SEOUL — There was a time when South Korean students held clandestine meetings, passing around tattered copies of "Das Kapital," risking the possibility of torture or imprisonment by a military dictatorship that banned any books suspected of being “red.”
Much has changed. Now, young people walk the streets of Seoul wearing Che Guevara T-shirts and socialism is freely discussed in classrooms. People exercise their intellectual curiosity with no boundaries in all but one pocket of society: the military.
South Korean males, once they report for their two years of mandatory military service, find themselves stripped of their rights to read certain books deemed by the armed forces to be inappropriate.
The list of “troublesome” books included a 2008 bestseller “Bad Samaritans,” written by Cambridge University professor Chang Ha-joon. The book deals with what is described as the myth of free trade and illustrates how a large number of economic powers reached their status using protectionist measures.
There were also two works by author and linguist Noam Chomsky, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “What Uncle Sam Really Wants” and “The Conquest Continues.”
Chomsky at the time commented on the issue in an email to a group of Internet users who had read the "subversive" books, saying that the name “Ministry of National Defense” should be changed to the “Ministry of Defense against Freedom and Democracy,” according to Hankyoreh, a South Korean daily.
A list of those books labeled “subversive” was leaked to the public last year, leading to a Constitutional Court petition and the discharge of the two military judicial officers who leaked it. The action was not well received by the public.
Young South Koreans, particularly, said they could not understand why such books should be considered subversive. South Korea has seen four presidents take office under peaceful elections since military governance ended in the country in 1993, when the first civilian administration came to power.
Rarely does the younger generation feel the presence of an enemy across the heavily fortified border dividing South Korea from the communist North, nor do young people understand the restrictions imposed on their freedoms as a consequence.
“I think the military is way behind its times,” said Hwang Minhyuk, 27, a graduate student who finished his military service in 2004. “I mean, there may be societies where controlling information could work in a good way, but in a country like this where information flows freely, it’ll simply have the opposite effect.”
Hwang said he was surprised to hear about the banned books, because he did not experience much censorship of his reading material during two years of service, carried out under two liberal presidents. He believes the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration that took power in 2008 is one of the causes.
The Ministry of Defense said it banned books after receiving intelligence reports citing plans from a certain student organization, known for its pro-North Korean stance, to donate specific books with the intent of influencing soldiers’ political viewpoints. According to a ministry spokesman, the books were deemed infectious to the minds of soldiers.
The student organization, called Hanchongyeon, could not be reached for comment on the issue.
“It’s a result of ignorance, if anything,” said Park Myung-lim, political science professor at Yonsei University’s graduate school of area studies. “The problem is they randomly included such a vast range of books that aren’t at all subversive, making the issue almost comical.”
Park does not deny the fact that such restrictions are necessary to some extent. After all, the South is technically still at war with the North. The Korean War ended with the signing of an armistice in 1953, not a peace treaty.
“The military probably felt the need to put an emphasis on the soldiers’ moral education as the North and South relationship started souring,” the professor added, though he did not hesitate to refer to the recent incident as a “ridiculous fiasco.”
Inspecting books read by soldiers is not a new practice. Rather, checks are conducted on a regular basis. Books that receive approval are labeled and returned to their owners. Others are confiscated or sent back to the civilian world.
“Books with red covers are usually inspected first, and then those with the words ‘North Korea’ in them are next,” said a university student who recently finished his military service. He did not want to be named out of concern that he might be breaching a confidentiality agreement.
One of the most absurd cases he experienced was the confiscation of a copy of “Norwegian Wood,” by the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. The novel, which deals with one man's reflections on his experiences as a college student in Japan in the 1960s, with loss and sexuality as the main themes, has been translated into English and Korean, among various other languages.
“I mean it’s just so out of touch with reality,” he said.
More GlobalPost dispatches on South Korea: