Internet censorship in South Korea and how to bypass blocks

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South Korea is a technologically advanced and well developed Asian nation with a population of 51.5 million people. It is a large island country with poverty rates of around 15%. The average income is around $1200.

Despite some problems with poverty, especially among its aging population, South Korea is a country that enjoys a high rate of internet connection (95.1%). That means South Korea eclipses many other advanced economies around the globe. This is primarily due to investment in infrastructure and the cheap cost of an internet connection in the country, where around 88% of people have a mobile internet connection.

Political overview

South Korea is a presidential representative democratic republic with a multi-party system. In this system, the president is the head of state and the prime minister the head of government; which wields executive power. The president is voted directly every five years for a single term, and the prime minister is chosen by the president and the national assembly.

Legislative power is split between the government and the National Assembly, meaning that it is a unicameral system. The judiciary is independent and is made up of a Supreme Court, appellate courts, and a Constitutional Court.

South Korea’s electoral process and political system are rated highly by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which rates it as the highest Asian nation, a testament to the country’s fair and open elections.

In South Korea, people are able to form new opposition parties with ease and dissenting political opinions can be expressed. Minority parties are represented in the National Assembly, though they are largely dominated by two main parties – the liberal Democratic party and the conservative Liberty Korea party.

However, international observers claim there still remains some corruption within both the political class and in business – involving bribery and extortion. Perhaps the biggest problem facing South Korean politics is a general lack of transparency, which permits certain levels of corruption to go unnoticed. This is one aspect of policy that Moon Jae has promised to reform.

Censorship

In South Korea there is an unrestricted and open media that are able to report on policies and to express dissenting political opinions. In addition, the competitive media often reports on government corruption and corporate wrongdoing.

However, news topics that are seen to be supportive or complementary of North Korea are subject to censorship throughout the country. The country also has pretty harsh defamation laws, which can cause journalists to be imprisoned for up to seven years.

Broadcasting and telecommunication in the country are regulated by the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) and the content and ethical standards of online content is monitored by the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC).

KCSC enforces technical filtering and takedowns of any website content that is deemed to benefit or support North Korea. In addition, any content that undermines the social and moral standards of the nation are blocked. This leads to restrictions on content related to gambling, drugs, obscenity/pornography, violation of laws and regulations. In 2017, it is thought that 66,659 websites or pages were blocked and another 15,499 deleted. New filtering techniques have been reported that allow the government to use SNI filtering to block HTTPS versions of websites that used to slip through the net. Finally, KCSC is known to close down accounts on social media services such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube if they are found to support North Korea.

Surveillance

As recently as 2011, Reporters Without Borders named South Korea as one of the world’s countries that is "under surveillance”. This is due to the KCC’s constant tracking of cyberspace – carried out in order to ensure that citizens are not breaking the law or supporting North Korea.

Activists claim that the government has been involved in tapping their communications on the messenger KakaoTalk. This led to South Korean users migrating to foreign-owned messengers thought to be outside of the control of South Korean intelligence.

In 2015, leaked information revealed that the South Korean government had purchased sophisticated hacking tools from the Italian firm Hacking Team. Those hacking tools permit KCC to attack a citizen's computer to perform key logging, to access data, to snoop on Skype conversations, and to turn on microphones and cameras (among other things).

Thus, it would appear that South Korea is actively engaging in considerable high-level surveillance practices. The government has denied using spyware to snoop on citizens and claims it was for use against North Korea.

An anti-terrorism law passed in 2016, further extended South Korean intelligence ability to invade citizens' privacy. The law permits the National Intelligence Service (NIS) to access citizen’s travel records, financial records, private communications, location data, and any other personal information. Those records can be accessed without a warrant on suspicion alone. In order to comply with requests for data, local ISPs must retain records for one year.

In South Korea, copyright piracy is illegal and carries a prison term of up to three years and a fine of up to $2650.

Despite this, piracy is South Korea is pervasive and citizens' access both international and local P2P file sharing and torrent repositories to download pirated content. ISPs do not block access to popular international torrent repositories such as uTorrent and the Pirate Bay.

On the whole, it is thought that pirating international content can be undertaken without too much concern, but the government takes a much harsher line on citizens that download pirated South Korean content.

Written by: Ray Walsh

Digital privacy expert with 5 years experience testing and reviewing VPNs. He's been quoted in The Express, The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & many more. 

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