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5 Best VPNs for South Korea

South Korea is the world’s most internet connected nation, enjoying both the highest penetration rates (by 2010 more than 81 percent of citizens had access to the Internet) and some of the fastest broadband speeds available anywhere (with speeds of up to 100MB/s being common in built-up metropolitan areas such as Seoul and Incheon). However despite this, and despite the fact that South Korea is a vibrant democracy where freedom of expression is enshrined by law, internet censorship is ‘pervasive’, and more restrictions are put on freedom of speech online than in most other democracies.

VPN is therefore understandably popular among South Korea’s tech savvy netizens as a way of circumventing these restrictions, so here is our pick of the best VPN providers for South Korea, followed by an in-depth look at the censorship issues faced by South Koreans.


Summary

Disclosure: compensated affiliate: click here for more information

Rank Company Score Price Link

1

IronSocket Logo
Read Review9.6/10
$6.99 / monthVisit Site

2

BolehVPN Logo
Read Review9.2/10
$6.67 / monthVisit Site

3

VPNArea Logo
Read Review8.6/10
$4.92 / monthVisit Site

4

ExpressVPN Logo
Read Review8/10
$8.32 / monthVisit Site

5

PureVPN Logo
Read Review7.6/10
$7.99 / monthVisit Site

Winner

IronSocket

  • PROS
  • No usage logs
  • 256-bit AES OpenVPN encryption
  • Fast
  • Servers in 36 countries
  • Shared IPs
  • Accepts Bitcoins
  • Based in Hong Kong
  • 7 day money back guarantee
  • Up to 3 simultaneous connections(more can be bought and proxy use is unlimited)
  • P2P: yes
  • CONS
  • Keeps a lot of session logs(typically not kept for more than 72 hours)

IronSocket is a Hong Kong based VPN provider (with servers also in Japan, Taiwan and West Coast US) which uses shared IPs, accepts anonymous payment via Bitcoins, uses 256-bit AES encryption, and allows 3 simultaneous connections. It does keep too many connection logs (although no usage logs), but being under Hong Kong (Edward Snowden’s first choice of refuge) jurisdiction offsets this somewhat.

» Visit IronSocket


2nd place

BolehVPN

BolehVPN

  • PROS
  • No logs
  • Fast
  • Great OSX and Windows software
  • P2P: yes
  • 2 simultaneous connections
  • HK server uses shared IPs
  • CONS
  • 128-bit Blowfish OpenVPN encryption could be stronger

Based offshore somewhere in Malaysia, BolehVPN is one of SE Asia’s most popular VPN providers. It keeps no logs and has an excellent OSX and Windows VPN client, which while having a bit of steep learning curve offers wealth of connection options. BolehVPN is also fast, and allows P2P downloading. Not required in South Korea (yet), but if you visit nearby China then BolehVPN’s Hong Kong based ‘cloaked routers’ are likely to come in handy, while West Coast US ‘SurfingStreaming’ servers on are great for watching US content.

» Visit BolehVPN


3rd place

VPNArea

VPNArea

  • PROS
  • No logs
  • Based in Bulgaria (no DRD)
  • 5 simultaneous devices
  • Uses shared IPs (although currently there are not enough people to share them with)
  • Good speeds
  • Great Windows client
  • Great customer service
  • Accepts Bitcoins
  • 7 day money back guarantee
  • P2P: yes
  • CONS
  • New company so may experience teething problems

A new provider on our radar, but one which impressed us mightily thanks to a completely no logs policy, good performance results, up to 5 simultaneous connections, it accepts anonymous payment via Bitcoins, has a fantastic Windows client with DNS leak protection, a per-app kill switch, auto-IP changer, and server statistics, while also having one of the friendliest and most helpful support staff we have come across. IPs are shared, which will be great for privacy when VPNArea attracts more customers, and P2P downloading is not a problem. For such a small start-up company, this Bulgarian VPN has a very sizable international presence, including servers in Hong Kong, Japan , the Philippines, and West Coast US.

» Visit VPNArea

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4th place

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN_Logo

  • PROS
  • Fast speed
  • Servers in 78 countries
  • iOS and Android apps
  • 30 day money back guarantee
  • CONS
  • Pricing is a bit high (though worth the extra cost)
  • US based

A big international company with servers just about everywhere (including Japan, Hong Kong, and West Coast US), ExpressVPN is fast, has apps for iOS and Android, and sports a 30 day money back guarantee. A US based company, ExpressVPN promises to keep no connection logs, and although a bit on the pricey side, it offers a good balance of features, with lots of bells and whistles.

» Visit ExpressVPN


5th place

PureVPN

  • PROS
  • P2P: yes (on some servers)
  • ‘up to’ 256-bit SSTP and OpenVPN encryption
  • 2 simultaneous connections
  • iOS app
  • Android app
  • 3 days money back guarantee
  • Servers in Singapore and Malaysia
  • CONS
  • Keeps logs (but based in Hong Kong)

PureVPN keeps logs, but as it is based in Hong Kong this is likely not a huge threat, and it has no problems with P2P downloading (using selected servers). The iOS and Android apps are very nice, as is the ‘up to’ 265-bit OpenVPN encryption. There is a 3 day money back guarantee, but be warned that we have received many complaints about customers not getting a refund for this, and receiving poor customer service. PureVPN runs servers in Hong Kong and Japan, plus many other counties in SE Asia.

» Visit PureVPN


Internet Censorship in South Korea

Reporters without Borders classifies South Korea as ‘under surveillance’, and the Open Internet Initiative (ONI) rates internet censorship in South Korea as ‘pervasive’ in its conflict/security category, and as ‘selective’ the social in the category.

Two government agencies in South Korea are responsible for internet censorship and surveillance – the Korean Communications Standards Commission (KCSC, formerly KISCOM), and the National Election Commission (NEC), and the worrying the trend over the last few years has been towards an increase in censorship, with 15,000 posts blocked or removed in 2008, and over 53,000 in 2011.

Political Censorship

Although Article 21 of the Korean constitution guarantees that ‘all citizens shall enjoy freedom of speech and the press,’ and prohibits censorship of speech and the press, the same Article 21 states that ‘neither speech nor the press shall violate the honor or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics,’ a clause that the government uses as the constitutional basis for its strict regulation of political dissent.

Freedom of expression is further qualified by a number of laws which are deemed to take precedence over the general principle of free speech, an example of which is Article 53(1) of the Telecommunications Business Act (1991), which states that ‘a person in use of telecommunications shall not make communications with contents that harm the public peace and order or social morals and good customs.’

The government has cited ‘character assassinations and suicides caused by excessive insults, [and] the spreading of false rumors and defamation,’ to justify limits on the freedom to criticise government leaders, policies and the military

Not only are websites, blogs and social media posts blocked and removed, but some dissenting netizens have charged been criminal offenses. For example, a Twitter user who likened government officials to pirates for approving a controversial naval base was prosecuted for criminal defamation, while the well-known blogger ‘Minerva’ was arrested in 2009 for criticizing the government’s economic policy, and faced a 5 year jail term and a US$44,000 (KRW50 million) fine before his case was dismissed following a Constitutional Court decision.

Discussions about North Korea receive particular attention from the censors, and at least 21 websites have been blocked because they are considered sympathetic to North Korea. Under the National Security Law any individual who shows public support for North Korea can be charged with being ‘anti-statist’, and faces up to seven years in jail.

Because North Korean websites are usually hosted on foreign servers that also host hundreds of other websites, and because the only effective way to block access to them is to block the servers’ IP addresses, an estimated 3000 additional, unrelated websites are also blocked. Security tensions with North Korea also lead to occasional crackdowns on the spread of ‘groundless rumors’.

Surveillance

By law, users wanting to post on larger websites must register on the website with their citizen identity number before they are allowed to make any comment that can be seen by the public  (foreigners must fax a copy of their passport to be verified). Despite widespread opposition to this cyber-defamation law when it was introduced in 2008, most of South Korea’s major portals, including Daum, Naver, Nate, and Yahoo Korea, enforce this verification. Google refused to comply, and has instead disabled user uploads and comments on the Korean version of YouTube.

Combined with tough and worryingly vague laws limiting political discussion before an election (where offenders can face a two year prison sentence and a US$3,800 (KRW4 million) fine), plus the KCSC having wide-ranging powers to order websites to delete ‘slanderous’ or ‘fraudulent’ postings, online political debate in South Korea is decidedly muted.

In 2012 this led an alarmed UN special rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to warn the South Korean government that its defamation laws were being abused to punish posts ‘that are true and are in the public interest’.

‘Obscenity and perversion’

‘Pornography and nudity’ are strictly censored, as is material, and deemed ‘subversive’, ‘illegal’, or ‘harmful’, and content relating to homosexuality has received particularly aggressive  attention from the censors (the shutting down of prominent gay and lesbian issues website ‘ex-zone’ was a very high profile example of this), and since 2008 anyone who tries to visit ‘indecent Internet sites’, including those relating to unrated computer games, gambling and pornography, are redirected to a government warning page.

korea warning

‘This site is legally blocked by the government regulations’

Copyright enforcement

In 2009 South Korea became the first country to implement a graduated response (three-strikes) law aimed at tackling copyright infringement. In addition to widespread criticism over the (in)effectiveness of such a law, and its potential violation of human rights, over 65,000 people have been disconnected for just one infringement, based on the Copyright Commission’s powers to ‘recommend’ that ISPs suspend a user’s account, without any proof or warning being required.

VPN

Fortunately for those in South Korea, VPN is a very effective way to bypass government censorship, and no attempt has been made to restrict its use.

Nearby Japan has few restrictions on internet use, and therefore makes a good location for VPN servers to be located if you are connecting from South Korea, although it does occasionally crack down heavily on copyright piracy. Hong Kong is a bit further away (increased lag), but it has the freest internet in East Asia and has little concern for anti-piracy laws, so also makes a great choice for a VPN server location, while having the advantage that more VPN providers have a presence there.

Conclusion – a chilling effect

Observers often note that the conservative South Korean government views itself as a benevolent father figure, whose job it is to protect its immature citizens, but others see a much darker side, noting that censorship laws ostensibly aimed at profanity and libel etc. are used to stifle political dissent,

‘New media and social networking services like Twitter have emerged as new political tools for antigovernment and left-wing people. The government wants to create a chilling effect to prevent the spread of critical views,’ said Chang Yeo-kyung, a free-speech activist.

The conclusion to the ONI report sums up the situation well,

‘The wide range of information blocked, from elections-related discourse to discussion about North Korea, is subject to central filtering and censorship. South Korea may represent the future of the Internet: it represents a society that is both highly tech savvy and heavily monitored. As more technology is introduced and the hostile confrontation between North and South is prolonged, the paradoxical mix of an expanded base for online expression and the restriction of online voices will continue in South Korea.’


Summary

Disclosure: compensated affiliate: click here for more information

Rank Company Score Price Link

1

IronSocket Logo
Read Review9.6/10
$6.99 / monthVisit Site

2

BolehVPN Logo
Read Review9.2/10
$6.67 / monthVisit Site

3

VPNArea Logo
Read Review8.6/10
$4.92 / monthVisit Site

4

ExpressVPN Logo
Read Review8/10
$8.32 / monthVisit Site

5

PureVPN Logo
Read Review7.6/10
$7.99 / monthVisit Site

Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. Find me on Google+

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