You wouldn’t have to live in Korea for too long to become aware of the many unwritten laws and precedents of etiquette that lord over sections of the society. In a country that is being flung so far into the future by its rapid technological growth that it jostles for position on the world stage, Korea is also stretched by the past, with its hunger to hold onto its cultural identity and traditions.
Maybe it’s this that contributes to the increasing divide between ‘public’ and ‘private’, ‘family’ and ‘company’, ‘old’ and ‘new’. In other words, the role you are playing compared to the person you really are. Blur the lines between the two and you could use it to your advantage. Get it wrong as a foreigner and it could be the end of your run in Korea.
Defamation and the lawsuit that will inevitably follow have become increasingly more common in Korea. As foreigners, we’ll mostly hear about them through various social media outlets: people asking legal advice for dealing with their employers; others concerned that previous employers have blackened their name and future employment prospects. But specifically, it is Korea’s ‘Cyber Defamation’ law that is causing most uproar among foreigners who don’t know just how easily the law is to break.
We spoke to Chris, an English Teacher in Seoul, about his experience:
“So, I was at a restaurant a few years ago in Incheon. Everyone was loud and drunk and it was nearing the end of the night. I paid my tab and stumbled home, somehow losing my wallet in the process. Around evening the next day I retraced my steps from the previous night but found no sign of it anywhere. I thought, ‘I might as well ask the restaurant’, and to my complete surprise was given access to the CCTV footage of the previous night. There I was laughing around with friends, and there was my wallet sat on the table beside a friend. Fast-forward a few minutes and it was gone. I felt sick as it suddenly dawned on me what happened. Rewind a few seconds and there it was, clear as day, he slipped it into his jacket”.
Unfortunately for Chris, what he did next set in motion a series of incidents that brought him close to the prospect of either fleeing Korea or ending up in jail.
“Because I knew who the guy was, I called him. I got my wallet back with a meek apology twenty minutes later. He said he was looking after it, that we were all too drunk to care for our things, that it was meant to be a joke. He panicked, basically, knowing that I knew his true intentions and asked that I don’t tell the police.”
“I didn’t know what to do. I kept watching the video that I had taken from the restaurant’s CCTV over and over. I loaded it onto Facebook, then I deleted it. Then I posted it into a chat group with friends. Understandably the people were outraged. They convinced me to make a statement to the Police, which I did. Then I flew to America on vacation the following day and thought nothing of it”.
Article 70 (Penal Provisions) – a person who commits defamation of another person by disclosing a fact to the public through an information and communications network purposely to disparage his/her reputation shall be punished by imprisonment, with or without prison labor, for not more than three years, or by a fine not exceeding 20 millions won.
“I was at home when I got the call. I can’t even remember if it was from the Police or from a Lawyer. The voice at the end of the phone asked me to confirm my identity and to return to Korea to answer to the charges of defamation and slander. I was being sued. “
Many people might have not returned at this point. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Here I was, the victim of a crime and now I could potentially end up paying a huge fine, being deported or even face jail time with hard labor. I had read everything I could find about Korea’s strict slander and libel laws. I made an appointment with a lawyer and he told me that it’ll ‘probably just’ end in deportation and a fine for me. I was gob smacked.’
What the lawyer proposed was that the man who had allegedly taken the wallet had his reputation ruined by what Chris had posted onto social media. The lawyer told Chris that, by doing what he had, the man was actually being punished twice. Once by the law, and then once more by his social circle. ‘Face’ and reputation were ruined. Totally unlike laws the U.S.
“The stress was unbelievable. I assumed that by taking someone else’s belongings without their approval would be enough for them to ruin their own reputation. He certainly didn’t need my help.” With that, Chris decided to fly back to Korea early to answer the charges.
Before cases go to trial, there is often a period in which both parties can come together, usually at a police station, to discuss a financial settlement. This is known as ‘hupi’. Although Chris was not offered this at any time throughout the process, he said he would have gladly paid the man to drop the case and let him go on with his life.
“Once I returned to Korea I made an appointment and went to the Police station. I was there for five hours and it was my birthday. It was horrible. I knew that every word I said would be scrutinized and could eventually be used to evict me from the country I’d grown to love. The police had complete transcripts of the chatroom.
“Why did you post this video to social media?”, they asked over and over.”
“Knowing what I then knew about the defamation laws, I knew that I was expected to say that I wanted everyone to know what had happened. That I had intentionally sought to destroy this man’s reputation”
In the U.S or UK, this would have been a perfectly acceptable thing to say. Almost anywhere, actually, besides China and Korea – both of which take Cyber Defamation incredibly seriously. It is damage and not the truth that is the basis for what determines slander here.
“I told them that I didn’t know why I posted the video. I said that I was overwhelmed with anger and that I hadn’t thought properly. I said that had it been a joke, like I was told, then maybe some of my friends would be in on it and explain the situation. I stated over and over that I was confused and that I in no way intended to tarnish this guy’s reputation. They eventually took my fingerprints and let me leave.”
It might be a surprise to some just how heavy the punishment for defamation can be: imprisonment for a maximum of three years, with or without hard labor and a fine to the value of 20million Won.
“I don’t know how a case of defamation can carry a heavier punishment than what looked very much like theft. It made no sense that it was me who was suddenly defending myself”
Chris’ case was eventually dropped by the courts due to a lack of evidence, but the events have had a lasting effect on him. He now uses social media vary rarely and is brief in all his online interactions with everyone but family.
“It was a tough time for me. It made me so angry to know that so many people will unknowingly find themselves in a similar situation. For me, suing was nothing to do with how his reputation was hurt. If he had have won the case, socially it would have exonerated him of any blame at all. That’s the most disappointing thing”
Chris wanted to share his story to help prevent others making the same mistakes he did. There are some similarities between western society and life here in Korea, but while Korea clings to elements of its Confucian past, the laws are unlikely to change anytime soon.
And some people will always take advantage of the system.
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