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
67 100 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

While the internet remains widely accessible in South Korea and the online ecosystem continues to boast diverse content and limited self-censorship, the coverage period saw several negative developments for internet freedom in the country. Lawmakers proposed or briefly passed several laws that would expand requirements for service providers to suspend websites, order disproportionately punitive damages to internet services alleged to be reporting false information, and erode net neutrality. Furthermore, allegations emerged of illegal surveillance by a corruption investigation agency targeting journalists, politicians, and their family members. Authorities continued to block websites and remove posts, including those relating to North Korea; thousands of users faced defamation and insult cases for online speech; and gender-based harassment and online sexual abuse against women further proliferated.

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, 2021 - May 31, 2022

  • In March 2022, a collection of human rights advocacy groups filed an administrative lawsuit against a blocking order issued against the website of Women on Web, an organization that provides information and teleconsultation on contraception and safe abortions, as excessive and threatening to the public’s access to information (see B1 and B3).
  • During the March 2022 electoral period, the National Election Commission (NEC) requested service providers remove over 86,000 online posts, the highest number of deletions requested during an election in the country’s history (see B2).
  • A proposed amendment to the Act on Press Arbitration and Remedies, passed by the National Assembly in August 2021, was postponed due to backlash the following month. The amendment would have empowered courts to order disproportionately punitive damages for internet news services found to report or mediate “false or manipulated” content (see B3).
  • In December 2021, reporting emerged alleging the recently created independent Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) had accessed the phone records of opposition lawmakers, journalists, and their family members (see C6).
  • Women internet users in South Korea continued to face rampant online gender-based violence, sometimes to disastrous offline effect. In January 2022, YouTuber and Twitch streamer Cho Jang-mi (alias Jammi) died by suicide after years of being a target of coordinated gender-based online abuse (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 January 2022, the number of smartphone subscribers was approximately 53.5 million, surpassing the population of 51.8 million.1 An estimated 99.93 percent of households had internet access in 2021, 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 2022 report by the Economist’s Intelligence Unit, South Korea ranks 2nd out of 100 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 2022 report ranks South Korea 37th out of 100 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 digital competence among the elderly and rural populations.2

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, three companies dominate the market: KT, which owned 41.2 percent of the market share as of January 2022; SK Telecom, which owned 28.6 percent; and LG Telecom, which owned 20.8 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, as of February 2021.3 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 to the Telecommunications Business Act changed the registration process for “facilities-based telecommunications businesses” so they would only have to register with the Ministry of Science and Information and Communications Technology, though whether the change would lower entry barriers for the mobile service market in practice remains unclear.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 Several his predecessors were investigated, fined, or resigned prematurely amid bribery or preferential treatment scandals.3

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.4

The KCSC includes four subcommissions tasked with reviewing broadcasting, advertising, internet communications, and digital sex crimes, respectively. The internet communications subcommission evaluates online content flagged by a team of in-house monitoring officers, according to a former member,5 and 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.6

  • 1The Commission was the result of a merger between the Ministry of Information and Communication and the Korean Broadcasting Commission, to improve policy coherence between the two sectors.
  • 2“About Chairman,” Korea Communications Commission,
  • 3Ji-nam Kang, “Who’s who behind Lee Myung-bak: Choi See-joong the appointed chairman of the KCC” [Korean,] Shindonga 583, 2008,; Rahn Kim, “President’s mentor gets prison term,” The Korea Times, September 14, 2012,; “South Korean president issues controversial pardons,” BBC News, January 29, 2013,; “Park appoints former veteran lawmaker as communications commission chief,” Yonhap News, March 24, 2013,; Jinho Jeong, “Former KCC chairman Choi Sung-joon of Park’s government cleared of allegation of ‘preferential treatment of mobile operators’” [Korean,] Joongang Ilbo, January 6, 2020,; When President Moon took over the office in May 2017, he declared that his government would never appoint anyone who had committed any of the following five wrongdoings: fake resident registration, tax evasion, draft dodging, real estate speculation, and plagiarism. Lee Hyo-seong was alleged of all five and he admitted at least two of those allegations. See also: Yonhap News Agency, “President Moon appoints new head of broadcasting commission,” Yonhap News, July 31, 2017,
  • 4Six members are nominated by the president and the parliamentary majority party, while three are nominated by the opposition. See also: Jeong-hwan Lee, “A private organization under the president? The KCSC’s structural irony” [Korean,] Media Today, September 14, 2011,
  • 5Author’s interview with Park Kyung Sin, who served as a commissioner until his resignation in 2014, at the KCSC office, April 4, 2013.
  • 6Jillian York & Rainey Reitman, “In South Korea, the only thing worse than online censorship is secret online censorship,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, September 6, 2011,….

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 Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (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 2021, a reported 118,735 websites or webpages were blocked.5 Among those, 36,806 sites were blocked for “encouraging gambling,” 22,763 for promoting “illegitimate food and medicine,” 17,860 for “prostitution and obscenity,” 25,933 for “violating others’ rights,” and 15,373 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. In March 2022, the KCSC blocked access to 229 posts pertaining to North Korea that had been flagged by the National Police Agency, citing violations of the National Security Act and the Network Act.6 The Commission also blocked 94 items determined to be in violation of the Antiterrorism Act, alleging that they incited terrorism by containing content viewed as sympathetic to North Korea. Over the course of 2021, 1,795 items were blocked for violating the National Security Act, and 55 for violating of the Antiterrorism Act. Previously, in January 2020, the KCSC ordered the immediate blocking of 78 websites as per requests from police and national intelligence.7

On December 31, 2021, the KCSC issued a blocking order against the website Women on Web, a Canadian nongovernmental organization (NGO) that provides information and teleconsultation on contraception and safe abortion, on grounds that the site violated the Pharmaceutical Affairs Act. The commission had previously blocked the site in March 2019, reportedly after less than a minute of deliberation,8 and renewed the order after Women on Web changed its URL. Several human rights advocacy groups collectively filed an administrative lawsuit with the Seoul Administrative Court in March 2022 against the blocking measure, highlighting the recent decriminalization of abortion, the excessive restriction on women’s access to information, and the excessive nature of a complete block on a website with pages that do not violate the grounds cited (see B3).9

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 to service providers.

In 2021, the KCSC had 11,848 pieces of online content removed. Of these, 2,118 were targeted for “encouraging gambling,” 3,402 for promoting “illegitimate food and medicine,” 3,806 for “prostitution and obscenity,” 84 for “violating others’ rights,” and 2,438 for “violating other laws and regulations.”1

In January 2022, the KCSC decided to have 82 pieces of online content, including posts and videos, removed for violating the Special Act on the May 18 Democratization Movement—the first time the Act was applied to remove online content. The Act, which came into effect in January 2021, criminalizes the spread of falsehoods about a prodemocracy uprising in the city of Gwangju in 1980 (see C2).2

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 ($17,000), 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 also instruct content hosts to remove content. Article 44(2) of the Network Act compels companies, upon receiving a takedown request from individual users, to 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.

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

Amendments to the Telecommunications Business Act effective as of December 2020, which seek to combat gender-based online abuse, place the responsibility of removing surreptitious or nonconsensual 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.5

During the March 2022 electoral period, the National Election Commission (NEC) requested service providers remove over 86,000 online posts, the highest number of deletions requested during an election in the country’s history and an increase of more than 30,000 requests from the April 2020 legislative election. Content requested for deletion included unauthorized public opinion polls, allegedly false information, and the alleged slander of candidates.6

Aside from the KCSC and NEC, removal requests also came from individual actors during the coverage period. In December 2021, Kim Keon-hee, wife of then-opposition candidate Yoon Suk-yeol, reportedly requested that online forum Clien remove 103 posts about her. Some netizens saw this as an attempt to suppress critical content amidst a controversy about Kim exaggerating her professional credentials and manipulating stock prices, though Kim’s team alleged that the deletion requests were based on the posts containing untrue, defamatory, and misogynistic content. Clein removed 49 of the requested items.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 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. In many cases, the commission can order the blocking of entire sites even if only a portion of the content is considered problematic. In 2019 and 2021, for instance, the commission blocked the entire Women on Web portal, though many of its pages did not contain allegedly violating content about distributing drugs in unapproved ways (see B1).1

In April 2022, lawmakers proposed an amendment to the Network Act that would require service providers to promptly suspend the operation of an entire website upon an individual’s request if the site were determined to have been operated with the purpose of infringing on an individual’s rights, such as violating their privacy or defaming their character, and were determined to host a large amount of offending content. Open Net Korea, an NGO that advocates for a free and open internet, criticized the proposal as excessive for targeting entire sites over individual pieces of content.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, the Telecommunications Business Act, and the Special Act on the May 18 Democratization Movement (see B2).

A proposed amendment to the Act on Press Arbitration and Remedies, passed by the National Assembly in August 2021 but postponed due to backlash the following month, would have empowered courts to order disproportionately punitive damages for media outlets, internet news services, and online multimedia broadcasting operators found to report or mediate “false or manipulated” content; it would also have empowered courts to issue takedown orders on content it deemed untrue without additional requirements or oversight.3

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 the country have used various social media platforms to reach a wider audience and to 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 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 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 Seoul 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 defense minister Kim Kwan-jin had mobilized military personnel for smear campaigns against opposition politicians around the 2012 presidential election.3 Kim Kwan-jin 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

Former president Moon Jae-in (2017 to 2022), 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 public opinion prior to the 2017 presidential election.5 In January 2019, the Seoul Central District Court found the governor 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 The Supreme Court upheld the ruling and sentenced Governor Kim to two years in prison in July 2021.7

While the March 2022 presidential election did not feature the systematic manipulation of online content seen in years past, key players were criticized for stoking misogyny and hate speech online as they incorporated this rhetoric into their campaigns, including in social media posts.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 progovernment news outlets, civic groups, and websites.1 No evidence of similar practices by subsequent governments emerged during the coverage period.

In May 2020, the government passed amendments to the Telecommunications Business Act, including Article 22(7), whereby content providers of a certain size are responsible for ensuring “stable services” in the face of high user traffic.2 To do so, content providers may 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, the Seoul Central District Court ruled against Netflix, who argued that requiring content providers to pay network usage fees undermines net neutrality.4 In February 2022, the ICT ministry announced five companies that were required to comply with the revised law in 2022: Google, Netflix, Meta, Naver, and Kakao.5

In July 2021, lawmakers proposed another partial amendment to the Telecommunications Business Act that was criticized by a coalition of digital rights, human rights, and free expression organizations for posing a further threat to net neutrality. The proposed amendment would require content providers to pay Korean ISPs fees based on network usage, potentially enabling ISPs to restrict access to content or block traffic from content providers based on the amount paid.6 The National Assembly suspended the amendment in April 2022, citing a need for further discussion.7

In August 2021, the National Assembly approved further amendments to the Telecommunications Business Act to prohibit the operators of app markets, like Google and Apple, from forcing mobile content providers, like app developers, to use specific payment and billing systems.8 In September 2021, South Korea’s antitrust regulator fined Google over 200 billion won ($168.4 million) for abusing its dominant position in the mobile market. The Korea Fair Trade Commission alleged that Google had been stifling competition by including terms in its contracts with device producers that blocked them from equipping mobile phones with operating systems developed by competitors.9

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 285 million views on its YouTube channel since its launch in 2012.3 It was a leading source of information on the 2012 election manipulation scandal4 and 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. South Korean users have continued to turn to YouTube as a source of news in recent years, encompassing 44 percent of the population in 2022, as viewers have increasingly sought online content that aligns with their political views amid a climate of growing political polarization.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 effective 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, 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. In 2018, thousands of women organized online and offline protests against the persistent and abusive problem of “spycam porn,” or molka (meaning “hidden camera” in the Korean language), in which tiny, hidden cameras 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 (effective the next month), imposing harsher penalties for molka offenses on both those who collect the images and those who distribute copies.

Social media campaigns against gender-based discrimination continued during the coverage period. Shortly after South Korean archer An San won her third gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021, she received a barrage of online abuse from users insulting her for her short haircut and accusing her of being a feminist, a label sometimes associated with hating men in South Korea. The hashtag campaign #women_shortcut_campaign began trending on different social media platforms, as women-identifying users posted photos of their own short hairstyles to support An and push back against the sexist abuse.3

Online petitions, events, and social media campaigns have also been used to raise awareness of other forms of injustice against marginalized group. In June and July 2021, the Seoul Queer Culture Festival held an online queer parade on YouTube to promote visibility for and instill pride in the Korean LGBT+ community.4 In February 2020, more than 100,000 people signed an e-petition to introduce a law to prevent online grooming and the attempted extortion of nonconsensual intimate imagery, committed through the secure messaging app Telegram and cryptocurrency.5 This led to significant legal amendments that provide heavier punishments against digital sex crimes, especially those involving minors. The amendments came into effect in June 2020.6

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 free expression rights. Nevertheless, the prosecution of individuals for online activities has had a chilling effect and has provoked international criticism. Several laws restrict free 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

Several laws criminalize online activities. The 1948 National Security Act, for example, 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 ($8,400), 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 2 million won ($1,700) or a prison sentence of up to one year. Defamation committed via ICTs draws even heavier penalties—up to seven years in prison or fines of up to 50 million won ($42,000)—under the 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

The Special Act on the May 18 Democratization Movement, which came into effect in January 2021, includes prison sentences of up to five years for spreading falsehoods, including through information and communications networks, about a prodemocracy uprising in the city of Gwangju in 1980. 3

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

The number of online defamation and insult cases has been on the rise in recent years, from 13,348 cases in 2017 to 19,388 in 2020. Of the 2020 cases, 65.2 percent led to arrests. In the first half of 2021, 9,637 people were arrested in online defamation and insult cases.1

In March 2022, Kim Keon-hee, the wife of former prosecutor general and now president Yoon Suk Yeol, filed a claim for 100 million won ($84,000) worth of damages against a reporter for the YouTube-based news channel Voice of Seoul and its chief executive, Baek Eun-jong. Kim alleged that the reporter, Lee Myung-soo, had infringed on her rights to privacy and honor after the outlet released a conversation Lee had recorded with Kim in January, in which she threatened to “jail all reporters” who criticized her husband should he win the election.2

Directly following the January release of the conversation on YouTube, Yoon’s People Power Party announced plans to file a criminal complaint against an online user with the user ID “Mobo,” who had posted a screenshot of the broadcast and posted it to online forum Clien with subtitles that the party alleges did not match Kim’s statements. The charges they levelled were the disclosure of false information, under the Public Official Election Act, and defamation, under the Network Act.3 Previously, in July 2021, Yoon Suk Yeol filed criminal complaints against 10 individuals, including reporters for the YouTube channel Open Mind TV, for spreading “unspeakable sexual harassment slanders” about his wife following their reporting on elements of her past.4

During the previous coverage period, in July 2020, a YouTuber and journalist Woo Jong-chang was sentenced to eight 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 six-month suspended sentence with one-year probation by the Seoul High Court in October 2020.5

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of cases of spreading false information on social media were reported and tried. 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,” after the man wrote in a group chatroom in February 2020 that a hospital in Gyeongbuk would have to close its emergency room because a confirmed COVID-19 patient had been there.6

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

The government does not place restrictions on encryption. 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) 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 had 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. The NIS, the police, and the Defense Security Command were reported to have monitored the families of victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster.1

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.2 In 2019, the UN special rapporteur on the right to privacy confirmed allegations of state surveillance from 2016 and called on the government to establish an independent oversight body to minimize further surveillance abuses.3

Criticism has been recurrently raised in recent years about how authorities gain access to personal data. According to the 2021 Korea Internet Transparency Report by the Clinical Legal Education Center at Korea University, police and other investigative agencies searched more than 3.8 million Naver or KakaoTalk accounts in 2020. While acknowledging that this was a considerable decrease compared to 2017, the report nevertheless raised concerns over the pervasive extent to which the government monitors online activities.4 The report also pointed out that the agencies had the discretion to delay notifying affected users, who were often not notified until after the searches were conducted.

In the context of the government’s COVID-19 response, the 2010 Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act (IDCPA)5 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, the IDCPA requires information collected to “be destroyed without delay when the relevant tasks have been completed.”6 But criticism has been raised over excessive data collection and potential security vulnerabilities of the government’s COVID-19 app.7

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. Though the government publishes the number of times data was provided to investigative agencies based on these requests, digital rights advocates argue that the figures may be misleading, since one request can affect many individuals over a long period of time.1 In 2020, service providers fulfilled 5,484,917 requests for metadata and 458,721 requests to access the logs of private communications.2 Metadata in this context includes the user’s name, RRN, postal address, telephone number, user ID, and dates of joining or leaving the service, while communication logs show who the user spoke with, for how long, and through which base station.

In December 2021, reports emerged alleging the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO), an independent agency founded in January of that year, had accessed the phone records of opposition lawmakers, journalists, and their family members. The CIO is believed to have accessed the call and text logs of at least 332 individuals, including 176 journalists and 91 opposition politicians. The office did not offer an explanation for the data collection, though it did admit to having accessed the mobile data of some lawmakers.3 Some journalists believe the surveillance may have been carried out in an effort to discover their sources.4 Further, in February 2022, reports found that the CIO had applied for seven court warrants to monitor the telecommunications of four journalists in June and July 2021. While the body stated that its investigative activities were lawfully conducted under court supervision, two of the affected journalists had recently reported on the chief of the CIO, Kim Jin-wook, giving special treatment to another public official that was undergoing a probe by the agency.5

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.6

In January 2020, amendments to the country’s three major data privacy laws (the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA), the Network Act, and the Credit Information Use and Protection Act) were passed so as to reduce the scope of protected personal data.7 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,8 which came into effect in August 2020.

In September 2021, the South Korean Personal Information Protection Commission (PIPC) fined Facebook and Netflix around $5.6 million and $190,000, respectively, for violating PIPA. Among other violations, the PIPC found Facebook to have failed to disclose information about personal data transfers to third parties or overseas, to have illegally collected social security numbers, and to have failed to notify users about changes in entities responsible for managing their personal data. Similarly, the PIPC found that Netflix collected personal data from prospective users unlawfully and without consent and transferred personal data overseas without appropriate notice.9

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.

South Korean women report experiencing widespread violations of their rights to privacy, safety, and dignity, including cyberstalking, online abuse and harassment, nonconsensual sharing of intimate images, nonconsensual use of deepfakes to generate sexual content, molka, and the attempted extortion of nonconsensual intimate imagery.1 According to a survey conducted by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) in May 2021, women are the most frequent targets of online hate speech, with 80.4 percent of women users reporting having encountered malicious gender-based online commentary.2

Online gender-based violence has resulted in extreme offline harms. In January 2022, YouTuber and Twitch streamer Cho Jang-mi (alias Jammi) died by suicide after years of being a target of coordinated online abuse, including sexually derogatory comments and malicious attacks labelling her a “man-hater.” The abuse was largely ignited by so-called “cyberwreckers,” YouTubers who make videos that capitalize on contentious issues, who accused Cho of being a “radical feminist” after she unknowingly used phrases and gestures associated with related online groups in 2019 YouTube videos.3

Women journalists and politicians are particularly vulnerable to online abuse, including threats of sexual violence.4 For instance, Park Ji-hyun, an activist who helped expose an online sex-crime ring in 2019 and was named interim cochair of the Democratic Party in March 2022, was faced with a barrage of cyberabuse, frequently of a sexual nature, throughout her time in leadership. Park reported blocking about one thousand users for this type of harassment.5

There has also been a proliferation of individuals using deepfake software to generate nonconsensual sexual content, frequently aiming to humiliate the target who is commonly an acquaintance or colleague of the poster.6 Per the KCC’s “2020 Cyber Violence Survey Results,” 21 percent of adults have witnessed this type of crime online,7 and this practice occurred during the coverage period as a means to retaliate against women. In January 2022, after an allegedly sarcastic letter written by a female high school student as part of a broader school letter-writing campaign to troops was distributed online, the student and many of her peers received a flood of abuse and sexual harassment online, including having deepfakes made in their image.8

Perpetrators of such online gender-based violence have been arrested and prosecuted. In March and May 2020, respectively, Cho Ju-bin and Moon Hyung-wook were arrested for having created and run multiple large Telegram chatrooms, including multiple chatrooms dubbed “Nth Rooms” and one called “The Doctor’s Room,” to blackmail women and illegally produce and trade sexually dehumanizing footage. Cho was ultimately sentenced to 42 years imprisonment and Moon to 34 years. In May 2022, 340 individuals were reportedly charged with purchasing sexually exploitative content in the chatrooms; unlikely the leaders of the spaces, though, none served any prison time.9 In the meantime, Nth Room victims have faced social stigma and secondary victimization, including being fired from their jobs.10

Concerns arose that online gender-based harassment would intensify during and after the coverage period, as presidential candidate and ultimate victor Yoon Suk-yeol and other politicians stoked antifeminist sentiments during the March 2022 presidential campaign period (see B5).11

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, the number of reported cyberattacks declined between 2018 and 2020.1

The North Korean government frequently launches cyberattacks against South Korean private enterprises and public institutions. In 2020, the average number of cyberattacks per day against South Korean public sector targets by North Korean actors was 1.5 million, compared to 410,000 daily in 2016.2 In May 2021, a North Korean hacking group hacked the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI), a state-run nuclear think-tank.3 Previously, in February 2021, South Korea’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.4

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