Attacks on the Press 2000: South Korea

March 19, 2001 12:02 PM ET

DESPITE PRESIDENT KIM DAE JUNG'S INTERNATIONAL REPUTATION as a champion of democracy, capped with a 2000 Nobel Peace Prize, he has an uneasy relationship with the domestic press. While South Korean media are generally far more free under Kim's administration than at any time in recent history, they remain susceptible to government interference. Tensions between the administration and the press were heightened in the immediate aftermath of the historic June summit meeting between Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il (See "North Korea").

The summit marked the first time that North and South Korean leaders had ever met. Kim Dae Jung's visit to Pyongyang was the biggest media event in the region since the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Hundreds of foreign journalists, barred from North Korea, converged instead on the South Korean capital. There, they were fed pool reports filed by the 50 South Korean journalists, including 18 print reporters, who were permitted to cover the talks in North Korea.

South Korean media were constrained not only by the myriad restrictions imposed by Pyongyang, but also by a general desire to avoid reporting that could jeopardize reunification efforts. While the media vigorously debated the details of Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea, the summit meeting and the general goal of reunification were wildly popular among journalists as well as the general public.

However, the euphoria evaporated quickly. On June 20, less than a week after the summit's conclusion, officials banned Kim Jin Kook, a reporter for the newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, from attending press conferences at Blue House, the president's official residence. Presidential aides accused the reporter of publishing information that had been provided on an off-the-record basis.

That morning, JoongAng Ilbo had reported that Kim Jong Il agreed during the summit talks to strike a clause from the Communist Party's charter calling for the communist takeover of South Korea, and that he had responded favorably to Kim Dae Jung's assertion that a continued U.S. military presence was beneficial to regional security. A presidential spokesman justified the ban on Kim Jin Kook by saying, "if media reports cause problems and have negative effects on inter-Korean relations, it is committing a sin [against] our people."

The newspaper claimed to have obtained the information from a highly placed confidential source within the government, and not from the Blue House meeting. Local journalists were divided on whether JoongAng's suspension from Blue House constituted a press freedom violation, with some convinced that the newspaper had in fact abused its privileges.

On June 21, the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) issued a statement repeating the allegations that had already appeared in JoongAng Ilbo. A party spokesman said that Kim Dae Jung had briefed GNP leader Lee Hoi Chang about the summit details on June 18, but that Lee had honored the president's request to avoid antagonizing the North by releasing the information prematurely. On June 22, Blue House barred the daily Chosun Ilbo's journalists from its press briefings for reporting on the same story, although by then the news was an open secret.

In an editorial published the following day, Chosun said: "If it was a secret that had to be closely guarded, then the government officials should have been discreet from the beginning. But opposition leaders knew, and so did many other delegates to the summit. It was inevitable that the information would be leaked sooner or later."

Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's most conservative newspaper, was again at the center of controversy in July, when North Korean propaganda broadcasts described the daily as "a stumbling block [on] the road of national unification," adding that "it is the natural course of things to blow up such stumbling blocks." Meanwhile, the GNP accused the government of remaining "silent on the North's attempts to tame the South Korean media," referring also to a June 27 incident when a Chosun Ilbo reporter was barred from entering North Korea. A South Korean government spokesman subsequently urged the North to refrain from such destructive rhetoric, but added that "the South Korean media and political leaders must be patient and think of the sound and healthy development of inter-Korean relations."

Some journalists feared that Kim's so-called Sunshine Policy of better relations with North Korea was beginning to have a negative impact on press freedom, with members of the administration actively discouraging journalists from reporting critically on the North for fear of disrupting fragile relations.

In August, in a bid to round up South Korean press support for reunification, Pyongyang invited 46 South Korean media executives to meet with their North Korean counterparts, who were mostly propaganda officials. After a week of meetings, both sides pledged to "work towards national reunification and unity, cease mutual slandering, [and] promote inter-Korean media exchange," according to a report by the South Korean state news agency Yonhap. While improved access to the North for South Korean journalists should mean more in-depth reporting on the peninsula, some analysts told CPJ that the inevitable compromises with Pyongyang would hamper independent coverage.

Local human rights activists hoped that one outcome of the summit might be the abolition of the harsh National Security Law, which has been used in the past to punish media outlets that publish or broadcast views deemed to be anti-state, especially material seen as sympathetic to North Korea or communism generally. Criminal defamation laws remain on the books, and have been used against journalists in recent years, although there were no new cases in 2000.

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