So I should preface this post by noting that I am not a lawyer, I have never lived in Korea, and I am certainly no expert on Korean law.
I also have never made nor eaten rice pizza.
I am a little knowledgable of U.S. defamation law, and I was curious about Korean defamation law. Of course what you hear is that it’s horrible, horrible, in no small part because, unlike in the United States, a statement can be deemed defamatory even if it is true. But honestly, “their laws are horrible!” is what you always hear about every other country’s laws–Americans are very chauvinistic about their legal system and tend to think it’s the only one (in the entire world! USA! USA! USA!) that protects people’s freedoms in any meaningful fashion.
A while back, Asian Junkie linked to a Website called KLawGuru, and the blogger there (who, if he isn’t really a Korean lawyer, does an excellent imitation of one) has posted quite a lot about Korean defamation law.
So I read it back then, and I’ve been thinking a lot about it now because of Block B’s recent announcement that they may go after haters legally.
KLawGuru has an interesting example of a case where someone was found guilty of so-called Cyber Defamation (i.e. on-line defamation), even though the statement was true. A fellow named Mr. Kim received botched plastic surgery and started a campaign against the clinic, even going so far as to hire a PR firm (!) to help him in his quest. The clinic sued for defamation and won.
Unlike offline defamation under the Criminal Act (형법), “Cyber Defamation” (via a true statement) always requires the element of “purposely to disparage.”
Normally, posting something “solely for the public interest” automatically negates the above “purposely to disparage” element.
So, a defendant such as Mr. Kim would have to argue what he did was “solely for the public interest.” I’m sure the argument was made.
Here, that argument was not recognized because the court probably felt Mr. Kim’s actions went overboard. His actions, as a whole, were probably seen as being (at least) partly retaliatory. They weren’t “solely for the public interest.” Had he posted just on “relevant” websites and done so less “systematically,” the outcome could have been different.
Now in the United States, this Mr. Kim could not have been punished for defamation, because his statement was true, plus the statement itself would probably not be considered injurious enough to the clinic’s reputation (he’d have to spice things up by claiming the procedure was botched because the doctor was drunk or something). But I’m pretty sure that Mr. Kim would have been punished for something–he sounds like he was completely off his rocker.
And look at the result of Mr. Kim’s conviction: Because what he said was true (which results in less penalties than if the defamatory statement is a lie), he was fined 3 million won (a couple of thousand dollars). I could totally see someone who started up a vendetta against a clinic in the United States facing a similar penalty–it just wouldn’t be for defamation. Harassment, stalking, interference with commerce–there’s plenty there to protect a business from a vengeful client.
Indeed, if an American court found against someone who was hassling a clinic that botched his plastic surgery, the logic behind it would be very similar: You’ve gone past the point of fair restitution, you’ve gone past the point of serving the public interest, you are just engaged in some vendetta. That is not OK.
Certainly in the United States (and I’m guessing this would be true in Korea as well) if Mr. Kim hadn’t been the one who was actually damaged–he just thought someone else might have been damaged–the likelihood of him being found guilty would be much higher, and the penalty would be more severe.
Which brings us to Block B: Back in 2012, the guys said that they didn’t like rice pizza.
This was seized upon and repeated over and over again by people who were in no way damaged by this statement as evidence that the members of Block B were horrible people.
It seems pretty reasonable that this would become legally actionable as defamation in Korea very quickly (even though no one is questioning the fact that Block B said they didn’t like rice pizza).
After all, what is the public benefit of telling everyone that Block B doesn’t like rice pizza?
It’s not just that the public benefit is obscure–people are bringing this incident up specifically because they want everyone to believe that the members of Block B are horrible people!
Hm, that seems like it would fit the “purposely to disparage” standard very nicely….
This gets even more interesting with something like the Thailand scandal, because the common refrain is that Block B did not engage in self-reflection.
Public apology, head-shaving, many months on hiatus, a nervous breakdown, repeated mentions of how tough it was, much more appropriate responses to other disasters…at what point would a Korean court decide that claiming that Block B did not engage in self-reflection is a lie?
Why would that be interesting? Because while you can be convicted of defamation in Korea if you tell the truth, if you’re convicted of it for telling a lie, the penalties get much more severe, including jail time.
Indeed, one of the Tablo haters went to jail for falsely claiming that Tablo had never attended Stanford University. Tellingly, another who was convicted of defamation appealed, but the conviction was upheld. Right now, it looks like one of the Seo Ji Soo haters may well go to jail for defamation because they appear to have violated the terms of their settlement.
I think it says something about the K-Pop subculture that the people in it are that out of touch with Korean law–even when they get into trouble, they can’t seem to accept that they may have done something illegal, so they make the situation worse. I’m guessing it’s a result of that whole history of the industry encouraging fans to think of K-Pop idols as some lesser form of human being who exists only for their pleasure. It’s honestly a little alarming to see people scoff at the threat of legal action when the law is so strict and other people have so recently gotten into trouble for the same thing.