Word out
Tatsuya Kato speaking at the FCC in Seoul.

Is freedom of the press at stake in South Korea? Some recent actions by the authorities seem to hint at a disturbing trend.

I testified for Sankei in a Seoul courtroom

Libel law is a favorite weapon of authori- ties in Singapore and Malaysia, to name two notorious practitio-ners of the technique of filing charges against news organizations, writ-ers and editors for pur-portedly defaming their regimes. Defendants are forced to spend huge sums to defend them-selves against allegations that are bound to result in convic- tions by highly paid judges who are quite aware of the rulings expected of them.

The case of Tatsuya Kato, former Seoul bureau chief of Sankei Shimbun, aroused fears that Korean authorities would employ similar tactics. The zeal with which the Korean gov- ernment pursued the charge of criminal libel bore disturbing parallels to the records of other countries in prosecuting crit- ics. They profess some measure of democracy, but legal nice- ties are irrelevant. Censorship prevails – and pity the miscre- ant who gets his adversarial views into print or on the air. In the Philippines, where there is no censorship, assassins simply gun down critics whose voices or articles challenge or merely offend local warlords and power-grabbers.

In South Korea, freedom of the press, and the idea of foreign correspondents reporting freely, is a relatively new concept. When I was reporting from Seoul in the ’70’s and ’80’s, censors from the Korean Central Intelligence Agency were posted in newsrooms, excising quotes, paragraphs, stories deemed unac- ceptable. Correspondents were often followed, their phone calls monitored. Mass protests in mid-1987 gave rise to democracy, a democratic Constitution with presidential elections every five years, and relative media freedom, but old habits die hard. The Kato case (and that of the author Park Yu-ha, see sidebar) show the dangers of slipping back to the era of media repression.

By a rather narrow margin, it seems, Korea avoided punishing some- one whose work had been more than a little infuri- ating. The exoneration of Kato, who had reported from Seoul on a rumor that President Park was unreachable for seven hours in April 2014 while the cruise ferry Sewol was sinking off the southern coast on the way to the scenic island of Jeju with hundreds of high-school students on board, marked a victory for him as well as Sankei Shimbun. Moreover, his acquittal averted another irritant between Korea and Japan. Just think of the heroic acclaim he would have received in Japan if the court had found him guilty and acceded to the prosecution’s demand for a prison sentence.

Kato’s acquittal was also a triumph for me personally. I had testified as a defense witness, arguing that his report was trivial, that it was not deliberately slanderous, that foreign journalists often pick up stuff from the local media and the case only publicized a story that no one took seriously. Evi- dently, the court agreed. To everyone’s immense relief, the judge’s decision distinguished Korea from other countries that claim to be democracies but abuse their systems by bringing libel charges, and worse, against critics and political foes. In a sense, the decision appeared to show the indepen- dence of the Korean judiciary. I had predicted, over cups of coffee with Kato’s successor, Sankei bureau chief Kinya Fuji- moto, that the court had to find him guilty and levy a fine but not send him to jail.

I WAS GLAD TO testify for two reasons. For one thing, I was curious about what a Korean court would be like and, for another, I found it hard to believe that anyone could have been so concerned about Kato’s report, which he had pur- loined from an unsubstantiated piece in Chosun Ilbo, Korea’s biggest-selling newspaper. The scrupulous attention given my testimony by the court was a revelation in itself. For four hours one day in June, I answered questions from teams of defense and prosecution lawyers while an interpreter trans- lated from Korean to English and English to Korean and another interpreter translated everything into Japanese.

At one point the chief judge asked if I understood the dif- ference between German law and the U.S. Constitution on free speech. The first amendment of the latter states unam- biguously, “Congress shall make no law respecting an estab- lishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there- of; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” However, under German law, the judge told me, an insult to human dignity would be libelous. Somehow, as I looked back on the point that he had made, chances of Kato’s acquittal did not seem good.

Considering how sure I was of a conviction, I was not only happily surprised but incredibly relieved when news came of Kato’s acquittal. Nonetheless, the elaborate, protracted nature of the case aroused questions. Why did the prosecution go to such lengths over a trivial gossipy story, and why did the court schedule only one hearing a month, doing nothing other than listen to my testimony on the day of my appearance? A month later the court heard the next defense witness, Yuichi Ueda, Seoul bureau chief for Nishi Nippon Shimbun, the leading daily in western Japan. One month after that came the turn for the third and final witness, Dr, Yasuhiko Tajima, journalism pro- fessor from Sophia University in Tokyo.

Perhaps more importantly, why did President Park, so hurt by gossip linking her reported absence to a liaison with a gentleman friend, want the system to dedicate such time, trouble and expense to pillorying an obstreperous foreigner? Why is libel a criminal rather than civil offense in Korea – and would the prosecution exercise its right, under Korean law, to appeal?

The answer to that final question was, no, the prosecution wisely decided not to appeal, but the reason is nothing so sim- ple as the folly of the case. It is that the foreign ministry, so immersed in such difficult issues with Japan as the ongoing controversy over the comfort women who served as sex slaves for Japanese troops in World War II, did not want to have to deal with yet another annoying problem. A conviction would have made Kato a hero, a martyr, in Japan. The case would have provided material for endless stories about freedom of the press in Korea more than 35 years after the assassination of President Park’s father, the dictatorial Park Chung-hee, who cracked down on any sign of dissent in the media.

It’s worrisome enough that the government pressed libel charges; but still more worrisome is that authorities might someday follow the example of other countries, notably Sin- gapore, and use criminal libel as a weapon. If Kato’s acquit- tal contrasted with the guilty verdicts that the courts in Sin- gapore routinely hand down against foreign media, it does not exactly resolve the longer term question of the limits of the freedom, even impunity, with which foreign as well as domestic journalists can report from Korea.

Tensions between North and South Korea, as well as unhappiness in the South over unemployment, rising prices and a widening rich-poor gap, will undoubtedly give rise to commentary and reporting displeasing to authorities. More strains on media freedom are inevitable. The outcome of the Kato case was a good sign, but far more serious issues are at stake. How they are decided will test the endurance of demo- cratic freedoms in South Korea.


PARK YU-HA OFFERS what she considers a nuanced view in her book Teikoku no Ianfu (“Comfort Women of the Empire”) about the women who served Japanese soldiers in World War II. Her narrative, however, is not exactly appreciated back home.

For writing that unscrupulous Korean collaborators recruited women, a court in Seoul has ordered her to pay fines totaling 90 million Korean won, or $75,000 – 10 million won to each of nine surviving comfort women.

The court one year ago ordered Park, a professor at Sejong University in Korea, to cut 34 sections said to be false, including claims that a few of the women fell in love with Japanese and supported the Japanese side. That’s not too surprising considering how many women – estimates range as high as 200,000 – worked in Japanese army “comfort stations.” If some emotional liaisons were inevitable, however, Koreans don’t want to hear about them.

Park’s legal ordeal is far from over. She now faces the charge of criminal libel in a trial that’s likely to take months. Demanding “open discussion,” she’s calling for a committee of scholars to consider the problem “objectively,” based on facts.

“We should not discuss ideologies,” she said in a panel discussion that I attended at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington in early January. “We need to stay apolitical. It’s important we do not let nationalism take priority. We need to look at what really took place.”

Far from distorting the image of comfort women, Park believes she presents a balanced view. “My book does talk about issues facing Korean society,” she said. “I have never denied this comfort woman question existed. There is some misunderstanding. I am not trying to whitewash history.”

Her greatest offense may have been to observe that Japanese were not the only guilty ones. “We know there were collaborators,” she said, meaning Koreans aiding and abetting the Japanese. “We have not asked collaborators and brokers to take responsibility. Who are these people?”

That question alone shows the obstacles to reaching an understanding that’s acceptable to all sides. Activists in Korea are not interested in investigating a Korean role while attacking the deal reached in December for Japan to put up one billion yen, more than $8 million, through a foundation for surviving comfort women.

Did Korea and Japan reach a secret agreement for removal of the “Comfort Woman Statue” of a demure young Korean woman across a narrow street from the Japanese embassy in Seoul? And is Japan holding back on the money until the statue is removed – a step sure to provoke protests in Seoul?

Those questions fuel the controversy while Park denies sublimating its significance. “It’s good it’s achieved worldwide attention,” she said. “We know what happened.”

But did all the women perform unwillingly? “Some comfort women have told me there was no force,” she said. “Some women experienced things other than described in the media. True voices are not properly heard.”

The question is whether those voices will speak out in a Korean court – or who in Korea is listening.

Donald Kirk, formerly a long-time member of the FCCJ, has been covering Northeast Asia for newspapers, magazines, the internet and broadcast for decades. He is the author of six books, most recently Okinawa and Jeju: Bases of Discontent.