SEOUL — Artist Shin Hak Chul landed in jail last summer because of his fans--the paper kind.
A student project to reprint one of Shin's oil paintings on hand-held paper fans caught the discriminating eye of an art critic in the anti-Communist bureau of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Headquarters.
Never mind that Shin's work, "Rice Planting," was painted in obscurity two years ago. Authorities now think it glorifies North Korea by depicting a Utopian scene of smiling peasants near Mt. Paekdu, an icon of the north, and vilifies South Korea with cartoon-like images of foreign imperialism being shoved into the sea.
Shin, 45, a former high school teacher, was arrested Aug. 17 under the National Security Law for spreading anti-state propaganda with his brush.
Phobia of North
His legal troubles epitomize a kind of North Korea phobia that has gripped the country for six confusing months, ever since a dissident pastor sneaked into the forbidden land above the 38th Parallel on a free-lance diplomatic mission to promote the cause of Korean reunification.
A judge last Thursday handed down sentences of 10 years in prison for the pastor, Moon Ik Hwan, and his companion on the journey. Authorities also arrested several other illicit travelers, including a woman university student who traveled to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to attend the World Festival of Youth, which was hosted by the Communist regime last July.
And an opposition lawmaker, who went to North Korea last year and is now on trial, claimed in court the other day that he was drugged and tortured by intelligence agents into confessing to espionage. Even South Korea's top opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung, has been indicted for violating the National Security Law by allegedly failing to inform authorities of the lawmaker's trip.
Although the recent spate of unofficial contacts with North Korea raises some legitimate national security concerns--the two Koreas remain technically at war and are engaged in a shrill propaganda contest--the Seoul government's crackdown has some chilling overtones. Some critics contend that the government is lapsing into an old practice of rationalizing human rights abuses under the banner of keeping North Korea at bay.
Freedom of speech and of the press are under attack. Shortly after lifting a ban on literature about North Korea in a new spirit of reconciliation last year, authorities began seizing such publications and arresting those who dared to print them. On Sept. 28, a Seoul court sentenced the head of a progressive think tank to 18 months in prison for possessing copies of North Korean books.
"Perhaps some of the bans have been reinstated, but I don't think we have returned to the old days," said Lee Hong Ku, minister of the National Unification Board. "Although there are some restrictions, there has not been a government decision to change policy."
North Korean newspapers and books remain available to the public at open stacks in government libraries, he noted.
Yet, despite a series of amnesties under the administration of President Roh Tae Woo, prisons are once again filled with dissidents--the Justice Ministry reported to the National Assembly in September that 695 people were jailed on security-related charges during the first eight months of the year. Among these political prisoners were a number of writers and artists such as Shin, whose apparent offense was to provide grist for the North Korean propaganda mill.
"This is something we haven't seen for a long time," said Ed Poitras, a Methodist missionary and educator based in Seoul for more than three decades. "There's been a lot of opening up in artistic expression over the past few years, but recently it's beginning to turn around--there's a resurgence of political censorship. There have been some ominous signs."
5 Artists Arrested
Also in August, authorities arrested five artists in connection with a series of murals depicting scenes from popular revolts in Korean history, from a farmer's uprising in the Yi Dynasty to the 1980 citizen's rebellion in the provincial South Korean city of Kwangju. Their leader, Hong Sung Dam, 34, faces espionage charges for sending slides of the murals to Pyongyang, where they allegedly were shown during the youth festival.
Hong and another defendant claim they were tortured while in the custody of the Agency for National Security Planning, formerly known as the KCIA. A forensic pathologist from Seoul National University who examined Hong testified that the artist had bruises that were the result of a recent "battery and kicking."
Government officials insist they are adhering to due process in enforcing the letter of the National Security Law, which contains a vague catchall clause prohibiting any activity that might encourage or further the North Korean cause.