Attacks on the Press 2002: South Korea

President Kim Dae Jung, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts to reconcile with North Korea, spent his final year in office politically isolated and unloved. His unpopularity came partly from the constant hammering he took from the country’s major media outlets, which oppose his “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the North, as well as his administration’s decision in 2001 to hit news organizations with extensive audits.

South Korean journalists and political observers continued to debate whether the tax audits constituted a government ploy to silence critics. In 2001, authorities arrested three top newspaper executives–Bang Sang Hoon, president and owner of Chosun Ilbo; Kim Byung Kwan, principal owner and honorary chairman of Dong-A Ilbo; and Cho Hee Joon, controlling shareholder of Kookmin Ilbo–on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement. The three publishers, who were convicted and sentenced to jail in 2002, were also ordered to pay fines totaling more than 13 billion won (US$11 million) combined. All three men remained free on bail pending what is likely to be a lengthy appeals process. Other media executives were also tried during 2002, but Bang, Kim, and Cho received the heaviest sentences.

While the administration denies that the massive tax probe was politically motivated, some newspaper executives say it was no coincidence that the media companies most critical of President Kim and his Sunshine Policy were those hardest hit by the audits. On the other hand, many journalists and civil-society groups strongly support the tax probe, arguing that the domestic media business is rife with corruption and needs a complete structural overhaul.

Chosun Ilbo, the country’s largest-circulation daily, maintained its position that the administration had unfairly used the tax probes to target critical media but pledged to reform its business practices “through financial independence via transparent management.” In the end, the tax audits and subsequent prosecutions did nothing to blunt the media’s often sharp criticism of the president and his administration’s failings.

A probe into alleged corruption in South Korea’s sports and entertainment industry also had implications for journalists. In July, the Seoul District Prosecutor’s Office announced the arrest of Lee Chang Se, a former editor of a leading sports daily and “one of the most powerful figures in entertainment journalism,” according to the Korea Times. Lee was charged with having pocketed about 22 million won (US$19,000) in bribes during the previous six years. Prosecutors also questioned many journalists about the receipt of so-called PR expenses in exchange for writing favorable stories. A television program director, an entertainment-industry executive, and a singer and her manager were among those arrested during the crackdown.

Although President Kim had made battling corruption a top priority of his administration, he was disgraced when two of his sons were convicted of bribery. “It was more than disappointment,” Kim said of his sons’ arrests, speaking to a group of foreign journalists. “It was the biggest misfortune of my life.”

The scandals and bitter political feuding contributed to the defeat of the pro-government Millennium Democratic Party during legislative by-elections in August. With the conservative, staunchly anti-communist Grand National Party in control of the National Assembly, it was unlikely that legislators would try to abolish or amend South Korea’s draconian National Security Law, which has been used to jail people for publishing and distributing material that favors North Korea.

Three journalists arrested under the National Security Law in 2001 were convicted in 2002, though they were all given suspended jail terms. All three, however, spent more than three months in jail while their trial was under way. In a letter to CPJ justifying their arrests, the Justice Ministry said the journalists were jailed for publishing “journalistic material benefiting the enemy” by praising the North Korean regime. Among the alleged offenses cited were the journalists’ contacts with members of a Japan-based, pro-North Korea group.

Relations with North Korea were the primary focus of the December 19 presidential elections, in which the Millennium Democratic Party’s Roh Moo Hyun narrowly defeated Lee Hoi Chang of the Grand National Party. Roh, a former human rights lawyer and democracy activist, promotes engagement with Pyongyang and has called for a more “equal” relationship with the United States. Anti-U.S. sentiment flared after two American soldiers were acquitted in a U.S. military court for killing two Korean teenagers in a June road accident.