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South Korea: Government May Not Have Standing to Bring a Defamation Action

(Sept. 17, 2010) On September 15, 2010, the Central District Court of Seoul (a trial court) released a decision holding that in principle the government may not have standing to bring an action for defamation. This is the first case in South Korea on the issue of whether or not the government may be a plaintiff in a defamation action. (Ah Reum Kang, Court Ruled “Government Has No Standing for Defamation Action” [in Korean], HANKOOK ILBO (Sept. 15, 2010),

During an interview with a weekly news magazine in June 2009, Won Soon Park, a public interest attorney and the executive director of a civic organization in South Korea, stated that the National Intelligence Service (NIS) had investigated the corporations and their executives that financially supported civic organizations and that the investigation resulted in withdrawals of support by the corporations. Based on this statement, the Republic of Korea brought a defamation action against Park in September 2009, asserting that he had created the false impression that the NIS illegally investigated the citizens and forced them to act against their will. The government also asked for KRW 200,000,000 (approximately US$172,652) in damages. (Hye Jin Hong, Park's Statement on Investigation of Private Citizens Does Not Constitute Defamation [in Korean], JOONGANG ILBO (Sept. 15, 2010),|art

In the decision, the Court ruled that the government is obligated to protect the fundamental rights of the people but is not entitled to enjoy such rights itself. (Ah Reum Kang, supra.) The Court reasoned that whether the government is appropriately managing its tasks must be always subject to the general public's monitoring and criticism, and defamation actions brought by the government based on such criticism would intimidate freedom of speech and press. The decision also noted that the government has sufficient means to rebut, through the media or relevant governmental branches, any false information circulated against it. Although leaving room for exceptions of extremely imprudent statements or unjustifiable attacks against the government where it may have standing for a defamation action, the Court ruled that the government must still bear the burden of proof of “markedly malicious” action on the part of the defendant. The NIS failed to prove it in this case. (Soo Jung Lim, The Government May Sue for Defamation Only in Exceptional Cases [in Korean], YONHAP NEWS (Sept. 15, 2010),

Written by Helen Lee, Intern, Law Library of Congress, under the guidance of Sayuri Umeda, Senior Foreign Law Specialist.