South Korea's government has filed a request seeking to ban a small, far-left political party that is seen as sympathetic to North Korea in a move critics say smacks of President Park Geun-hye's father's suppression of democracy during his long stay in power.
The Unified Progressive Party (UPP), which holds six seats in parliament and has contested presidential elections, is widely seen as supportive of the reclusive North's political aims.
The two Koreas remain technically at war since the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, rather than a peace treaty. North Korea conducted its third nuclear test this year in defiance of U.N. resolutions and has threatened the South and its major ally, the United States, with nuclear destruction.
Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn said a request to disband the UPP would be submitted to the Constitutional Court.
“We have concluded that the principles and objectives of the United Progressive Party are in line with North Korean-style socialism, which goes against the basic rules of free democracy,” Hwang told a news conference on Tuesday.
“The Cabinet meeting this morning approved of filing the request to disband the UPP,” Hwang continued.
He also said prosecutors had alleged that senior UPP members had plotted to “stage revolutions” against the Seoul government, a charge the UPP denies.
It was not clear whether Park, who is on a tour of Europe, had endorsed the move. However, last year, she described the views of two of its lawmakers as “dubious” and said they should not be allowed to serve in parliament.
The party secured 10.3 percent of the popular vote in 2012 legislative elections. The party's small demonstrations calling for rapid reunification with the North are a regular feature in Seoul.
During a Tuesday protest in downtown Seoul, UPP leader Lee Seok-ki slammed the government's attempts to disband his party as "dirty and despicable."
"This incident is indeed an anti-democratic and reckless act that is entirely denying the constitutional spirit that assures all the people's freedom of political activities," said Lee.
Two months ago, Lee and other members of the UPP were arrested on charges of plotting to attack a national communications center and other infrastructure in case of a war with North Korea. The case is ongoing.
The UPP says the accusations were made up by the National Intelligence Service in order to distract the public from allegations that the spy agency attempted to rig last year's presidential election.
The UPP is very outspoken about its desire to have the United States military presence removed from the South. It blames the U.S., not North Korea, for the tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Parties deemed openly hostile to the South Korean political system are banned. Unauthorized travel to North Korea is prohibited and possession of North Korean publications is strictly controlled.
Opposition blasts move to ban party
The main opposition Democratic United Party denounced the move to ban the UPP as a threat to the South's democracy, which has been developing since the late 1980s.
“It is very regrettable that this unfortunate incident is happening for the first time in the history of our constitution,” a party spokesman told a briefing.
The Ministry of Justice launched an investigation into the UPP following a petition filed last year by an alliance of around 30 right-wing groups calling for a ban on the party.
“This party fundamentally opposes the Republic of [South] Korea,” said Park Jung-soo, an activist heading the alliance.
The current president’s father, Park Chung-hee, led South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979, a tenure marked by human rights abuses and the imposition of martial law but also by policies sowing the seeds for rapid economic growth.
UPP leader Lee Jung-hee caused controversy earlier for referring to Park Chung-hee by the name he used while serving as an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army when the Korean peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule.
The party has likened the current president to her father, using terminology that often echoes North Korean rhetoric.
Some information in this report was contributed by Reuters.
Editor's note: An earlier draft of this story indicated that the UPP receives 1% of the popular vote in national elections. It in fact received 10.3% of the popular vote at the most recent national legislative elections. VOA regrets the error.