Weighing free expression versus security concerns, South Korea's Constitutional Court on Friday made an unprecedented ruling to dissolve a small left-wing party accused of being pro-North Korea.
Judges voted 8-1 in favor of disbanding the Unified Progressive Party, a small opposition party that Chief Justice Park Han-chul said was seeking to "undo South Korea's democratic order" and bring the country under "North Korea-style socialism."
South Korea's constitution has a clause that allows political parties to be disbanded if they pose a threat to the national order, but it had never been invoked until this case.
Park said that the UPP's five sitting lawmakers would be purged from parliament, and that the party would be prohibited from reforming under a different name.
The government submitted a petition for the party's dissolution earlier this year after several members were accused of plotting an insurrection to assist North Korea in the event of an inter-Korean war.
South Korean intelligence agents acquired tapes of a meeting held in Seoul, where the UPP members allegedly referred to North Korea's leaders using honorific titles and sang pro-North Korea songs. Such acts are illegal under South Korea's National Security Law.
Several members were convicted of plotting an insurrection. They included lawmaker Lee Seok-ki, who in February was sentenced to 12 years in prison. (In August, an appeals court reduced Lee's sentence to nine years).
After hearing Friday's ruling, UPP leader Lee Jung-hee said at a news conference that the party has no connection to or association with North Korea and called the court's order for dissolution an act of "political repression."
Amnesty International expressed concern over the ruling. "The ban on the UPP raises serious questions as to the authorities' commitment to freedom of expression and association," said Roseann Rife, the group's East Asia research director.
In his ruling, Park Han-chul said he hoped that the decision to disband the UPP would "end a long-running debate over political ideology in our country."
The specter of war with North Korea still hangs over much political discourse in South Korea, and "pro-North Korea" is often used as a slur to discredit opponents, particularly those on the political left.
Some left-leaning politicians argue that for the sake of pursuing reunification with North Korea, South Koreans should refrain from criticizing the North, even regarding its nuclear program and human rights abuses.
Fear of provoking North Korea still weighs on all kinds of decision-making in the South. On Friday, a South Korean Christian group canceled its plans to light a nearly 100-foot tall Christmas tree near the demilitarized zone, the heavily fortified border that separates South and North Korea.
North Korea had warned of retaliation if the tree was lit, and a representative from the Christian Council of Korea told Yonhap News Agency that though the group had good intentions with the tree, the display was called off out of concern of sparking "inter-Korean tension."