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Number 1 Shimbun

The view of the North by the press of the South


No1-2017-09 Kim-Jong-Un

The view of the North

by the press of the South
by Donald Kirk

Seoul’s sometimes rambunctious newspapers offer a diversity of views that comes as a refreshing surprise to those expecting a certain uniformity befitting a media bottle-fed by bureaucrats and the chaebol, the family-owned business conglomerates, that dominate the economy. Yes, they’re easy to criticize on any number of grounds. No, they’re a lot better, freer, more outspoken than the media in many other countries – as seen in their often critical, disputatious, querulous coverage of South Korea’s epic domestic political issues and never-ending confrontation with the North.

The differences are sharply etched in attitudes toward North Korea and the paradoxical efforts of the fledgling government of President Moon Jae-in to stand firm against the North and still bring about dialogue, even reconciliation. Approaches toward North Korea range from free-wheeling to restrained, as the media – like the public they serve – wrestle with the question of how to reach a violence-free resolution of a confrontation that if anything seems deeper, more dangerous today than when I first visited Seoul more than 45 years ago as North and South Korean delegates met for Red Cross talks that were supposed to resolve many of the same issues that still divide them. For the media, the challenge is made all the more difficult in that North Korea has developed nuclear warheads and missiles that no one imagined at the time.

It’s not that publishers, editors, columnists and reporters do such great jobs, but you do get a sense from a blitz of commentaries, editorials and news reports of the arguments that are roiling Korean society in this time of transition that may not end happily. Much to the distress of many readers, it’s impossible to get away from the reality that a giant named “ChoJoongDong” dominates the media landscape. That’s an acronym for the “big three” papers – Chosun Ilbo (circ. 1.5 million), JoongAng Ilbo and Dong-a Ilbo (both about 1 million), all solidly conservative, nationalist and not sympathetic to North Korea or the pro-Northers who show up at demos near the American embassy, American bases and the site far south of Seoul where the Americans have implanted the counter-missile battery known as THAAD, for “terminal high altitude area defense.”

BUT WAIT. CHOOJOONGDONG DO not form a solid wall of pro-government propaganda. They do report, by and large, what’s going on, and independent commentators often write stuff for them that’s not in line with everyone’s conservative thinking. Nor are ChoJoongDong the only source. Young people who are not too absorbed by what they see on their iphones and intellectuals of all ages turn to Hankyoreh Shinmun (circ. 250,000) for a liberal, leftist, viewpoint. Two other papers, historically conservative, have veered leftward in recent years. Hankook Ilbo, which owns the English-language Korea Times, and Kyunghyang Shinmun (both with circ. more than 200,000) offer alternatives to the ChoJoongDong triumvirate though it’s hard to get away from the non-political reality that, day in and day out, the Big Three serve up more basic news and information than their liberal rivals.

The differences between the biggest, most conservative paper, Chosun Ilbo, and the leading liberal paper, Hankyoreh Shinmun come out in their editorials and choices of what and how to report, though both are relatively independent. After President Moon’s speech on Aug. 15, a date celebrated in both Koreas as the anniversary of the Japanese surrender in 1945, Chosun Ilbo acknowledged that “Moon’s anti-war approach is a noble aim” but deemed it “equally important for him to lay out a game plan if peaceful moves do not work out.” The paper wanted to know, “Should we learn to live under the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea or are there other options?” Implicit in the question was whether one of those “options” would be the dreaded preemptive strike against the North’s missile-launching sites – a move that sane people fear would invite artillery strikes on the South, opening shots of the second Korean War.

Hankyoreh had quite another take on Moon’s “Liberation Day” appearance. A euphoric feature showed the relaxed president as a man of the people, chatting, sipping tea, wearing casual clothes, then two days later establishing rapport on all levels on the occasion of the first 100 days of his presidency. “The Blue House has witnessed scenes that were unfamiliar in sheer ordinariness," the article began. “Opening the doors to communication seems to have made the new president’s ‘honeymoon period’ last even longer,” it concluded. His “commitment to a peaceful solution,” the paper editorialized, was even “more credible since it comes right when North Korea and the U.S. appear to be each taking a step back.” Nonetheless, the paper found it “regrettable” that he “did not proactively seek a breakthrough . . .”

ALL THESE PAPERS HAVE distinctive histories, generally under the control of a single family or group. Hankyoreh, befitting its role as a liberal voice, is a notable exception. Founded in 1988 in the early stages of Korea’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, the paper is actually owned by thousands of small stakeholders – a true cooperative venture. An opposition voice during periods of conservative rule, the paper has been pro-government under “democratic” presidents, including President Moon, elected in May after the constitutional court upheld the impeachment of the arch-conservative Park Geun-hye, ousted and jailed with some of her close friends and aides on charges of corruption and influence-peddling, among other offenses. Kyunghyang Shinmun, founded by the Catholic Church in 1946 and controlled for a time by the Hanhwa empire, survives as an employee-owned paper “on guard against abuses of human rights and violations of personal freedom” – the rationale for its campaign against Park and support for Moon. Both Hankyoreh and Kyunghyang, while not uncritical of North Korea, pursue a relatively soft line in which talks with the North are a priority.

Not quite so far right as Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo is still full of criticism of Moon’s pleas for dialogue. “We can hardly rid ourselves of skepticism about his approach to the North Korean problem if his considering the idea of sending a special envoy to North Korea was really appropriate,” the paper editorialized, “as it could give Pyongyang exactly the wrong message.” Still, JoongAng, founded by the Samsung empire, then granted independence, as it were, as a separate company with strong Samsung ties, seemed willing, reluctantly, to give Moon a chance. “No leader can satisfy all the people all the time,” said the editorial, though “being different does not mean being right” and “the only way to a successful presidency is the abandoning of self-righteousness and listening to opponents.”

Dong-a Ilbo, decades ago a liberal voice, now seems as tough as Chosun Ilbo in its outlook toward the North. “Going beyond repeating ‘anti-war’ rhetoric,” said one Dong-a editorial, “the South Korean government should discuss the action plans proposed by the U.S. together based on strong cooperation.” The paper gives unconditional support to the U.S. alliance. “The symbolic phrase of the ROK-U.S. alliance could not be more apt now,” it said. “We should ‘go together.’” Another editorial, headlined, “S. Korea should achieve ‘robust peace’ rather than ‘insecure peace,’” was still more emphatic. “Washington’s new North Korea policy to transform into ‘maximum intervention’ through ‘maximum pressure’ is effectively showing signs to generate effect.”

OTHER PAPERS ARE FAR less strident. The Korea Times, owned by Hankook Ilbo, praised Steve Bannon, just before he was dropped as Trump’s all-purpose strategist, for having made “the most reasonable assessment among U.S. officials about North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat” – namely “that war is not a viable option and that pulling out U.S. troops through a deal with China is a remote possibility to denuclearize the North.” The paper, for which I write a column, found it “refreshing to hear a sobering voice from the U.S. administration, which has so far failed to produce a disciplined message or coordinated policy to deal with the North Korean threat.”

Kyunghyang Shinmun, from its left-leaning stance, berated Moon’s performance at in his 100th-day press conference for having “publicly designated North Korea loading a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as ‘the red line’” when “even the U.S., which has been mentioning military responses, has not clearly defined it.” His remarks, said the paper, “clash with his repeated vows of ‘no war.’” Hankyoreh agreed, predicting mention of a red line would “cause controversy, as it is the first time the South Korean government has officially made an announcement regarding behavior that ‘will not be tolerated.’”

Headlines and topics in Chosun Ilbo give quite a different picture. “S. Korea Must Restore the Balance of Power on the Peninsula,” was the title of one commentary. “When Will S. Koreans Wake up to the N. Korean Nuclear Threat,” asked another. “Moon’s Overtures to N. Korea Are Troubling Alliance with U.S.”

No doubt such observations appeal to the innate conservatism of a society driven by North Korean actions and threats for generations to view the North with suspicion if not hostility. The voices of protest, though, reveal a healthy lack of unanimity among a reading public in which a media minority command a significant following. Korean papers, for all their foibles, prejudices, biases and sometimes inaccuracies, still manage to reflect a broad spectrum of news and views in keeping with the spirit of democratic reform that took root in massive protests 30 years ago and has endured through still more upheaval this year.

North Korean bombast and rhetoric, missile and nuclear tests all contribute to the free expression of opinions that is vital to the success of an open, democratic, capitalist country whose record of success stands in stark contrast to the poverty and suffering of all but a privileged few in the North. If the two Koreas ever reunite, one crucial reason undoubtedly will be the record of the South Korean media in telling readers what they need to know.

Donald Kirk, journalist and author, has been covering the rise of democracy in South Korea and the standoff with North Korea since first arriving in Seoul as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune more than 45 years ago.


Published in: September 2017

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