Police have launched an investigation over satirical posters of President Yoon Suk-yeol near the presidential office in Yongsan, Seoul. The artist could be charged with violating public property, but is unlikely to be tried for defamation, given past cases.
Yongsan Police Station in Seoul said that posters mocking Yoon were posted at a bus stop near Samgakji Station on Tuesday and launched an investigation.
The posters show Yoon wearing a mask and undoing the front of a royal robe. His crotch is covered by a round sign containing the face of first lady Kim Keon-hee with a red diagonal line similar to a "No Smoking" sign.
The poster also included a caption saying, “Doodle as much as you like. We will remove them soon. Please do not remove them.”
Satirical artist Lee Ha said via his Facebook account that he had put up 10 posters. They have since been removed.
This is not the first time Lee has produced such satirical posters. He worked on satirical content during the former Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations as well. In 2017, Lee was fined 2 million won ($1,440) for distributing thousands of leaflets satirizing former President Park on violations of laws on outdoor advertising and minor offenses.
Also in October 2010, a university lecturer named Park Jung-soo added graffiti of a rat to promotional materials for the G-20 summit, which was viewed as an insult of then-President Lee. Park was tried on charges of damaging public property.
Park claimed to have "satirized the government with graffiti," but the Supreme Court rejected Park's appeal, resulting in a fine of 2 million won.
Most recently in 2019, under the former Moon Jae-in administration, college student Kim compared the Moon government to North Korea with a poster at a university that showed Moon bowing to Chinese President Xi Jinping. He was fined 500,000 won in the first trial for trespassing, but the second trial overturned the penalty and acquitted him.
There has been no case of a president directly filing a lawsuit for defamation. The crime of defaming the head of state was abolished from criminal law in 1988.
But satirical artist Lee being found guilty of a crime is still possible, as charges such as property damage and intrusion into public buildings could be applied.
Some have criticized police for being too obedient to the presidential office because it is rare for a crime investigation team to be dispatched just because posters were put up at bus stops without permission.
In the US and Europe, where political satire is particularly active, even goods caricaturing incumbent presidents are sold. Pictures and composite photos depicting the president humorously or in a way that ridicules them are frequently posted in media outlets as well, but it is hard to find cases where they are punished legally.
Meanwhile, pop culture critic Kim Heon-sik said it is unnecessary to punish satirists. “Presidents are public people and the people can express their opinions. I think it is a democratic society only when criticism can be made against power.”