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The National Security Law of South Korea was first established in 1947 and has prevented more exchange and collaboration for peace between the South and North. The NLG Korean Peace Project supports the repeal of the Act and restoration of human rights of free speech and association.

The National Security Law (“NSL”), which was enacted in 1948, criminalizes “anti-state” activities such as praising North Korea or questioning South Korea’s stance on issues related to North Korea.  The NSL is seen as the most serious affront to free speech and assembly rights within the country.  In the past, thousands have been arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms for voicing opinions in opposition to the government or for making comments deemed sympathetic to North Korean interests. 

The NGO’s that we spoke with on our rip to South Korea agreed that arrests under the NSL have decreased substantially in the past few years, but that the NSL is still used as an instrument to suppress and silence free speech, particularly at universities and amongst other student groups.  Simply speaking out in support of North Korea still carries a prison sentence of up to seven years.  One of the attorneys that frequently represents persons charged under the NSL stated that although the number of prosecutions under the NSL are declining, once indicted, the charge is almost impossible to defend against, and the resulting verdict is nearly always “guilty.” 

The NSL is viewed by the NGOs as a serious impediment to peace and reunification, as the law prohibits real dialogue between citizens of North and South Korea.  So long as the NSL remains in force, a genuine exchange of ideas regarding political and economic systems will be stymied. 

The NSL can be repealed by a simple majority vote in the National Assembly.  In 2004, a bill to repeal the law was introduced and backed by 160 of 299 legislators.  The bill, though, was held up in Committee by the Chair of the Legislation & Judiciary Committee (a member of the conservative Grand National Party) and did not make it to the floor for a vote.  

For the Text of the Act see

In 2002, Mr. Lee, a new recruit in the South Korean army, was sentenced to 2 years in prison for having said "I think Korean separation is not North Korean but American fault" to fellow soldiers. The Military Prosecutor's Office could not charge him for what he had said, but it searched Mr. Lee's civilian house and found various books, and charged him in violation of the NSA Article 7 Clauses 1 and 5. The easiest to violate are Article 7 Clause 3 (Creation, Importation, Copying, Possession, Transportation, Distribution, and Selling of "Enemy's Expressions") and Article 10. (Knowingly not reporting violations to some articles). The South Korean High Court has a ruling history since 1978 that has classified 1,220 books and print material as "Enemy's Expressions" by force of precedence.

Listening to North Korean radio stations remained illegal in 1990 if it were judged to be for the purpose of "benefiting the antistate organization" (North Korea). Similarly, books or other literature considered subversive, procommunist, or pro-North Korean were illegal; authors, publishers, printers, and distributors of such material were subject to arrest.

The Asia Human Rights Commission

The Commission addresses the Security Law as follows:

On August 24, 2001, seven activists among 337 South Korean civic, labour and religious delegates were arrested on charges of violating the National Security Law (NSL) after participating in the 2001 Grand Celebration for Reunification that was held in Pyongyang, North Korea, from August 15 to 21 to celebrate the 56th Korean independence day from Japanese colonization. Upon their return home, 16 delegates were taken by the police at Kimpo domestic airport for questioning about their alleged controversial activities during this event in North Korea.

A Living Ghost - The National Security Law of South Korea

The National Security Law (NSL) of South Korea has cast a dark shadow of oppression on countless people since its enactment in 1948. The threat from North Korea, which was the basic rationale for its existence, has justified all kinds of restrictions and abuses of human rights in Korea since the division of the country in1945. Since its enactment, the NSL has played a critical role in the maintenance of dictatorial regimes in South Korea by casting a pervasive net of fear and oppression over the people. It has been used to arrest thousands of innocent people unfairly and unjustly. In fact, it has been no more than a useful instrument for dictatorship.

History shows that the law has been the most important means to suppress the basic freedom of the people. Barely a year after its enactment the NSL was used to crack down and arrest more than 100,000 people of various political persuasions who were opposed to the government’s policies. Especially during the military regimes of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, more than 10,000 people were tried and received jail terms for violating the NSL. Some of these prisoners were in jail for more than 20 years.

Despite the victory in the 1998 presidential election of Kim Dae-jung, a former long-term dissident and the winner of the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize, the NSL still exits and continues its fearful influence by limiting and violating the basic human rights of the Korean people. Since President Kim took office, there has been much discussion about reforming the NSL. Most human rights and civic organizations in South Korea have demanded that the NSL be abolished. On the other hand, political parties, including Kim Dae-jung’s party, have insisted on, at best, only a partial amendment of the NSL. However, there is strong consent among the people that the NSL should be abolished or amended soon. According to a recent survey, 78.2 percent of South Korean citizens are in favour of mitigating or repealing the law.

The NSL is widely criticized for its arbitrary components. For example, when it is broadly applied, Article 7 of the NSL can be used to suppress virtually any activity. The mere possession of a book or viewing a film, for instance, can be considered a violation of Article 7. This surreal application of the law has occurred many times. The Article 7 states:
"(1) Any person who has benefited the anti-state organization by way of praising, encouraging or siding with or through other means the activities of an anti-state organization, its member or a person who has been under instruction from such organization shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than seven years.
. . .
"(5) Any person who has, for the purpose of committing the actions as stipulated in Paragraphs 1 through 4 of this article, produced, imported, duplicated, possessed, transported, disseminated, sold or acquired documents, drawings or any other similar means of expression shall be punished by the same penalty as set forth in each paragraph."

Suggested Action to End the Security Act

Please write to the following people, urging them to abolish the Act.

SAMPLE LETTER (use this letter or write your own short message)

Your Excellency,

First of all, I was upset to hear that the National Security Law (NSL) of South Korea still exists or continues, at best, without any amendment. Its existence creates fear in society by limiting and violating the basic human rights of the Korean people even though four years have passed since you became the president of the country.

I have heard so many times about the notorious role of the NSL in Korea and its terrible impact on the Korean democratic and reunification movement. That is why the abolition of the NSL has always been at the top of the list of demands in the country’s long journey for democratization and the reunification of Korea. I strongly urge you to abolish the NSL immediately. This act will not only benefit your own country but will be a good signal to other Asian countries which also oppress their people under draconian laws like the NSL, such as the Internal Security Act (ISA) in Malaysia.

I once again firmly urge you to take further steps to abolish the NSL and to release immediately the seven detainees without any preconditions.

Yours sincerely,


Mr. Lee Myung-Bak
President of Republic of Korea
The Chungwoadae
1 Sejong-ro, Chonro-gu
Seoul, 110-050
FAX: +82 2 770-0202
TEL: +82 2 770-0027
SALUTATION: Your Excellency
Send copies to:

Mr. Kim Kyung-Han
Minister of Justice
88 Gwanmon-ro, Gwachon-si
Gyonggi Province 427-760

Fax: +82 2 2110 3079 / 503 7046


The US State Department Human Rights Report states:

Laws regarding arrest and detention often are vague, and prosecutors have wide latitude to interpret them. For example, the National Security Law (NSL) defines espionage in broad terms and permits the authorities to detain and arrest persons who commit acts viewed as supporting North Korea, which are therefore deemed dangerous to the country. The NSL permits imprisonment for up to 7 years of anyone who "with the knowledge that he might endanger the existence or security of the State or the basic order of free democracy, praised, encouraged, propagandized for, or sided with the activities of an antistate organization." The legal standard for what constitutes endangering the security of the State was vague. Thus a number of persons have been arrested for what appeared to be the peaceful expression of views that the Government considered pro-North Korean or antistate. Among those arrested under the NSL were persons who praised North Korea, its former leader Kim Il Sung, or North Korea's "self-reliance" philosophy.

In February 2001, a foreign citizen was arrested and charged with violating the NSL. The basis for prosecution was publishing a book on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, contact with allegedly pro-North Korean figures abroad, and travel to North Korea. In July 2001, he was convicted of violating the NSL and sentenced by the Seoul District Court to 3 years' imprisonment, with the sentence suspended.

In August 2001, 16 members of a group that went to Pyongyang as a delegation to an inter-Korean Independence Day Festival allegedly broke a pledge not to engage in political activities. They were arrested for violating the NSL. Seven of them, including Professor Kang Chung-koo of Dongkook University, were indicted. Professor Kang was released after being held for 2 months, and was awaiting trial at year's end. In February four of the other six were sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison, with suspension of imposition of sentence for 3 years (essentially a parole). The two others were sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison, and both were released on bail by June.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee termed the NSL "a major obstacle to the full realization of the rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights." President Kim Dae-jung, who himself was arrested and sentenced to death under the NSL, acknowledged in August 2000 that the law had "problematic areas" and announced his intent to pursue major revisions, especially in light of improvements in relations between North and South Korea since the June 2000 summit. During the year, 131 persons were arrested for violating the NSL, and 31 persons remained in custody at year's end.

The Government's rationale for retaining the NSL was that North Korea actively was trying to subvert the Government and society and as a result, some forms of expression had to be limited to block the greater danger to freedom and democracy posed by North Korean totalitarianism. The effect sometimes was to relieve the Government of the burden of proof that any particular speech or action in fact threatened the nation's security. Thus, although the Government strove to expand North-South exchanges, citizens were prosecuted in the past for unauthorized travel to North Korea (see Section 2.d).