SEOUL — In the history of South Korea’s fight for democracy, the 1980 uprising in Gwangju stands out as one of the proudest moments. Thousands of ordinary citizens took to the streets to protest a military dictatorship, and hundreds were shot down by security forces. The bloody incident has been sanctified in textbooks as the “Gwangju Democratization Movement.”
Right-wing extremists, however, have offered an alternative, highly inflammatory view of what happened: Gwangju, they say, was not a heroic sacrifice for democracy, but a “riot” instigated by North Korean communists who had infiltrated the protest movement.
Such conspiracy theories, which few historians take seriously, have been spreading quickly in South Korea, where a political divide — rooted in the country’s torturous and often violent modern history — is being amplified online.
President Moon Jae-in’s governing party has rolled out a slate of legislation, some of which has already become law, aimed at stamping out false narratives about certain sensitive historical topics, including Gwangju. His supporters say he is protecting the truth. Free speech advocates, and Mr. Moon’s conservative enemies, have accused the president of using censorship and history as political weapons.
Democracies around the world are struggling to deal with the corrosive effects of social media and disinformation on politics, debating whether and where to draw lines between fake news and free speech. In the United States and elsewhere, the debate has focused on the power of social media companies, castigated on the left for spreading hatred and false conspiracy theories, and on the right for banning users like Donald J. Trump.
But few democratic countries have sought to police speech to the extent that South Korea is considering, and a debate is underway about whether the efforts to squelch misinformation will lead to broader censorship or encourage authoritarian ambitions.
“Whether I am right or wrong should be decided through free public debate, the engine of democracy,” said Jee Man-won, a leading proponent of the theory of North Korean involvement in Gwangju. “Instead, the government is using its power to dictate history.”
Arguments over which messages to allow and which to suppress are often about national history and identity. In the United States, debates rage about the influence of racism and slavery in the nation’s past and present, and about how to teach those topics in school. Supporters of the new laws say they do what Germany has done in attacking the lie of Holocaust denial.
South Korea has long prided itself on its commitment to free speech, but it is also a country where going against the mainstream can have steep consequences.
Historical issues, like collaboration with Japanese colonialists or wartime civilian massacres, have divided the country for decades. Defamation is a criminal offense. Under the bills pushed by Mr. Moon’s party, promoting revisionist narratives about sensitive subjects like Gwangju or the “comfort women” — Korean sex slaves for Japan’s World War II army — could also be a crime.
With the crackdown on misinformation, Mr. Moon is living up to a campaign promise to give Gwangju its rightful place in history. But by criminalizing so-called “historical distortions,” he is also stepping into a political minefield.
The Korea History Society and 20 other historical research institutes issued a joint statement last month warning that Mr. Moon’s progressive government, which presents itself as a champion of the democratic values secured through sacrifices like Gwangju, was actually undermining them by using the threat of criminal penalties to dictate history.
A law sponsored by Mr. Moon’s party, which took effect in January, mandates up to five years in prison for people who spread “falsehoods” about Gwangju. The party’s lawmakers also submitted a bill in May that calls for up to 10 years in prison for those who praise Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945.
The bill would set up a panel of experts on “truthful history” to detect distortions — and order corrections — in interpretations of sensitive historical topics, including killings of civilians during the Korean War and human rights violations under past military dictators.
Yet another bill from the party would criminalize “denying” or “distorting or falsifying facts” about a much more recent event, the sinking of the ferry Sewol in 2014, a disaster that killed hundreds of students and humiliated the conservative government then in power. Conservative lawmakers, for their part, submitted a bill last month that would punish those who deny that North Korea sank a South Korean naval ship in 2010.
“It’s a populist approach to history, appealing to widespread anti-Japanese sentiment to consolidate their political power,” said Kim Jeong-in, head of the Korea History Society, referring to the bill on Japanese colonial rule. “Who’s going to study colonial-era history if their research results are judged at a court of law?”
Family members of the Gwangju protesters welcomed Mr. Moon’s attempts to punish purveyors of disinformation who disparage them.
“As if our loss of siblings and parents was not painful enough, they have been vilifying us as stooges of North Korean agents,” said Cho Young-dae, a nephew of the late Cho Pius, a Catholic priest in Gwangju who participated in the uprising and testified years later about the killings. “They have abused the freedom of expression to add insult to our injury.”
Mr. Cho, who is also a priest, said Gwangju survivors had suffered too long while people like Mr. Jee spread false information about the massacre. “We need a South Korean version of the Holocaust law to punish those who beautify the Gwangju atrocity, as European countries have laws against Holocaust denial,” he said.
Recent surveys have found that the biggest conflict dividing Korean society is between progressives and conservatives, both of whom are eager to shape and censor history and textbooks to their advantage.
Conservative dictators once arrested, tortured and executed dissidents in the name of a National Security Act that criminalized “praising, inciting or propagating” any behavior deemed pro-North Korean or sympathetic to communism.
Conservatives today want history to highlight the positive aspects of their heroes — such as Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s authoritarian founding president, and Park Chung-hee, a military dictator — and their success in fighting communism and lifting the country out of poverty after the Korean War.
Progressives often emphasize the underbelly of the conservative dictatorship, like the killings in Gwangju. They also denounce those they call “chinil,” pro-Japanese Koreans who they say collaborated with colonial leaders and thrived during the Cold War by rebranding themselves as anti-communist crusaders.
Yet Mr. Jee says there are progressives who harbor communist views that threaten the country’s democratic values.
Much of this debate is being carried out online, where some highly partisan podcasters and YouTubers have as many viewers as national television programs do.
“Ideally, conspiracy theories and irrational ideas should be dismissed or marginalized through the market of public opinion,” said Park Sang-hoon, chief political scientist at the Political Power Plant, a Seoul-based civic group. “But they have become part of the political agenda here.” Mainstream media is “helping them gain legitimacy,” he said.
During the Gwangju uprising, a handful of journalists were able to slip through the military cordon around the city. They found mothers wailing over the bodies of loved ones. A “citizens’ army” carried weapons commandeered from police stations, as people on the sidewalks chanted “Down with dictatorship!” The protesters dug into a government building for their last, doomed standoff against the army.
To many South Koreans, the protesters in Gwangju won. Students across the country followed in their footsteps and rose up against the junta.
Chun Doo-hwan, the army general who had seized power in a military coup before the protests, blamed “vicious rioters” and “communist agitators” for the violence. In the late 1990s, he was convicted of sedition and mutiny in connection with the coup and the killings in Gwangju. (He was later pardoned.)
“Thanks to the sacrifice in Gwangju, our democracy could survive and stand again,” Mr. Moon said when he visited the city shortly after his election in 2017. He said the spirit of Gwangju had been “reincarnated” in the mass protests that ousted his predecessor, Park Geun-hye — the dictator Park Chung-hee’s daughter — and warned against “intolerable” attempts to “distort and disparage” the 1980 uprising.
But Mr. Jee said his experience voicing nonconformist historical views should be a warning to South Koreans. In 2002, he placed a newspaper advertisement claiming that Gwangju was a secret North Korean operation.
He was subsequently hauled to Gwangju in handcuffs and jailed for 100 days on defamation charges, until his prison term was eventually suspended.
He has since published 10 books on Gwangju and fought more defamation prosecutions. Although critics accused him of peddling wild conspiracy theories, his view has drawn a following.
“If they didn’t treat me the way they did in 2002, I would not have come this far,” he said.