South Korea

Partly Free
A Obstacles to Access 22 25
B Limits on Content 24 35
C Violations of User Rights 21 40
Last Year's Score & Status
66 100 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

South Korea saw a moderate improvement in internet freedom, attributed to the dismantling of real name registration requirements for online comments during election periods. However, the Constitutional Court reaffirmed that online defamation was a criminal offense and users continued to be penalized users for the offense. Moreover, online harassment, particularly newer, digitally mediated forms of violence against women continued.

South Korea’s democratic system features regular rotations of power and dynamic political pluralism, with the two largest parties representing conservative and centrist liberal views. Personal freedoms are generally ensured, although the country struggles with protecting rights for marginalized communities and social integration. The criminalization of defamation has also been known to affect legitimate political expression.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2020 - May 31, 2021

  • During the coverage period, service providers restricted online content, mainly on orders from the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC). In 2020, 161,569 websites or pages were blocked and 34,512 were removed according to the commission’s official report (see B1 and B2).
  • According to new amendments to the Telecommunications Business Act, which came into effect in December 2020, high-traffic content providers are required to pay internet service providers (ISPs) network usage fees. In June 2021, after the coverage period, the Seoul Central District Court affirmed the amendments when it ruled that Netflix needed to pay SK Broadband, a provider, network usage fees (see B6).
  • In April 2021, the Constitutional Court unanimously confirmed that defamation by spreading rumors online is a criminal offense (see C2).
  • In January 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled that Article 82(6) of the Public Official Election Act was unconstitutional. Prior to the ruling, people were required to verify their real names before commenting on internet news platforms during election periods (see C4).
  • Online gender-based violence continues to undermine people’s ability to use the internet safely and freely. Newer digital crimes, including secret filming (molka) and sextortion, continued to be a major social problem (see C7).

A Obstacles to Access

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. As of February 2021, the number of smartphone subscribers was approximately 52.4 million, surpassing the population of 51.7 million.1 An estimated 99.75 percent of households had internet access in 2020, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), placing the country ahead of other advanced economies.2 According to the Inclusive Internet Index 2021 report, South Korea ranks second out of 120 countries surveyed for availability, defined as the quality of internet infrastructure and level of internet usage within a country.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. The Inclusive Internet Index 2021 report ranks South Korea 21st out of 120 countries for affordability, defined by cost of access relative to income and the level of competition in the internet service market.1

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.2 Roughly 70 percent of South Koreans live in cities dominated by multistory apartment buildings that can easily be connected to fiber-optic cables.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 (41.1 percent of the market share as of February 2021), SK Telecom (28.9 percent), and LG Telecom (20.3 percent).2 The same firms also control the country’s mobile service market, with 31.6 percent, 45.6 percent, and 22.8 percent of market shares, respectively.3 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 through marriage.4 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.5

In 2019, amendments were made to the Telecommunications Business Act, whereby new “facilities-based telecommunications businesses” would only have to register with the Ministry of Science and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) instead of applying for a license, as was the case previously. It remains to be seen whether the change would lower entry barriers for the mobile service market in practice.6

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 Korea Communications Commission (KCC) regulates the sectors of broadcasting and telecommunications, while the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) monitors content and ethical standards. Both commissions, whose members are responsible to the president, have been criticized for the politicized appointments of their members and their lack of transparency.

The conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak (2008–2013) created the five-member KCC in 2008.1 The president appoints two commissioners, including the chair, while the National Assembly chooses the remainder. The sixth and current chairman is Han Sang-hyuk, appointed in September 2019.2

The first KCC chairman, Choi See-joong, was a close associate of former 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 ($542,505) for influence peddling.4 Lee pardoned him just before the end of his presidency.5 In 2013, then president Park Geun-hye (2013–2017) also named a close aide, four-term lawmaker Lee Kyeong-jae, to head the KCC.6 He was succeeded by former judge Choi Sung-joon, who completed his term in April 2017. Subsequently, however, upon the request of the KCC, prosecutors launched an investigation in March 2018 into Choi’s alleged preferential treatment of LG’s mobile operator during his term. He was cleared of the allegation in January 2020.7 Following Choi, emeritus communication professor Lee Hyo-seong was appointed as chairman in August 2017 by the current president Moon Jae-in, despite strong objections from opposition parties.8 Lee resigned prematurely in July 2019, ahead of a large cabinet reshuffle.

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 also appointed by the president and the National Assembly.9 Park Hyo-chong, a key figure in the country’s neoconservative movement, led an all-male commission from 2014 to 2017. Since February 2021, the KCSC has been temporarily inactive, accruing a backlog of more than 60,000 cases, as appointments of new commissioners have been delayed by opposition party members.10

The KCSC includes four subcommissions tasked with reviewing broadcasting, advertising, internet communications, and digital sex crimes, respectively. The fourth one was set up in August 2019. The internet communications subcommission evaluates online content flagged by a team of in-house monitoring officers, according to a former member,11 and it also considers censorship requests from other agencies and individuals. The redacted minutes of their deliberations are released regularly on the KCSC website. Observers have criticized the commission’s vaguely defined standards and broad discretionary power to determine what information should be censored, arguing that these allow commissioners to make politically, socially, and culturally biased judgments that often lack a legal foundation.12

B Limits on Content

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 3.003 6.006

Service providers continued blocking 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, according to Article 7 of the 1948 National Security Act.2

In February 2019, the KCSC confirmed that it added to its technical repertoire a controversial new method to block illegal content, specifically pornography and pirated material, accessed through HTTPS websites.3 The new scheme uses Server Name Indication–filtering (SNI), which entails monitoring the unencrypted SNI that shows which HTTPS sites a user is visiting.4

The KCSC does not publish a list of blocked sites, but it does release the number of websites blocked under different categories of banned content. In 2020, a reported 161,569 websites or webpages were blocked.5 Among those blocked, 22,430 were targeted due to “prostitution and obscenity,” 48,225 for “encouraging gambling,” 28,390 for promoting “illegitimate food and medicine,” 35,751 for “violating others’ rights,” and 26,743 for “violating other laws and regulations.” The last category includes content related to identity fraud, forgery, and organ trades. North Korean websites and content are also blocked. The KCSC ordered immediate blocking of 78 such websites in January 2020 as per requests from police and national intelligence.6 In September 2020, the KCSC also shut down Digital Prison, a website which disclosed the personal information of alleged sex offenders and pedophiles.7

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, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 2.002 4.004

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

In 2020, the KCSC had 34,512 pieces of online content removed. Of these, 16,246 were targeted for “prostitution and obscenity,” 1,048 for “encouraging gambling,” 8,819 for promoting “illegitimate food and medicine,” 124 for “violating others’ rights,” and 8,275 for “violating other laws and regulations.”1

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the KCSC has concentrated its resources on containing the spread of fraudulent information that might otherwise “undermine the country’s pandemic response.” Over the course of 2020, the commission reportedly had 200 items blocked or removed specifically on these grounds. Of those 200 items, 36 were flagged by the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, 35 by the police, 6 by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, 2 by the Ministry of Unification, 48 by the KCSC’s own monitoring staff, and 73 by individual citizens.2

In September 2020, the National Election Commission requested service providers to remove more than 50,000 online posts during the 21st legislative election in April 2020, citing violations of the Public Official Election Act. This was a record high number, compared to 1,726 content removal requests during the 2012 legislative election and 17,101 requests during the 2016 legislative election. The removals included 32,983 cases of publishing unauthorized poll results and 11,824 cases of discriminatory and slanderous remarks against candidates.3

Service providers that do not comply with KCSC orders face up to two years imprisonment or a fine of up to 20 million won ($18,083), according to Article 73 of the Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection (the Network Act). Individuals, the police, and other government agencies can 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.4 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.5 In December 2020, the ruling Democratic Party (Minjudang) proposed a series of amendments to the Network Act that establish a definition of “fake news” and regulate service providers who fail to limit the spread of malicious disinformation online.6

New amendments to the Telecommunications Business Act, which went into effect in December 2020, place the responsibility of removing surreptitious or unconsented images and videos with online intermediaries. Online intermediaries that do not remove content can be fined up to 3 percent of their revenues; the fines levied are proportional to the duration of time the content is displayed.7

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.

The process for ordinary users to appeal the KCSC’s censorship decisions is neither easy nor straightforward. Moreover, in many cases, the commission can order the blocking of entire sites even if only a portion of the content is considered problematic. In March 2015, for example, the commission blocked the entire platform of an adult cartoon service, saying that part of its content was obscene. However, the platform operator argued that they provided this content through an age-authentication system and thus complied with the law. Faced with a public furor, the commission removed the blocking order after two days.1

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.2 The Seoul High Court later upheld the ruling.3

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 ($18,083). 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

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 criminal charges of defamation, which draws heavier penalties when committed online (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 trolled, fired from their jobs, or, most notably, sued for defamation (see also C7).1

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? 2.002 4.004

While systematic online content manipulation has long been a concern for users in South Korea, such issues have eased in recent years. Hyperpartisan manipulation of content continues to be an issue.

The administration of former president Park, who was 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 director of the National Intelligence Service 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 posts on Twitter characterizing members of the opposition as North Korea sympathizers.2

Moreover, in the aftermath of Park’s impeachment, it was revealed that former Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-jin had mobilized military personnel for smear campaigns against opposition candidates in the 2012 presidential election.3 Kim was sentenced in February 2019 to two years and six months in prison for the manipulation operation. He appealed to a higher court, and, in October 2020, the court upheld the ruling but slightly reduced his sentence to two years and four months.4

Current president Moon Jae-in, who took office in May 2017, lost an opportunity to distance himself from the country’s history of online manipulation when a close ally, Governor Kim Kyoung-soo, was accused of having worked with a group of bloggers to rig online support prior to the 2017 presidential election.5 In January 2019, the Seoul Central District Court found Kim guilty of manipulating online comments, including using software to post over 99.7 million inauthentic “likes” and “dislikes” on social media content, to Moon’s advantage.6 After the coverage period, he was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison.7

The government has signaled a crackdown on so-called “fake news,” especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. While there has been no evidence that legitimate content has been suppressed, critics are concerned that the crackdown on “fake news” will limit free expression and make the government the arbiter of what online information is true or false.8

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 pro-government news outlets, civic groups, and websites.1 No evidence of similar practices by the current government emerged during the coverage period.

In May 2020, the government passed amendments to the Telecommunications Business Act, including a new Article 22(7) whereby content providers are responsible for providing “stable services” and ensuring that they can support high user traffic.2 To do so, content providers will be required to pay network usage fees to ISPs. Domestic and international civil society organizations have raised concern that these amendments create a “pay-to-play” regime that undermines net neutrality, as content providers will likely have to bear the financial and technical burden of providing uninterrupted services to customers.3 In June 2021, after the reporting period, the Seoul Central District Court ruled against Netflix, who argued that requiring content providers to pay network usage fees undermines net neutrality.4

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

South Korea’s overall media environment is partly restricted yet relatively diverse. Alternative and activist media outlets have developed online in part to challenge existing restrictions.1 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 2000.2 Newstapa, a user-funded investigative journalism platform, has accumulated more than 30,000 regular donors and over 216 million views on its YouTube channel since its launch in 2012.3 It was a leading source of information on the 2012 election manipulation scandal,4 and it was one of the first outlets to allege systemic corruption and negligence behind the sinking of the ferry Sewol in 2014, a disaster that resulted in 304 deaths.

Some online platforms face financial concerns to remain viable. Newstapa, for example, has been faced with financial challenges under the current Moon administration, as most of its donors are ardent supporters of President Moon and his Democratic Party. Many donors have withdrawn their support after the platform published reports critical of the government and the ruling party.5

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 platforms and tools are freely available for that. 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 government’s 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, successfully led the more conservative mainstream media and legislators to endorse the removal of the president.1

South Korean women have continued to use the internet to foreground 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” in the Korean language). This endemic problem involves tiny cameras that are hidden in various places—such as toilet stalls, subways, hospital changing rooms, 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 Article 14 of 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 (effective from December 2018).

Online petitions and social media campaigns have also been used to raise awareness of other forms of injustice against social minorities. In February 2020, more than 100,000 people signed an e-petition for introducing a law to prevent online grooming and sex trafficking, committed through the secure messaging app Telegram and cryptocurrency (see C7).3 This led to a set of significant legal amendments for heavier punishments against digital sex crimes, especially those involving minors. The amendments came into effect in June 2020.4

Similarly, a petition posted on the website of the National Assembly calling for an anti-discrimination law gained more than 100,000 signatures—a threshold for compulsory review by the National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee—between May and June 2021. Anti-discrimination bills have been proposed several times since 2007 but have never been passed due to opposition from conservative politicians and religious groups. However, online petitions during the coverage period revealed that public support for an anti-discrimination law is increasing.5

C Violations of User Rights

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, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 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. The act applies both online and offline.

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 ($9,041), 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 ($1,808) 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 ($45,208)—under the 2005 Network Act, which cites the faster speed and wider audience of online communications as a basis for the harsher sentencing.1

In April 2021, the Constitutional Court unanimously confirmed that criminal defamation charges for spreading rumors online were constitutional.2

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 3.003 6.006

Thousands of people continue to be faced with online defamation charges. The number of online defamation and insult cases almost doubled from 8,880 in 2014 to 16,633 in 2019.1

In July 2020, a journalist-turned-YouTuber, Woo Jong-chang, was sentenced to 8 months in prison on defamation charges for insulting former Justice Minister Cho Kuk by circulating information that insinuated Cho’s influence peddling. His sentence was reduced to a 6-month suspended sentence with one-year probation by the Seoul High Court in October 2020.2

During the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of cases were reported and tried for spreading false information on social media. In April 2021, police in Daegu arrested an unidentified online user for “obstruction of public affairs” after they posted in an online group that the president had his syringe switched while getting a COVID-19 vaccine, which was recorded on camera on March 23. The police reported that they were also looking into the post as a possible violation of the Network Act and that there were seven other similar cases under their consideration.3 In June 2020, the Daegu District Court sentenced an unnamed 33-year-old man to a suspended eight-month jail term with a two-year probation period and 80 hours of community service for “obstruction of business.” In February 2020, the man wrote in a group chatroom that a hospital in Gyeongbuk was going to have to close its emergency room because it was visited by a confirmed COVID-19 patient.4

A positive development has been that the current government has significantly reduced National Security Act-related prosecutions.5 In 2018, only 1 percent of cases, both online and offline, led to prosecutions—a significant decrease from the 42.7 percent rate in 2014. It is notable that this decline in the rate of prosecution contrasts with the rising number of online posts blocked or deleted for violation of the National Security Act, from 1,137 in 2014 to 1,939 in 2018 (see B1 and B2).

Small-sized publishers remain vulnerable to retaliatory lawsuits. In January 2020, an online news outlet News and Joy was ordered by the Seoul Central District Court to pay compensation for damages after describing several anti-gay activist groups as “fake news spreaders” in their articles from 2018. The court did not dispute the facts in the articles, but it found the expression “fake news spreaders” to have damaged the claimants’ personality rights. The news outlet was ordered to pay 30 million won ($27,125) as well as to retract the articles in question.6

The ruling against News and Joy was contradicted a month later. The far-right Christian organization Esther Prayer Movement filed a civil lawsuit in 2018 against Hankyoreh, a major center-left newspaper established in 1988, for describing the organization as a “fake news factory” in online stories. In February 2020, the Seoul Western District Court ruled in favor of Hankyoreh, stating that the defining characteristics of fake news are whether the information is based on actual facts and whether its propagators have certain intentions. The court concluded that the newspaper’s description was within reason.7

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 3.003 4.004

Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because the Constitutional Court ruled that Article 82(6) of the Public Official Election Act, which required real name verification for online comments during an election period, was unconstitutional.

There are some limits on anonymous communication, although 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 each South Korean citizen 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, because it rendered individuals vulnerable to cyberattacks, among other factors.2

Furthermore, in January 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled that 82(6) of the Public Official Election Act, which required people to verify their real names before commenting on online news sites during election periods (23 days before a presidential election and 14 days before a general election), was unconstitutional.3 The court previously upheld this clause in 2015.4

Mobile service providers still require users to submit their RRNs, and some other registration requirements remain in place, such as the Children and Youth Protection Act, the Game Industry Promotion Act, and the Telecommunications Business Act.5

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 online activity has been a concern in South Korea.

The National Intelligence Service (NIS), the country’s main spy agency, has been at the center of major surveillance scandals in recent years. Under the previous government, the NIS purchased surveillance software from the controversial Italian company Hacking Team to monitor domestic mobile users and KakaoTalk messenger users.1 The NIS, the police, and the Defense Security Command were reported to have monitored the families of victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster.2

The 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.3

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.4

Criticism has been raised in recent years about how the authorities gain access to personal data. According to the 2020 Korea Internet Transparency Report by the Clinical Legal Education Center at Korea University, police and other investigative agencies searched more than 3 million Naver or KakaoTalk accounts in 2019. While acknowledging that this was a considerable decrease compared to the approximately 8.3 million accounts authorities searched in 2018, the report nevertheless raised concerns over the pervasive extent to which the government resorts to search and seizure to keep tabs on online activity.5 The report also pointed out that the director of the investigation had the discretion to delay notifying users, and users were often not notified until after the search was conducted.

In the context of the government’s COVID-19 response, the 2010 Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act (IDCPA)6 provides authorities with broad surveillance powers. Officials have accessed personal data from credit card records, phone location tracking, and security cameras all without court orders. They have triangulated the data with personal interviews for rapid contact-tracing and monitoring of actual and potential infections. Importantly, IDCPA requires information collected to “be destroyed without delay when the relevant tasks have been completed.”7 Still, criticism has been raised over the excessive data collection and potential security vulnerabilities of the government’s COVID-19 app.8

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 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 and communication logs 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 official figures, in the second half of 2020, service providers fulfilled 2,562,535 requests for metadata (a 10.3 percent decrease compared with the same period in the previous year) and 217,017 requests to access the logs of private communications (a 12.3 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, for how long, and through which base station. 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 January 2020, amendments to the country’s three major data privacy laws (the Personal Information Protection Act, the Network Act, and the Credit Information Use and Protection Act) were passed so as to reduce the scope of protected personal data. 5 The amended definition of personal information excludes any information that does not enable the data processor to identify specific individuals, such as International Mobile Equipment Identity numbers or IP addresses. The amendments enable more third parties to access users’ private information. The government claims the amendments seek to encourage more “research and innovation,” in the broadest senses of the terms. Civil liberties organizations have raised strong concerns over the potential for re-identification of pseudonymized information because of these amendments,6 which came into effect in August 2020.

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 relation to their online activities? 3.003 5.005

During the coverage period, gender-based discrimination and harassment online continued.

Female game developers and artists are particularly vulnerable to such discrimination.1 According to a June 2018 Hankyoreh report, at least 10 women in the gaming industry were fired between March and April 2018 for their alleged affinity with Megalia, an online feminist community that no longer existed.2 In November 2019, a freelance illustrator was fired from her work with a mobile game company for having supported on social media—back in 2016—voice actress Kim Jayeon after Kim was fired for her feminist post on Twitter.3

South Korean women have also experienced widespread violations of their rights to privacy, safety, and dignity.4 During the coverage period, female migrant workers fell victim to molka—hidden camera—videos recorded by their employers. After reporting the hidden cameras, migrant workers experienced difficulties transitioning to new jobs in South Korea (see B8).5 In the spring of 2019, several celebrities were arrested for sharing molka videos and conspiring to commit date rape in KakaoTalk chatrooms.6 There has also been a proliferation online of pornographic images that were created using face-swapping tools. The composite images are meant to humiliate everyday women.7

There have been arrests and prosecutions resulting from such egregious online gender-based violence. In March 2020, Cho Ju-bin was arrested and charged for violating the Child Protection Act, the Privacy Act, and the Sexual Abuse Act. He was found to have created and run multiple large Telegram chatrooms to blackmail women and illegally produce and trade sexually dehumanizing footage of 74 people, including 16 underage girls.8 At least 10,000 people used those chatrooms, popularly dubbed the “Nth Rooms,” with some paying up to $1,200 in bitcoin for access.9 Over 2 million people signed an online petition to disclose all the suspects’ identities, largely out of frustration, especially among women, that digital sex crimes carry disproportionately light penalties.10 Cho was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment in November 2020, however, similar crimes continued to occur on Telegram and Discord.11 In the meantime, Nth Room victims have faced social stigma and secondary victimization, including being fired from their jobs.12

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 418 in 2019.1

South Korean officials had previously alleged that the North Korean government was responsible for cyberattacks on major banks and broadcasting stations in 2013,2 attacks on nuclear power plants in 2014,3 and an attack that seized control of a large university hospital network for eight months in 2015,4 among many other incidents.5 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.6

In February 2021, the country’s intelligence agency reported that North Korea had attempted to steal information on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments by hacking the computer systems of US pharmaceutical firm, Pfizer. The agency also announced that it had interrupted North Korean attempts to steal information from South Korean companies developing the vaccine.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