Satirical portrayals of president spark censorship row in South Korea

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A satirical art exhibition in South Korea’s National Assembly in Seoul was abruptly cancelled and forcibly removed the day before it was scheduled to open. It is the latest in a series of censorship controversies centred on negative portrayals of the country’s president.

The exhibition, Goodbye in Seoul, was organised by 32 artists and co-sponsored by 12 liberal lawmakers. It was initially approved by the National Assembly secretariat (a government body) on the understanding that it would take aim at people in positions of power.

Among the works on display was a parody of Goya’s The Colossus (1808-12), depicting the country’s president, Yoon Suk-yeol, topless and wielding a sword in front of his wife. Several caricatures featured the presidential couple and their relationship with a Rasputin-like Taoist guru who is believed to serve as their advisor. Some works criticised the government’s bungled response to the recent Halloween crowd crush incident in Seoul, when 159 people died.

Lee Gu-young’s The Oversized and Obnoxious Colossus Roaming Over Democracy in the Goodbye in Seoul exhibition

After the exhibition was installed, the secretariat suddenly invoked regulations governing the use of spaces within the parliamentary building, and removed more than 70 pieces from the lobby of the building the night before the exhibition’s launch on 9 January.

‘Clearly censorship’

The secretariat stated that, according to bylaws, an event that is deemed to potentially “infringe on individual rights, public morals, and social ethics, including those slandering specific individuals and groups” may be prohibited.

Caricatures satirising the South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol installed in the lobby of the National Assembly on 8 January 2023

“It’s clearly censorship,” says the cartoonist and Goodbye in Seoul’s organising committee head Ko Gyoung-il, claiming that the National Assembly’s actions exposed the “lie” that South Korea is a nation that prioritises arts and culture.

“I am more angry that politicians don’t think this was a big deal,” Ko says, pointing out that similar events occurred during the country’s turbulent years of military rule. “We intend to file a lawsuit seeking damages and a formal apology.”

In a statement, the conservative ruling People Power Party said that while freedom of expression is guaranteed under the constitution, using it to “destroy the constitution by ridiculing and slandering the president elected by the people” is never justified.

This latest case of censorship in South Korea is part of a larger trend to limit freedoms when the president is shown in a bad light.

Lee Ha’s The Emperor’s New Clothes Courtesy of the artist

The exhibition also featured Lee Ha’s work, which depicted the president taking off a royal robe while the face of the First Lady covered his crotch. Police recently investigated the artist after he posted copies of the same work near the presidential office last September. The case has now been handed over to the prosecution.

Last October, the government took issue with a satirical cartoon drawn by a high school student depicting the president as a runaway train being led by his wife. The culture ministry issued a “stern warning” to the organisers of the state-funded cartoon festival that awarded the work a prize, implying that it had been plagiarised.

Artists’ organisations strongly condemned the ministry’s move, raising concerns about a cultural “blacklist” that existed under the previous conservative government. The former culture minister, Cho Yoon-sun, drew up a list of thousands of artists and cultural figures to be excluded from government arts subsidies on political grounds; Cho was later arrested.

Artists of the Goodbye in Seoul exhibition protested the shut down of their exhibition in National Assembly on 9 January 2023.

Pressure on the media has also increased under the current administration. MBC, a major broadcaster, was recently denied access to the presidential jet after accusations that it had produced “fake news” in reporting Yoon Suk-yeol’s swearing on “hot mic” after meeting the US president Joe Biden. The incident sparked accusations of press censorship and was condemned by the International Federation of Journalists.

For cartoonist Ko Gyoung-il, freedom of expression through satire is a battle that must be fought at all costs. “China can’t do it; North Korea can’t do it; Japan doesn’t do it—South Korea is the only country capable of it,” he says, referring to the responsibility he feels for his art form. “If South Korea falters, so does East Asia’s last bastion of free speech.”

Goodbye in Seoul has relocated to Bunker 1, a café space in Seoul owned by a liberal radio presenter, and is on display until 9 February.

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