, separately require internet users to verify their identities.5

There have been no reported restrictions on encryption services.6 However, the newly implemented SNI-based filtering could undermine encryption (see B1).7

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 2.002 6.006

Government surveillance of internet activity has been a concern in South Korea. When visiting the country in July 2019, the UN special rapporteur on the right to privacy, Joseph Cannataci, confirmed allegations of state surveillance from 2016. He noted improvements among state agencies since 2017, but called on the government to establish an independent oversight body to minimize additional surveillance abuses.1

The NIS, the country’s main spy agency, has been at the center of major surveillance scandals in recent years, including the use of surveillance software—purchased from the controversial Italian company Hacking Team—on domestic mobile devices and KakaoTalk under the previous government.2 For example, the NIS, the police, and the Defense Security Command monitored the families of victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster.3

A 2016 antiterrorism law enables the NIS to access individuals’ travel records, financial records, private communications, location data, and any other personal information for terrorism investigations, based on suspicion alone and without judicial oversight.4

Some cases in recent years have raised questions about how prosecutors gain access to personal data. In 2017, it was reported that the country’s army chief, General Jang Jun-kyu, had ordered a nationwide “hunt” to out and prosecute gay military personnel.5 Reportedly prompted by a video that a soldier posted on social media showing him having sex with another soldier, the investigation expanded to about 50 soldiers, 22 of whom faced charges under Article 92(6) of the Military Criminal Act.6 As part of the investigation, army officials seized soldiers’ mobile phones without a warrant to retrieve messaging histories, and created accounts on gay dating applications to identify more potential suspects. In a related development, men have sought exemption from military service following a Supreme Court ruling in November 2018 that ended the criminal punishment of conscientious objectors who cite religious grounds. In January 2019, it was reported that prosecutors were investigating whether a number of men seeking such exemptions had played “online shooting games” in the past, suggesting that such histories meant their religious claims were not “genuine.”7 It is unclear how prosecutors gained access to the gaming records.

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 3.003 6.006

Court-issued warrants are required to access the content of private communications, but the NIS, police, public prosecutors’ offices, and other investigative agencies may request users’ metadata from service providers without a warrant under Article 83(3) of the Telecommunications Business Act. The government publishes the number of times data was provided to investigative agencies based on these requests, but digital rights advocates say the figures may be misleading, since one request can affect many individuals over a long period of time.1 According to an official press release, in the first half of 2018, service providers fulfilled 495,908 requests for metadata (a 4 percent decrease compared with the first half of 2017) and 153,477 requests to access the logs of private communications (a 3 percent decrease).2 Metadata in this context includes the user’s name, RRN, postal address, telephone number, user identification, and dates of joining or leaving the service, while logs document who the user spoke with and for how long. Unlike in previous coverage periods, there were no reports of government critics being targeted.

There is limited transparency surrounding official requests for communications data, and courts have reinforced this lack of openness. Service providers have a legal duty to inform the targets, but they have been criticized for failing to do so.3 Open Net Korea, an NGO that advocates for a free and open internet, filed a tort claim against the government in 2016 over warrantless access to citizens’ personal information, but the claim was rejected by a court in December 2018.4

In November 2018, a group of ruling party legislators proposed amendments to the 2011 Personal Information Protection Act, including a change that would reduce the scope of personal data protection to allow for more third-party access and thereby encourage research and innovation.5 In March 2019, the KCC announced plans for a bill that would empower authorities to close the local operations of foreign companies that hold South Korean users’ personal information if the firms fail to comply with local regulations.6 Civil liberties organizations raised privacy concerns over these two proposals.

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 3.003 5.005

During the coverage period, gender-based discrimination and harassment continued, and women were targeted for sharing, subscribing to, following, or even “liking” feminist messages and images on social media.1

Women developers and artists in the gaming industry have been particularly vulnerable to such discrimination. According to a Hankyoreh report in June 2018, at least 10 women in the gaming industry were fired between March and April of that same year for their alleged affinity with Megalia, an online feminist community that no longer existed.2

South Korean women have also experienced widespread violations of their rights to privacy, safety, and dignity. The coverage period was marked by new and more dramatic revelations about the epidemic phenomenon of “spycam porn” (see B8).3 In March 2019, it was reported that about 1,600 guests in motel rooms in 10 South Korean cities had been filmed by hidden cameras. The videos were live-streamed on a pay-per-view porn site.4 There has also been a proliferation online of pornographic images that were created using face-swapping tools. The composite images are meant to harass and embarrass the targeted women.5

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 2.002 3.003

According to statistics provided by the National Police Agency’s Cyber Bureau, businesses and NGOs have reported a rise in the number of cyberattacks, from 175 cases in 2014 to 500 in 2018.1 Reported violations of electronic personal data tripled between 2010 and 2013, from 54,832 incidents to 177,736. However, in 2017 the number decreased to 105,122.2

The government is not known to instigate domestic cyberattacks, but many have been attributed to North Korea. In December 2018, the personal information of nearly 1,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea was stolen through a computer infected with malicious software. The Ministry of Unification launched an investigation to determine who perpetrated the breach, declining to comment on whether North Korea was behind it.3

South Korean officials had previously alleged that the North Korean government was responsible for cyberattacks on major banks and broadcasting stations in 2013,4 attacks on nuclear power plants in 2014,5 and an attack that seized control of a large university hospital network for eight months in 2015,6 among many other incidents. The intrusions have highlighted vulnerabilities in the country’s ICT infrastructure.7

On South Korea

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  • Global Freedom Score

    83 100 free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    67 100 partly free
  • Freedom in the World Status

  • Networks Restricted

  • Websites Blocked

  • Pro-government Commentators

  • Users Arrested