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Why Korean Soldiers Are Banned From Reading Chomsky and Ha-joon Chang

Screen Shot 2014-05-16 at 2.53.32 PM   Screen Shot 2014-05-16 at 2.53.20 PM

Left: Guerrillas of the Samsung Empire, Pressian Books, 2008
Right: Bad Samaritans, Ha-Joon Chang, 2007

In 2008, the National Ministry of Defence was found to have produced a list of 23 “Anti-governmental” books and  officially banned them from  the military. An investigation found that under this regulation, all Korean soldiers are banned from reading and possessing them, and are subject to having their possessions searched when returning from a holiday (Pressian) (Reminder: All Korean men above the age of 18 must serve in the military for 2 years).

The Seoul Central District Court ruled against the first lawsuit filed by 11 publishers and 11 authors in 2012, and the Seoul High Court against the lawsuit by 11 publishers and 11 authors in 2013 (News1). In both cases, the publishers and authors claimed 200 million KRW (200,000 USD) in damages caused by this censorship. However, the High Court said this action could not be classified as a censorship nor as a violation of the freedom of press, since (a) the books were not banned from the general public;  (b) the public was not banned from expressing opinions voiced in them;  and that (c) since the ban is only imposed on soldiers it will not discourage the general population from reading them (In fact, Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans saw phenomenal sales that year).

While I have not read most of the listed books, I find it funny that such a list exists. When my parents were at university, Marx was banned, so people used to smuggle German editions of Das Kapital and circulate them secretly (Truth be told, placing a ban on something makes it suddenly seem so cool, doesn’t it?) It is a little disturbing the book on Samsung has been specifically banned though – I will look it up at the university library, and post an update as soon as possible.

Also, this list has no real influence on the soldiers who are conscripted – If anything, it has had the opposite impact. I remember when one of my friends was in the military in 2010, I asked him what he’d been doing for the 2 days he’d been out, and he replied: “Well, duh, reading Bad Samaritans“.

It really is a simple formality institutions like the military have to keep in place just for the sake of it. Several news articles have stated the reason for this ban as “keeping good morale“.

In summary, the “ban” has no real-life influence, on both soldiers and civilians. But it’s funny the government felt the need to implement it anyways.


The books under the ban are classified under three categories. I’ve listed a few of the titles (roughly translated by me), with the full Korean list at the bottom:

1. Propaganda for North Korea (date published in Korea)
– North Korea’s Missile Strategy (Kwak Dong-gi et al, 2006)
– North Korea’s ‘Woori’ (Nationalist) Culture (Joo Gang-hyun, 2000)
– Why the 80% are ruled by the 20% (Park Jun-sung et al, 2007)
– What Uncle Sam Really Wants (Noam Chomsky, 2007)
– Reunification: Korea’s Last Blue Ocean (Jeon Sang-bong, 2007)

2. Anti-Government / Anti-US
– Crimes of the US Army and SOFA (Doori Media, 2002)
– Bad Samaritans (Chang Ha-joon, 2007)
– History of Korea (Han Heung-gu, 2003)
– 21st Century Philosophy (21c Korea Research Institute, 2004)
– Year 501: The Conquest Continues (Noam Chomsky, 2001)

3. Anti-Capitalist
– The Global Trap: Globalization and the Assault on Prosperity and Democracy (Hans Peter-Martin, 2003)
– Guerrillas Of The Samsung Empire (Pressian Books, 2008)
– An Unfamiliar Colony: Korea-US FTA (Lee Hae-young, 2006)
– A Study Of The 1920s Socialist Movement In Korea (Jeon Myung-hyeok, 2006)
– A Reflection On Korean Society, Post-1997 (Kim Dong-chun, 2003)


 The Banned Books list obtained by Hankyoreh (2008)

Note: Pressian, Hankyoreh and Kyunghyang are generally considered left-wing (progressive) press, whereas Chosun, Joongang and Donga are considered right-wing (conservative). I could not find articles covering this ban from the latter group.

This entry was posted in: Personal


Internationally lost since 2000, Emily was born in Seoul, raised in India, and has been living and studying in France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands since 2014. A translator and interpreter by profession, she enjoys talking and debating just about anything.

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