Attacks on the Press 2001: South Korea

During 2001, a state crackdown on alleged financial misconduct by the country’s major media companies further embittered already contentious relations between President Kim Dae Jung and the South Korean press.

In January, the president stated that “it is incumbent upon the news media to practice fair and balanced reporting with responsible criticism.” Only weeks later, on February 8, the National Tax Service launched a major audit of 23 media conglomerates in what authorities conceded was the most extensive investigation of any single industry in South Korean history. On February 12, the Fair Trade Commission began investigating 13 newspapers and three major broadcasting outlets. And then, in April, the Regulatory Reform Committee announced the need to revive guidelines regulating newspaper marketing and distribution to curb unfair business dealings.

The so-called Big Three newspapers, Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo, and Dong-A Ilbo, together account for about 70 percent of the country’s newspaper market. These dailies, all of which have featured articles skeptical of President Kim and his “Sunshine Policy” of engaging North Korea, maintain that, “The motivation behind this [tax] investigation is to muzzle the Big Three papers, because they are critical of the president and his policies,” Kim Young Hie, vice president of JoongAng Ilbo, told The New York Times.

In June, the National Tax Service fined 23 media companies a total of 505.6 billion won (US$393 million). While state broadcasters and the liberal newspaper Hankyoreh, an old supporter of President Kim, were also fined, some of the stiffest penalties fell on the Big Three, whose size made them liable for larger amounts.

On August 16, government prosecutors asked the Seoul District Court to issue arrest warrants for five media executives accused of large-scale tax evasion and embezzlement. The next day, the court approved arrest warrants for three of them: Bang Sang Hoon, president and owner of Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest-circulation newspaper; Kim Byung Kwan, principal owner and honorary chairman of Dong-A Ilbo; and Cho Hee Joon, controlling shareholder of Kookmin Ilbo, a smaller newspaper owned by the Full Gospel Church. The other two were denied warrants for lack of evidence.

Though the court initially rejected defense lawyers’ pleas for their clients’ release, it abruptly reversed itself months later. On October 25, the court ordered the immediate release on bail of Kim Byung Kwan on medical grounds. On November 6, the court ordered the release of Bang, and on November 8, of Cho. All three had been jailed since August 17. Their trials were still in progress at year’s end, as were those of several other media executives, who were also indicted for tax evasion but were not jailed.

While some argued that the government’s heavy-handed tactics were reminiscent of the country’s authoritarian past, many journalists, civil society groups, and political observers agreed that the South Korean media business is rife with corruption, and that no business should be exempt from paying taxes. At a June rally held by the Korean Federation of Press Unions and the nongovernmental group People’s Action for Press Reform, activists released a declaration stating that they would “strongly resist any government bid to control the media” but supported the audits.

Large segments of the public have been frustrated by the bullying tactics some newspapers use to boost circulation figures. In South Korea, the big newspaper groups often use high-pressure sales techniques to lure customers–offering expensive gifts and delivering free copies for months on end. There is a saying that “quitting papers is harder than quitting cigarettes,” wrote the English-language daily Korea Herald.

In October, the Korean Newspaper Association (KNA) drafted its own set of newspaper regulations, including a ban on newspapers giving presents and free copies exceeding 20 percent of paid circulation. Though newspaper publishers considered industry-sponsored regulations preferable to guidelines designed by the Regulatory Reform Committee, many of them still complained that the KNA had bowed to government pressure and was effectively opening the door for future state interference.

While the administration’s long battle with the major media companies grabbed most of the headlines in 2001, scant attention was paid to the arrests of three journalists from the left-leaning monthly Jajuminbo, which backs the reunification of North and South Korea. On October 23, National Intelligence Service agents arrested chief editor Lee Chang Gi and reporters Park Joon Young and Baek Oon Jong. They were charged with violating South Korea’s National Security Law, which has been used to punish those who disseminate allegedly anti-state views, especially those seen as supportive of North Korea or of communism generally. The journalists’ trial was still in progress at year’s end.

It remained unclear why authorities targeted Jajuminbo, but some human rights activists contended the arrests were a sign that hard-liners opposed to any engagement with communist North Korea were gaining strength. Kim’s influence had certainly diminished, with his approval rating hitting a low of 25 percent in 2001. Clashes with the political opposition forced him to reshuffle his cabinet in September, and he resigned as head of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party in November.

With Kim Dae Jung barred by law from running for re-election and his Millennium Democratic Party in disarray, the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) began gearing up for the December 2002 presidential election. A loud champion of the embattled newspaper owners, the GNP is likely to win the support of the mainstream press.

October 23

Lee Chang Gi, Jajuminbo
Park Joon Young, Jajuminbo
Baek Oon Jong, Jajuminbo

Agents from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service arrested Lee, chief editor of the monthly Jajuminbo, and Park and Baek, both reporters for the magazine. The journalists were charged with violating South Korea’s National Security Law, which has been used to punish those who publish or broadcast views deemed anti-state, especially material seen as supportive of North Korea or of communism generally.

Jajuminbo, which also publishes an online edition at, is a small-circulation, private magazine that promotes the reunification of North and South Korea.

During the trial, prosecutors accused Jajuminbo of publishing articles that promoted North Korea’s vision of reunification. The three journalists were also accused of maintaining contact with “pro-North Korean” activists in Japan.

The district attorney asked that each of the journalists be sentenced to four years in prison. The court was scheduled to announce its verdict on February 9, 2002. As this book went to press, all three journalists were being held at the Seoul Detention Center.