[Editorial] The Constitutional Court’s deadly blow against South Korean democracy

Posted on : 2014-12-20 14:27 KST Modified on : 2014-12-20 14:27 KST
 Dec. 19. (pool photo)
Dec. 19. (pool photo)

The Constitutional Court ruled on Dec. 19 to disband the Unified Progressive Party. Lawmakers with the party were also stripped of their seats in the National Assembly. The decision was not based on any real evidence or definitive proof. It was a death sentence handed down on a small party for no other reason than that people didn’t like it. It was an utter repudiation of democracy, an institution founded on the core values of tolerance and diversity. Today, South Korea’s hard-won democratic system, the result of decades of struggle, now stands faced with the threat of disbandment and disintegration.

The Constitutional Court’s decision will go down as a huge black mark on judicial history. Decades ago, there were other cases where the courts were used as instruments for political suppression. There were the executions of People’s Revolutionary Party members by the Park Chung-hee administration in 1974, and there was the Rhee Syngman administration having Progressive Party presidential candidate Cho Bong-am put to death in 1959 for violating the National Security Law. That party was broken up when a government agency revoked its registration, but a 1958 Supreme Court ruling found neither its platform nor its policies unconstitutional. At least then there wasn’t the same far-fetched equating of the party’s major figures with the party itself that we saw this time. When party disbandment clause was introduced into the Constitution in 1960, the aim wasn’t to “guard against enemies of democracy,” but to protect party freedoms and guard the parties against the very threat of having their registration revoked by an administration. It’s a spirit that has carried over into the Constitution of today.

In that sense, the very fact that parties like the UPP were part of the representative democratic system is a true achievement of democracy in South Korea. When minorities aren’t excluded simply for having different views and saying different things, that’s a sign of a democracy that has been freed from totalitarianism and authoritarianism. The court’s decision, essentially an eviction notice for a progressive minority, turns back the clock on this historical achievement.

Members of civic and labor organizations and the Unified Progressive Party hold a candlelight protest at Seoul Plaza outside City Hall on the second anniversary of President Park Geun-hye’s election
Members of civic and labor organizations and the Unified Progressive Party hold a candlelight protest at Seoul Plaza outside City Hall on the second anniversary of President Park Geun-hye’s election

The grounds on which the court justified the decision were flimsy to say the least. Party disbandment is supposed to be used only as a last resort and governed by the strictest standards. There needs to be a “concrete” threat of “substantive harm” posed to the basic democratic order by a party’s “goals and activities.” The court couldn’t find any such threat in the party platform, but claimed it could be surmised from the party’s “true motives” and “hidden goals.” Those “hidden goals” are exactly what needs to be rigorously demonstrated. Instead, the court, without any concrete evidence behind it, deemed the UPP’s “true motives” to be coordinating with North Korea because some of its members were saying similar things to Pyongyang. It’s the same kind of obtuse reasoning the prosecutors used to offer in National Security Law cases back in the authoritarian government days.

It’s also suspicious just how hastily it swept to that conclusion. The whole process, from start to finish, has taken under a year. And even if lawmaker Lee Seok-ki’s group did wrong in its activities, you can’t equate them with the activities of an entire party with some 100,000 members. Yet the Constitutional Court did just that, claiming that their activities were the party’s activities because they were “leaders” in it. Again, this judgment was made without any proof that these “leaders” had control of the party or that the party was following their lead. Then came the additional logical leap of claiming that the leaders’ philosophical leanings and activities posed a substantive threat. The existence of a “revolutionary organization” was not recognized in the criminal trial, and there was never even a Supreme Court ruling upholding the verdict after the defendants were acquitted of conspiracy to incite rebellion. Yet those were the charges used in delivering a death sentence to a political party. Lawmakers were even ordered to relinquish their seats without any basis in the Constitution or law. This is no mere constitutional judgment - it’s an abuse of authority.

This ruling does great damage to South Korea as a society. The UPP’s forced disbanding means that party freedoms and the freedom of political association, two of the key elements in a democratic system, will be severely constrained. Many people who agreed with progressive principles could now see themselves cast out of the system, their political views portrayed as unconstitutional or “pro-North Korea.” We can only imagine the kind of conflict and confrontation this will bring. Today it’s the UPP that’s being cast out; who knows who will be next?

The Constitutional Court exists as a result of the 1987 Constitution. Now that very institution is repudiating the spirit of democratic tolerance and reciprocal recognition at the heart of the ’87 system. It’s a scar that will not soon heal. The eight-to-one balance of judges in favor of the disbanding will also raise questions about whether the court truly reflects the balance of opinions in the country today. Indeed, it may even raise fundamental questions about the grounds for the court’s existence in the first place. That’s what happens when the court risks hurting itself to strike a blow against democracy.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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