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

South Korea is internationally recognized for its sophisticated internet and mobile infrastructures. However, the country’s digital landscape remains marked by rigid governmental control over information dissemination. During the coverage period, authorities imposed fines and other legal sanctions against users for their online activities, and journalists critical of President Yoon Suk Yeol were often the target of government scare tactics.

South Koreans benefit from regular rotations of power and robust political pluralism. Civil liberties are generally respected, though the country struggles with minority rights and social integration. Legal bans on pro-North Korean activity affect legitimate political expression, and journalists can face pressure from the government over their coverage of or commentary on geopolitical relations. Corruption and misogyny are persistent problems, with scandals implicating successive governments and company executives in recent years.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2022 – May 31, 2023

  • Service providers systematically enforced online content blocking and complied with deletion requests, primarily in response to orders from the Korea Communications Standards Committee (see B1 and B2).
  • In November 2022, the Seoul Metropolitan Government imposed fines exceeding 10 million won ($8,400) on an online news site run by middle and high school students. The students, who had participated in anti-government rallies, were fined for contravening the Newspapers Act (see B6).
  • President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office in May 2022, pursued legal action against journalists and YouTubers who criticized him, his family, and his administration (see C3 and 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 ranks as one of the most connected countries globally, measured in terms of both usage rates and connection speeds. As of December 2022, the number of smartphone subscribers reached approximately 54.2 million, exceeding the nation’s population of 51.6 million.1 The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported that an estimated 99.93 percent of South Korean households had internet access in 2021, outpacing other advanced economies.2 Furthermore, according to the Inclusive Internet Index 2022 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, South Korea ranks second out of the 100 countries surveyed in terms of availability, a ranking defined by the quality of internet infrastructure and the level of internet usage within the country.3 According to Ookla’s Speedtest Global Index, in 2023 South Korea ranked 5th and 26th in median mobile and fixed-line broadband speeds, respectively.4

In 2019, South Korea was the first country to launch commercial fifth-generation (5G) services.5 By 2023, the country boasted more than 28 million 5G subscribers.6

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 the country 37th out of 100 countries for affordability, a metric defined by the cost of access relative to income and the level of competition in the internet service market.1 The average monthly cost for broadband in the country is around $26,2 while the average price for 1 gigabyte (GB) of mobile data is approximately $12.50.3 The minimum wage is set at $7.50 per hour.4

There is no significant digital divide with respect to gender or income. However, there remains room for improvement in digital competency among the elderly and rural populations.5 In 2020, the South Korean government designated broadband service at 100 megabits per second (Mbps) as a universal service for all users, regardless of their location.6 It was the eighth country in the world to enact such a policy.

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 country’s internet backbone market is dominated by a small number of companies. Korea Telecom (KT), established as a state-owned enterprise in 1981 and privatized in 2002, is the largest provider.

The network infrastructure is connected to the international internet primarily through the southern cities of Busan and Keoje, via international submarine cables extending to Japan and China.1 Although the police and the National Intelligence Service (NIS) have oversight over the access points for national security reasons, the government is not known to implement politically motivated restrictions on internet or mobile access.2

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 South Korean internet service market is relatively diverse and competitive, with 96 internet service providers (ISPs) operating as of January 2019.1 Despite this diversity, three companies dominate: KT, holding 41.3 percent of the market share as of December 2022; SK Telecom, with 28.5 percent; and LG Telecom, owning 21 percent.2 The same firms also control the country’s mobile network market, with respective market shares of 30.1 percent, 44.6 percent, and 25.3 percent as of December 2022.3 While all three companies are publicly traded, they are part of the country’s chaebol system—large, family-controlled conglomerates interconnected with the political elite, often through marriage.4 This has led to speculation that favoritism may have influenced the privatization process and 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.” Under the amended law, these businesses only need to register with the Ministry of Science and Information and Communications Technology. It remains unclear whether this change will effectively lower entry barriers for the mobile network market.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 broadcasting and telecommunications sectors, while the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) oversees content and ethical standards. Both commissions, whose members answer to the president, have faced criticism for politicized appointments and a 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 selects the remaining members. The sixth chairman, Han Sang-hyuk, was appointed in September 2019 by the former liberal president, Moon Jae-in. Han was dismissed on May 30, 2023, two months prior to the completion of his tenure. This was amid allegations from the current conservative administration that he abused his authority, a claim that Han denied.2 Several of his predecessors also faced investigations or fines or prematurely resigned amid bribery or preferential treatment scandals.3 In August 2023, shortly after the end of the coverage period, President Yoon Suk Yeol appointed Lee Dong-kwan to the vacant chairmanship.4 Lee is a former senior secretary for press affairs from the Lee Myung-bak administration.

Established in 2008 concurrently with the KCC, the Korea Communications Standards Commission 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.5

The KCSC includes four subcommissions that review 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,6 and considers censorship requests from other agencies and individuals. The redacted minutes of their deliberations are regularly published on the KCSC's website. Observers have criticized the commission for its vaguely defined standards and broad discretionary power to decide what information should be censored, arguing that this arrangement leads to politically, socially, and culturally biased judgments that often lack a legal foundation.7

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 to block content deemed to violate the law or social norms, including threats to national security and public morality, mainly on the orders of the KCSC.1

While the KCSC does not publish a list of blocked sites, it does release the number of websites blocked under different categories of banned content. In 2022, it reported that 192,621 websites or webpages were blocked.2 Among those, 45,888 sites were blocked for “encouraging gambling,” 26,526 for promoting “illegitimate food and medicine,” 29,217 for “prostitution and obscenity,” 54,553 for “digital sex crimes,” 230 for “violating others’ rights,” and 36,207 for “violating other laws and regulations.” The last category includes content related to financial fraud, intellectual property violations, and illegal weaponry.

Political content, such as that praising North Korea, can also be subject to blocking, according to Article 7 of the 1948 National Security Act.3 In March 2022, for example, the KCSC blocked access to 229 posts pertaining to North Korea, flagged by the National Police Agency, citing violations of the National Security Act and the Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection (the Network Act).4 The commission also blocked 94 items that violated the Antiterrorism Act, alleging that the posts incited terrorism by including content sympathetic to North Korea.

In December 2021, the KCSC issued a blocking order against the website Women on Web, a Canadian nongovernmental organization (NGO) providing information and teleconsultations on contraception and safe abortion, on the 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,5 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 country’s recent decriminalization of abortion, the excessive restriction on women’s access to information about abortion, and the excessive nature of a complete block on a website with pages that do not violate the cited law (see B3).6 The case was being heard as of October 2022.

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

Besides website blocking, some political and social content is subject to removal, primarily through the KCSC’s orders to service providers.

In 2022, the KCSC directed the removal of 19,378 pieces of online content. The removed items included 2,029 items associated with “encouraging gambling,” 9,340 promoting “illegitimate food and medicine,” 3,154 linked to “prostitution and obscenity,” 440 involving “digital sex crimes,” 85 “violating others’ rights,” and 4,330 “violating other laws and regulations.”1 Service providers that fail to adhere to KCSC's orders risk up to two years of imprisonment or a fine of up to 20 million won ($17,000), per Article 73 of the Network Act (see B3).

Beyond the KCSC, individuals, the police, and other government agencies can instruct content hosts to remove content. According to Article 44(2) of the Network Act, companies are compelled to immediately hide any content subject to a takedown request from individual users for 30 days. If the content owner does not revise it or appeal during this period, the content is deleted.

Additionally, Article 44(3) of the same law encourages online intermediaries to monitor and carry out proactive 30-day takedowns of problematic content, even without explicit complaints.2 Companies demonstrating proactive efforts to regulate content are viewed favorably by the courts, while those failing to do so could be held liable for illegal content posted on their platforms.3

Amendments to the Telecommunications Business Act, in effect since December 2021, aim to combat gender-based online abuse and digital sex crimes by assigning online intermediaries the responsibility of removing nonconsensual images and videos. Colloquially known as the “anti-Nth Room” laws, in reference to a series of online sex crime cases involving women and young girls (see C7), the updated provisions stipulate that if such content is not removed, intermediaries may face fines equal to up to 3 percent of their revenues. The fines are proportional to the duration of time the content remains displayed.4 Some critics have expressed concern about the amendment’s upload filtering obligation5 and its effectiveness in preventing future sex crimes.6

In the run-up to the presidential election in March 2022, the National Election Commission (NEC) asked service providers to remove over 86,000 online posts. This was the largest number of deletions requested during an election in the country’s history and marked an increase of over 30,000 requests from the April 2020 legislative election. The content targeted for deletion included unauthorized public opinion polls, allegedly false information, and alleged slander of candidates.7 Subsequently, during the local elections in June 2022, the NEC made 18,159 deletion requests and lodged 21 complaints, which included 7 cases of spreading false information, 5 cases of unlawful election campaigns, and 3 cases of posting images of completed ballots online.8

Removal requests also come from politically influential individuals, in addition to the KCSC and the NEC. In December 2021, Kim Keon Hee, the wife of then-opposition candidate and current President Yoon Suk Yeol, reportedly asked the online forum Clien to remove 103 posts about her. Clien removed 49 of the requested items.9

In December 2022, President Yoon held a live, town hall-style meeting with 100 members of the public. Following the meeting, cable news channel YTN released a rehearsal video, alleging that the meeting was staged. The president’s office announced its intention to take legal action against the CEO and relevant staff of YTN for potentially violating the Protection of Communications Secrets Act. This announcement led the company to remove the video from its website and YouTube page and to warn that anyone who shared the video on social media could face charges for violating the Copyright Act.10

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 wide range of content.

Appealing the KCSC’s censorship decisions is neither an easy nor a straightforward process for ordinary people. In many cases, the commission can order the blocking of entire websites, even if only a portion of their content is deemed problematic. For example, in 2019 and 2021, the commission blocked the entire Women on Web portal, despite the fact that many of its pages did not feature the allegedly offending content about distributing drugs in unapproved ways (see B1).1

In April 2022, lawmakers proposed an amendment to the Network Act that would mandate service providers to promptly suspend the operation of a whole website if the site engages predominantly in activities that infringe on someone’s rights, such as invasion of privacy or character defamation, and houses a substantial amount of offensive content. Open Net Korea, an NGO championing a free and open internet, criticized the proposal as excessively punitive because it targets entire sites instead of individual pieces of content.2

In addition to the Network Act, other laws that are 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.

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 draw heavier penalties when committed online (see C2 and C3).

Concerns about self-censorship mounted during the coverage period. The government pursued charges against journalists and citizens who criticized the president and his administration, while other critics faced online harassment or other forms of retaliation (see C3 and C7). Similarly, the misogynist rhetoric of the president and his campaign normalized online hate speech (see B5). Increased application of the National Security Act, including against a group of trade unionists in November 2022,1 further raised concerns over self-censorship.

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 the systematic manipulation of online content has long been a concern in South Korea,1 such issues have eased in recent years. The production and dissemination of hyperpartisan content remains an issue.

The March 2022 presidential election and the June 2022 local elections did not feature the widespread manipulation of online content seen in preceding years. However, key actors—current president Yoo Suk Yeol among them—were criticized for stoking misogyny and hate speech online and incorporating this rhetoric into their campaigns, including social media posts.2 The president is also known to maintain cordial relationships with far-right YouTubers, inviting them to his inauguration, sending festive gifts, and even putting them on his staff (see C7).3

Former president Moon Jae-in, in office from 2017 to 2022, was linked to previous information manipulation scandals when Moon’s close ally, Governor Kim Kyoung-soo, was accused of having worked with a group of bloggers to rig online public opinion prior and during the 2017 presidential election.4 In January 2019, the Seoul Central District Court found the governor guilty of manipulating online comments, including by using software to post over 100 million inauthentic “likes” and “dislikes” on social media content, to Moon’s advantage.5 The Supreme Court of Korea upheld the ruling in July 2021, sentencing Kim to two years in prison and stripping him of the governorship.6

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

While there are no known economic or regulatory constraints that systematically hinder online content production and publication, the coverage period saw media outlets critical of the government being defunded or punitively fined.1

In November 2022, the Seoul Metropolitan Government levied over 10 million won ($8,400) in fines against an online news site run by middle and high school students for breaches of the Newspapers Act. The first incident of its kind in several years, some speculated that this excessive fine, which came without an initial warning, was the city’s attempt to penalize students who had participated in candlelight rallies calling for the resignation of President Yoon.2

In May 2020, the government passed amendments to the Telecommunications Business Act, including Article 22(7), that hold content providers of a certain size responsible for ensuring “stable services” in the face of high user traffic.3 To do so, content providers may be required to pay network usage fees to ISPs. Domestic and international civil society organizations have raised concerns 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.4 In June 2021, the Seoul Central District Court ruled against Netflix, which argued that requiring content providers to pay network usage fees undermines net neutrality.5 In February 2022, the information and communication technology (ICT) ministry named five companies that were required to comply with the revised law: Google, Netflix, Meta, Naver, and Kakao.6

In July 2021, lawmakers proposed another partial amendment to the Telecommunications Business Act. The proposed amendment would require global 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 depending on the amount paid.7 A coalition of digital rights, human rights, and free expression organizations criticized the amendment for posing a further threat to net neutrality. The National Assembly suspended the proposal in April 2022, citing a need for further discussion with external stakeholders.8

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 similar sites around the globe since 2000.2 Newstapa, a user-funded investigative journalism platform, has accumulated more than 30,000 regular donors and over 327 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 that systemic corruption and negligence were behind the sinking of the ferry Sewol in 2014, a disaster that resulted in 304 deaths.

According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2023, the internet is the most popular news source for South Koreans.5 Users continue to turn to social media platforms to find news as well—53 percent of the population accessed YouTube for this purpose in 2023.6 Amid declining trust in the news media and the growth of online news programs, viewers increasingly seek online content that aligns with their political views.7

In October 2022, South Korean tech giant Kakao, known for operating the country’s largest mobile messaging app, KakaoTalk, experienced a fire at its data center in Pangyo. This incident led to a massive outage that disrupted its messaging, mobile banking, and gaming services for over eight hours. The outage raised questions about the firm’s security practices and its potential monopoly in the market. Ninety-three percent of the country’s population, including government bodies, rely on KakaoTalk.8

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 purpose.

Online petitions, events, and social media campaigns have also been used to raise awareness of various forms of injustice against marginalized groups. For example, since October 2022, a boycott of SPC Group, the country’s leading food company, has been gaining momentum online. This followed an incident in which a 23-year-old worker died after getting caught in an industrial mixer at a bread-making factory. The company faced public outrage when it was reported that other employees were made to carry on working despite the traumatic accident.1 Also in October 2022, activists and civil society groups used social media to organize a protest against President Yoon’s plans to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which had been established in 2001 to address gender inequality.2

At the end of President Moon Jae-in’s presidency in May 2022, the popular online petition platform on Cheong Wa Dae’s website closed down.3 The service, which operated as a publicly accessible tool for nearly 5 years, received 1.1 million petitions on various political issues during that time.

In July 2022, the 23rd Seoul Queer Culture Festival (SQCF) hosted both in-person and online formats of the event.4 The SQCF, which promotes visibility for, and instills pride in, the Korean LGBTQ+ community, ran online celebrations in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.5 Part of these events included livestreaming on YouTube.

South Korean women have long used the internet to share 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 (“hidden camera” in Korean slang), in which tiny, hidden cameras capture images of women without their knowledge or consent. The images are then disseminated in various male-dominated online spaces (see C7).6 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, which went into effect in December and imposed harsher penalties for molka offenses on those who collect the images, as well as those who distribute copies.

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 in prison or a fine of up to 10 million won ($8,400), regardless of the truthfulness of the statement in question. Insult charges, which must be initiated directly by a complainant, in contrast to defamation cases, can result in 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—a prison sentence of up to seven years or fines of up to 50 million won ($42,000)—under the Network Act. The act rationalizes these harsher sentences by referring to the faster speed and wider audience of online communications.

In April 2021, the Constitutional Court unanimously confirmed the constitutionality of criminal defamation charges for spreading rumors online.1

Enacted in January 2021, the Special Act on the May 18 Democratization Movement introduces prison sentences of up to five years for spreading falsehoods, including through information and communications networks, about a pro-democracy uprising that took place in the city of Gwangju in 1980.

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 29,258 in 2022. Of the cases initiated in 2022, 62.3 percent led to arrests.1

The new administration has been a major source of defamation suits. In July 2021, then-presidential hopeful Yoon Suk Yeol filed criminal complaints against 10 individuals, including reporters from the YouTube channel Open Mind TV, accusing them of spreading “unspeakable sexual harassment slanders” about his wife after they reported on aspects of her past.2 The office of Open Mind TV and the home of its former CEO were searched in August 2022 on these grounds.3

In March 2022, First Lady Kim Keon Hee sought 100 million won ($84,000) in damages against a reporter from another YouTube-based news outlet, Voice of Seoul, and its chief executive, Baek Eun-jong. Kim alleged that the reporter, Lee Myung-soo, had violated her rights to privacy and honor after the outlet published a conversation that Lee had recorded with Kim in January. In this conversation, she threatened to “jail all reporters” who criticized her husband should he win the election.4

Immediately after the conversation was published on YouTube in January, Yoon’s People Power Party announced plans to file a criminal complaint against an online user with the user ID “Mobo.” This user had posted a screenshot of the broadcast and uploaded it to the online forum Clien with subtitles that the party alleged were not accurate representations of Kim’s statements. Government charges included the disclosure of false information, under the Public Official Election Act, and online defamation, under the Network Act.5

In July 2022, an unnamed man in his 60s was prosecuted for repeatedly posting derogatory comments about the first lady online, including calling her a “perpetual liar” and a “fraudster.”6 In November 2022, the presidential office was also reported to be considering suing an opposition lawmaker, Jang Kyung-tae, on defamation charges. Jang had criticized the first lady on Facebook for exploiting her recent visit to Cambodia as a photo op for “poverty porn.”7

In the same month, an unspecified Twitter user from Asan was reportedly arrested for a post that read, “For the love of my country, I will take care of Han Dong-hoon. I know where he lives.” Han Dong-hoon is the minister of justice, appointed by President Yoon in May 2022, and the post was perceived as “implying an intent to assassinate.”8

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 restrict encryption, although there are some limits on anonymous communication.

In January 2023, lawmakers from the People Power Party proposed amendments to the Network Act. If passed, the amendments would require for users’ nationalities, geographic locations, and VPN usage to be displayed next to their comments. Service providers failing to comply could face penalties of up to 5 years in prison or fines reaching 50 million won ($42,000).1

A problematic real-name system, which had been initially adopted through a 2004 amendment to the Public Official Election Act, 2 was largely dismantled in 2012 after the Constitutional Court ruled it unconstitutional.3 In January 2021, the Constitutional Court also found Article 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), unconstitutional.4 The court had previously upheld this clause in 2015.5

In 2021, Korea abolished its controversial game shutdown law, which used an online real-name system to block teenagers 16 years old and younger from playing online video games between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m.6

Mobile service providers still require users to submit their government-issued resident registration numbers (RRN), and additional registration requirements remain in place, such as the Children and Youth Protection Act, the Game Industry Promotion Act, and the Telecommunications Business Act.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 online activity is an enduring 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. On October 29, 2022, in Itaewon, Seoul, a “crowd crush” incident resulted in 159 deaths and at least 196 injured.1 Leaked documents indicated that the National Policy Agency began immediate surveillance of NGOs’ activities online, across multiple platforms, with the purported goal of tracking opinion trends that could undermine the Yoon administration.2 The government’s response was similar to its actions after the 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy, when the NIS, the police, and the Defense Security Command monitored the families of victims to manage how the disaster impacted the Park Geun-hye administration.3

In recent years, critics have frequently expressed concern about the processes by which authorities access personal data. According to the 2021 Korea Internet Transparency Report by the Clinical Legal Education Center at Korea University, the police and other investigative agencies searched more than 3.8 million Naver or KakaoTalk accounts in 2020. 4 While acknowledging that this was a decrease compared to 2017, the report underlined the pervasive nature of the government’s online monitoring. It also highlighted that the government had the discretion to delay notifying affected users, many of whom were often not contacted until after the searches were conducted.

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.5 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.6

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. However, the NIS, the 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. Although the government discloses the number of times data was provided to agencies based on these requests, digital rights advocates argue that the figures may be misleading.1

In the first half of 2022, service providers fulfilled 2,120,006 requests for metadata and 302,015 requests to access the logs of private communications.2 Metadata includes the user’s name, RRN, postal address, telephone number, user ID, and dates of joining or leaving the service; communication logs show who the user spoke with, for how long, and through which base station.

Even though service providers are legally obliged to inform targeted individuals, they often fail to do so.3 An illustrative example occurred in January 2023, when lawyer Lee Jong-chan was questioned over the phone by the Seoul Yongsan Police about his search history related to the Control of Firearms, Swords, Explosives, etc. Act. Reportedly, in the course of investigating a case of bullets missing from the presidential security team’s supply, the police had obtained users’ search records from domestic web portals.4

In December 2021, allegations surfaced claiming that the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) had accessed the call and text logs of at least 332 individuals, including 176 journalists, 91 opposition politicians, and their family members. The CIO admitted to accessing the mobile data of some lawmakers but did not provide an explanation for the extensive data collection.5 Some journalists suspected that the surveillance might have been aimed at uncovering their sources.6 In February 2022, it was further reported that the CIO had applied for seven court warrants in June and July 2021 to monitor the telecommunications of four journalists, two of whom had produced critical reporting on the chief of the CIO, Kim Jin-wook.7

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, reducing the scope of protected personal data.8 The government claims the amendments seek to encourage more “research and innovation,” in the broadest sense of the terms. However, civil liberties organizations have raised strong concerns over the potential for re-identification of pseudonymized information because of these amendments,9 which came into effect in August 2020.

In September 2022, the South Korean Personal Information Protection Commission (PIPC) fined Google and Meta approximately $50 million and $20 million, respectively, for violating the country’s privacy law.10 According to the government, the companies did not adequately inform, or obtain consent from, users before using their personal data for targeted advertisements. In 2021, Facebook and Netflix were fined by the PIPC for approximately $5.6 million and $190,000, respectively, for violating the PIPA.11

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. The government also retaliated against journalists who reported critically on the administration.

South Korean women report experiencing widespread violations of their rights to privacy, safety, and dignity. These violations include cyberstalking, online abuse and harassment, nonconsensual distribution of intimate images, nonconsensual use of deepfakes to generate sexual content, and the extortion of nonconsensual intimate imagery.1 A transparency report, published in June 2022 by the Korean Communications Commission, indicates that in 2021, there were 27,587 requests from South Korean users to online service providers to remove such nonconsensual and exploitative sexual content.2

According to a survey conducted by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) in May 2021, women are most frequently the targets of online hate speech.3 The report indicated that 80.4 percent of women users have encountered malicious gender-based online commentary.4

Online gender-based violence has led to severe offline harms. In January 2022, YouTuber and Twitch streamer Cho Jang-mi (alias Jammi) died by suicide after enduring years of coordinated online abuse. The abuse included sexually derogatory comments and malicious attacks labelling her a “man-hater.” The majority of the abuse was instigated by so-called “cyberwreckers,” YouTubers who produce videos that capitalize on contentious issues. These individuals accused Cho of being a “radical feminist” after she inadvertently used phrases and gestures associated with feminist online groups in her 2019 YouTube videos.5

There has also been a proliferation of individuals using deepfake software to generate nonconsensual sexual content, often aimed at humiliating the target, who is typically an acquaintance or a colleague of the poster.6 According to the KCC’s “2020 Cyber Violence Survey Results,” 21 percent of adults have witnessed this type of crime online,7 and this practice is often used to retaliate against women. A 2019 report by DeepTrace also found that South Korean K-pop singers were among “the most frequently targeted individuals” by deepfake pornography across the globe.8

In January 2022, after a seemingly sarcastic letter written by a female high school student as part of a broader school letter-writing campaign to Korean troops was circulated online, the student and many of her peers were subjected to an onslaught of online abuse and sexual harassment, including the creation of deepfakes in their likeness.9

Cases of “sextortion” continued to crop up during the coverage period,10 and its victims can often face social stigmatization and secondary victimization.11 In 2020, the operators of several large Telegram chatrooms, including those called “Nth Room” and “The Doctor’s Room,” were arrested for manipulating women and girls into sharing sexually explicit material of themselves, content that was subsequently used as blackmail, shared with others, and sold for profit.12

Concerns arose that online gender-based harassment might intensify during and after the coverage period, as the eventual winner of the presidential race, Yoon Suk Yeol, along with other politicians, stoked anti-feminist sentiments during the March 2022 presidential campaign period (see B5).13

Journalists were also frequently subject to intimidation, retaliation, and legal threats from the authorities. In September 2022, MBC, a South Korean television broadcaster, posted a YouTube video of a “hot mic” incident in which President Yoon was allegedly caught on camera disparaging members of the US Congress.14 After MBC aired the footage, Yoon’s allies in the People’s Power Party said they would take legal action against the broadcaster and filed formal complaints through the Press Arbitration Commission and the Korea Communications Standards Commission.15

Later, in May 2023, the police raided the home of, and other locations associated with, Lim Hyun-joo, the journalist who first broke the news of the hot mic incident. She was accused of leaking personal information about Yoon’s justice minister to a YouTube news channel. Lim and the MBC union strongly protested, denouncing the raid as an act of intimidation and harassment.16

In October 2022, a student’s satirical cartoon featuring the president and the first lady won a prize at a comics festival and quickly went viral online. The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism reportedly threatened to cut sponsorship for the nonprofit agency that organized the contest in retaliation.17

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

Statistics provided by the National Police Agency’s Cyber Bureau indicate a significant increase in reported cyberattacks between 2021 and 2022: 893 cases of webpage manipulation (compared to 292 in 2021); 1,142 cases of infringement reports (640 in 2021); and 13,661 cases of installation of malicious codes (7,043 in 2021).1

The North Korean government frequently launches such cyberattacks against South Korean private enterprises and public institutions. In 2020, North Korean actors reportedly initiated an average of 1.5 million cyberattacks daily against South Korean targets, a substantial rise from the 410,000 daily attacks in 2016.2 According to a 2022 report from South Korea’s spy agency, state-sponsored North Korean hackers have stolen an estimated 1.5 trillion won ($1.2 billion) in cryptocurrency and other virtual assets in the past five years, with more than half of that amount stolen in 2022 alone.3 APT37, a notorious North Korean hacking group, exploited the tragic Halloween crowd surge in Itaewon in 2022, which resulted in over 150 deaths, tricking South Koreans into downloading malware.4

In June 2023, just after the coverage period, the NIS, National Police Agency, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a “Joint Cybersecurity Advisory” with the United States on North Korea’s state-backed cyberattacks against think tanks, academic institutions, and media outlets.5

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