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South Korea: Jail sentence for man who praised North an attack on freedom of expression

Responding to the sentencing of a South Korean man, Lee Yoon-seop, to 14 months in prison for praising North Korea in a poem, Amnesty International’s East Asia Researcher Boram Jang said:

“South Korean authorities must drop all charges against Lee Yoon-seop, who has been sentenced to jail simply for exercising his right to freedom of expression. Writing a poem does not a pose a threat to security.

“South Korea’s National Security Act, under which Lee Yoon-seop has been prosecuted and convicted, has repeatedly been used to censor, intimidate and imprison people deemed to have praised North Korea.

“Although there is a unique geopolitical situation in the country, it does not justify unlawful restrictions on freedom of expression that violate international standards. Any such limitations must remain necessary and proportionate to address actual threats to national security.

“The National Security Act should not be used arbitrarily to harass, arrest or silence those who are only peacefully exercising their right to freedom of opinion and expression.

“The South Korean authorities must abolish or substantially amend this law – in particular its Article 7 – so that it complies with international human rights law.”


On 27 November 2023, the Seoul Central District Court sentenced Lee Yoon-seop, 68, to 14 months in prison after charging him with violating the National Security Act.

In 2016, Lee’s poem praising the North Korean regime won a contest held by North Korea’s state website ‘Uriminjokkiri’.

The court said: “The defendant has produced and distributed a significant number of subversive expressions that represent North Korea’s position, glorify and praise it, and threaten the existence and security of the country or the basic liberal democratic order over a long period of time during the period of repeated offenses, so it is inevitable that he will be severely punished.”

In November 2023, the UN Human Rights Committee said it remains concerned that prosecutions continue to be brought under the National Security Act, and in particular under the excessively vague wording of Article 7 of the Act. The Committee continued to be concerned by the chilling effect that criminal defamation laws and the National Security Act had on freedom of expression in South Korea.

Article 7 of the National Security Act bans “praising or propagating activities of any anti-state organization and possession or distribution of pro-enemy materials”. On 26 September 2023, Article 7 was ruled constitutional for the eighth time.