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In election season, the wrong hat could land you in prison

A prison sentence or fine exceeding 1 million won for election law violations invalidates an election win

Supporters in MAGA hats have been a common sight on the campaign trail in the US in recent years, but in Korea that kind of promotion won’t wash.

According to Korea’s Public Official Election Act, a hat bearing a campaign slogan candidate can lead to a fine or even jail if the wearer is not a candidate or on the campaign staff.

This is one of several obscure clauses in addition to the more widely known rules such as prohibiting giving money out to voters, damaging candidates’ posters, and publishing the result of a public opinion poll less than six days before the election.

And an election win could become invalidated if the victor is sentenced to imprisonment or a fine of 1 million won ($848) or more for Election Act violations.

Even using factual information that damages an opponents image can be a tightrope walk.

Article 110 of the Public Official Election Act states that no one shall violate a candidate’s privacy by pointing out sensitive information for the purpose of election campaign, though it adds that it is not against the law if the information is true and in the public interest. The same rule is applied for the candidate’s spouse, children, parents and siblings. In this case, a violation could result in a prison term of up to three years or a fine of up to 5 million won.

The article also says publicly announcing false information about the birthplace, family relations, social status, occupation, property of a candidate, his or her spouse, parents, children or siblings is banned.

In September 2018, the Supreme Court confirmed a lower court’s ruling of giving Lee Jun-seo, a former senior official of the People’s Party, an 8-month prison sentence after Lee was found guilty of spreading false information about Moon Joon-yong, President Moon Jae-in‘s son, getting a job at a public institution in 2006 using the influence of his father. Lee held a press conference to provide the fabricated tip-off to the media on May 5, 2017, less than a week before the presidential election.

“Broad permission of raising weakly grounded suspicions will damage the candidate’s reputation, even if the suspicions are later shown to be untrue. It will also result in serious consequences of misleading voters’ choices in the imminent election, which will be significantly against the public interest,” the Supreme Court said.

“Therefore, raising suspicions about a candidate’s corruption cannot be allowed without limit, even if it has the purpose of verifying the eligibility for holding public post, and it should be only allowed when there is considerable reason to believe that such suspicions are true.”

It is also illegal to publish false information about whether certain individual or group supports the candidate. Violators could face a prison term of up to five years or a fine of up to 30 million won.

Under the act, anyone can raise an objection to the election commission based on the claim that what was published about a candidate is untrue. The election commission can then request for proof or relevant documents from candidates, parties, institutions and organizations.

During an election campaign period, street rallies are common for candidates. But there is a strict ban on house-to-house visits for a public official election.

According to the Public Official Election Act, door-to-door campaigning is illegal. Appealing for support can only be done in open spaces with free public access. On a similar note, obtaining electors’ signatures or seals for an election campaign is also prohibited. In both of these cases, a violation could result in a prison term of up to three years or a fine of up to 6 million won.

Street rallies and promotions get more common as Election Day approaches, with campaign workers often wearing sashes and jackets bearing the candidate’s name.

But volunteers cannot wear any props such as clothes, hats, flags or nametags. These are only allowed for candidates, their spouses and campaign workers. If anyone else wears one, they could get a prison term of up to three years or face a fine of up to 6 million won.

And only candidates themselves can take out advertising to support their campaigns. Others can face a prison term of up to three years or a fine of up to 6 million won.

If online media allow anyone to post support for or opposition to a candidate or a party on a website or online chat room during the election campaign period, they must take technical measures to verify the uploader’s identification.

Those who report election violations can receive a reward of up to 500 million won, with an additional reward for cases that lead an election win to be invalidated.

By Kan Hyeong-woo (
Korea Herald Youtube