Tag Archive | "media"

Will Seoul Become Asia’s Media Hub?

By James Constant

In July, the New York Times announced that it would move its Hong Kong-based digital news operation to Seoul over the course of the next year in response to the Chinese territory’s powerful new national security law, which went into effect in June. Already, press freedom in Hong Kong has come under attack. Jimmy Lai, the publisher of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, was arrested under the law on August 10, and Hong Kong work visas for foreign journalists are now reportedly being vetted by a new national security unit.

The Times’ move to Seoul can be explained both by the worsening environment for journalism in Hong Kong and the generally poor state of press freedom in Asia. The paper mentioned that Bangkok, Singapore and Tokyo were also considered, and cited South Korea’s “friendliness to foreign business, independent press, and its central role in several major Asian news stories” as factors weighing in Seoul’s favor. South Korea is currently ranked 42nd out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Index, the highest in Asia, with only Taiwan approaching Korea’s ranking. Singapore, which has been floated as a potential landing spot for international financial firms based in Hong Kong, has an atrocious record on press freedom, and the city-state’s Media Development Authority has broad censorship powers. Taiwan’s geopolitical situation precludes effective China coverage. Tokyo is even farther from Southeast Asian news stories than Seoul, and Japan has seen a backslide in press freedom since the Specially Designated Secrets act went into effect in 2013.

Considering the current situation, the New York Times is not alone – the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post are also considering moving staff from Hong Kong. Should they do so, Seoul is an attractive option – if only because other options in Asia are so limited.

It wasn’t long ago that South Korea was mired in its own dark days of media repression, which extended to foreign correspondents. Steven Butler, who worked for the Financial Times and Christian Science Monitor in Seoul during the mid-1980s, recalled that the South Korean government “wanted foreign correspondents, but didn’t want them to write things they didn’t like. During the Chun Doo-hwan administration, they would invite you out to lunch, then pull out an article you wrote.”  John Burton, who worked for the Financial Times in Seoul in the 1990s, after Korea’s democratization, wrote a story about a corruption scandal surrounding the son of then-President Kim Young-sam. He said his editors received a request from the government that Burton leave the country.

Reporters for international news organizations have had a much easier time in more recent years. The most notable example of overreach by the current Moon Jae-in administration against foreign media was its racially-tinged singling out of a Korean Bloomberg reporter and describing his article as “borderline traitorous” for likening Moon to a North Korean spokesman. After facing heavy criticism from reporters’ organizations, the Blue House quickly walked back its statement.

While conditions have certainly improved over time, one of the most worrying elements of South Korea’s current press freedom situation is the potential for a regression in the future. Moon’s predecessor, now-imprisoned former President Park Geun-hye, presided over a cultural blacklist, and South Korea’s World Press Index ranking reached an all-time low of 70 in 2016, Park’s last year in office.

In separate reports on press and political freedom in South Korea published during the Park administration, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Reporters Without Borders, and Freedom House, an American watchdog group, all cited criminal defamation laws and the National Security Act as key tools of repression. These laws remain unchanged today.

Revealing facts can still be punished by up two years in prison under the current defamation law. The National Security Act, introduced in 1948, provides stern penalties for vaguely-defined acts that may benefit North Korea, and was used in 2012 to imprison a photographer for satirically retweeting messages from a North Korean Twitter account. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for the National Security Act to be repealed. As long as these laws remain on the books, reporters in South Korea must be wary of running afoul of them, with the inevitable result being self-censorship.

These concerns may seem minor compared to the new atmosphere of hostility to the press descending over Hong Kong. But Seoul currently has an opportunity to position itself as the new capital for international media in Asia, which could confer the same kind of cosmopolitan image to the city that Hong Kong currently enjoys.

In August, the Seoul city government set up the Seoul International Financial Office in Yeouido, which offers a variety of benefits for international financial firms looking to relocate to the city. South Korea has presented no similar plan for relocating media companies, but addressing problems in the legal code would be a good first step.

Revisions to South Korea’s National Security Act and draconian defamation laws could make the country Asia’s undisputed leader in press freedom, considering the miserable state of much of the region. South Korean politicians have long demonstrated their interested in bolstering the capital region’s prestige as a global city through major infrastructure projects like the Songdo International Business District and Incheon International Airport. By rethinking their approach to focus on revising the law to promote free expression, South Korea would be well-positioned to turn Hong Kong’s potential loss of prestigious international media companies into Seoul’s gain.

James Constant is an MA candidate in East Asian Studies at Leiden University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Picture from the flickr account of Andreas Komodromos.

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Our Summer Korean Movie List

By KEI staff and interns

With the coronavirus situation worsening in the United States and the prospect of a normal summer slipping out of our grasp, we at KEI have prepared a list of some of our favorite Korean films – after all, we may never again have as much time to catch up on watching movies. As 2020 marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, these selections are portrayals of key periods in Korea’s history since the war through to the present day. Bloodshed, industrialization, protest, repression and hope – these films have it all. We hope you’ll join us in breaking out the popcorn and your favorite Korean snack in watching them all!

Taegugki: The Brotherhood of War (2003) directed by Kang Je-gyu

This intense story of two brothers forcibly drafted into the South Korean military during the Korean War smashed box office records upon its release. It tells a complicated story of the war, with both North and South Korea portrayed as unconcerned for the lives of their soldiers. 

Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005) — directed by Jang Jin

Soldiers from both South and North Korea and an American pilot end up by accident in a town known as Dongmakgol, where the villagers, cut off from the outside world, are unaware of the war raging across the peninsula.

The Front Line (2011) directed by Jang Hoon

As peace talks to end the Korean War come to a close after years of stalemate along the front lines, a South Korean investigator is sent to investigate the suspicious death of a commander during one of the war’s last battles. A gritty, unsparing look at the futility and loss of the end of the Korean War.

Early Rain (1966)  directed by Jeong Jin-woo

A young couple meet for the first time in a bohemian Myeong-dong jazz club. The girl works as a maid, but wearing a hand-me-down dress, she tells the boy she is a diplomat’s daughter. He’s a poor mechanic, but he sneaks his new love out with a high-class car and pretends to be an industrialist’s son. The stark inequality of 1960s Seoul is painted to heartrending effect in stunning black-and-white cinematography. A gorgeous restoration by the Korean Film Archive is available on YouTube.

The Man Standing Next (2020) — directed by Woo Min-ho

Based on an original novel of the same title, this political drama chronicles the 1979 presidential assassination of South Korean President Park Chung-hee, who had been in power for 18 years. The plot centers around Kim Jae-gyu, former director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), and the events leading up to his decision to assassinate President Park.

A Taxi Driver (2017) — directed by Jang Hoon

This 2017 historical action film revolves around a taxi driver from Seoul who inadvertently becomes involved in the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 — a landmark event in South Korea’s march towards democracy. The story is based on real-life events documented by a German journalist’s interactions with driver Kim Sa-bok.

Maiden Who Went to the City (1981) — directed by Kim Soo Yong

Bong Joon-ho is hardly the first Korean director to take on the theme of inequality through the medium of cinema. The 1981 movie “Maiden Who Went to the City” is one such example: the timeless plot of a country girl trying to make it in a big city is laden with critiques of gender discrimination and labor repression. The movie is a mystifyingly candid look into the plight of Korean workers at a time when demands for collective bargaining was still met with violent government pushback. In addition to the Fellini-esque realism, the film also provides a look at Seoul during its slow transition – when it was still called “Warsaw of the East” – before donning its current profile as a hyper-modern metropolis.

The Attorney (2013) — directed by Yang Woo-suk

Inspired by the real-life “Burim” case of 1981, The Attorney is a courtroom drama about Song Woo Seok, a greedy tax attorney who discovers his conscience when he stumbles on evidence of torture and murder under South Korea’s military dictatorship. As the movie unfolds, Song begins to change his views after meeting a student activist who he eventually defends as his client.

1987: When the Day Comes (2017) — directed by Jang Joon-hwan

The torture and killing of a student activist by police under the Chun Doo-hwan regime, which directly led to the 1987 June Democracy Uprising, is told through shifting perspectives. Kim Yoon-seok shines as a brutally anti-communist police commissioner.

Memories of Murder (2003) directed by Bong Joon Ho

Based on the true story of a serial killer who stalked rural Korea and frustrated police efforts in the 1980s, Bong captures the rawness of rapidly changing Korean lifestyles and mores in a compelling story that highlights tensions over police practices, social prejudice and much more.

Default (2018) — directed by Choi Kook-hee

Korea’s harrowing experiences during the 1997 Asian financial crisis and subsequent IMF bailout are rendered through the travails of three people: a small business owner, financial analyst and economic policymaker.

Black Money (2019) — directed by Chung Ji-young

“Black Money” is a white-collar crime film based on the true story of the ongoing multi-million-dollar investor-state dispute between the South Korean government and a private equity firm Lone Star that began in 2006. In this fictionalized version of the real-world case, Prosecutor Yang Min-hyeok ends up in a complicated situation because of a suspect who commits suicide. While investigating a case to clear himself of suspicion, he comes to see the truth behind the huge financial scandal rocking South Korea. 

Ode to My Father (2014) — directed by Yoon Je-kyoon

“Forrest Gump” might be the point of comparison for this “Ode to My Father,” an epoch-spanning tale of South Korea’s 20th-century history. One man experiences the Hungnam Evacuation during the Korean War, life as a migrant worker in West Germany, the Vietnam War and the country’s industrialization and rise to prosperity.

The recommendations above are the views of individual KEI staff members and interns and do not represent an institutional endorsement. KEI Intern James Constant helped in compiling and editing this list.

Photo from Jens-Olaf Walter’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Media Cultures that Shape News on North Korea

By Andray Abrahamian

A month ago we ended a thrilling rollercoaster news event that helped temporarily distract us from coronavirus news: the health of Kim Jong-un. This story was due to some specific features of newsgathering and reporting on North Korea. With a bit of hindsight on that maelstrom, it might be worthwhile to zoom out and take a look at the media cultures that help shape North Korea news more generally, when there isn’t necessarily a “BREAKING” headline to get our attention.

Three media cultures create the majority of English-language news about North Korea: the United States, United Kingdom and the Republic of Korea. All three have unique characteristics and generate news in specific ways to meet particular goals and standards.

In the United States, news production rests on the foundational value of objectivity, though that has come under strain in the past decade. But this principle isn’t applied evenly, of course. One area in which the objectivity norm is less robust when news covers foreign policy issues generally and war/conflict in particular. The United States is, of course, in conflict with North Korea.

In Britain, “rather than objectivity, notions of truth, independence and ‘fair play’ held greater appeal”, according to one scholar [1]. Partisanship is allowable, so long as the subject is dealt with equitably and rationally. When the subject is deemed to be acting wholly unfairly, however, the requirements for fairness in news coverage are understandably diminished. North Korea as a news subject finds itself in this position, as does, say, Dominic Cummings. This is particularly true for British tabloids, which pursue “righteous causes” with a vigor largely unseen in American media.

South Korea finds its news media embedded in a politicized and polarized environment. With a relatively short history of media freedom, large media companies tend to cleave closer to the state than in the other two countries. That state that is involved in an ongoing structural competition for legitimacy with its Northern neighbor, even when the government in Seoul is pursuing a policy of rapprochement.

These media cultures agenda-set for reporting worldwide on this topic. The United States is a media hegemon, whose media outlets command the attention of media in other languages. The UK is home to several agenda-setting media outlets, notably the BBC, the Times and the Guardian. South Korea is less influential globally, but produces a great volume of news about North Korea, often translated into English.

In the United States, as noted, the objectivity norm is reduced when covering foreign affairs. This is partly because media are reliant on official sources for content. (One study from the 1970s found that 75 percent of front-page stories on the Washington Post and New York Times depended on official sources.) The U.S. government can therefore present the information that is to constitute the news story and then simultaneously give the official opinion on it, framing the information from the beginning. If a journalist can find an opposing view, it tends to remain a subordinate “counterpoint” in the binary relationship between the two.

This doesn’t mean media are simply complicit in how officials frame foreign affairs and conflict. As Daniel Hallin puts it, “officials, in their efforts to control political appearances, necessarily challenge the autonomy of the media, and journalists naturally resist” [2]. But, as Michael Schudson, another media scholar, notes: “the media are obligated not only to make profits but to maintain their credibility in the eyes of readers,” as well as “expert and often critical sub-groups in the population, particularly in Washington, D.C.” [3].

This is an important frame and might manifest itself, for example, by describing North Korean acts as “saber-rattling”, while the US and allies conduct “shows of force”. This is easy to slip into. After all, if you ascribe to small-l liberal values and a liberal world order, perspectives favorable to Pyongyang are usually fundamentally opposed to both American values and strategic interests. How does one find an objective viewpoint on such a country and its policies?

That fact that the DPRK doesn’t respect human rights and individual rights in the same way as western democracies also challenges the “fairness doctrine” of British media. This can happen with conservative, establishment press like The Economist, which famously had a cover of Kim Jong Il captioned “Greetings, Earthlings!” and bid him farewell when he died with a self-referential “Farewell, Earthling’s”.

UK tabloid news outlets are even more likely to mock North Korea. When The Sun snuck two journalists onto a tour of North Korea in 2012, “tricking” the regime, they noted that apartments in Sinuiju were “a sham, they were all windowless and empty. Despot Kim Jong-il had ordered the ‘homes’ to be built to make it appear to the Chinese that North Koreans were living well.” People were of course “zombie-like”. They also produced commentary about a “glum” circus: “The Sun’s shocking pictures expose the despotic regime’s everyday cruelty that will outrage animal lovers.” Still, the headline: “North Korea’s got Talent: Animals Made to Skate in Secretive State” is pretty amazing.

These descriptions are dubious and the point about the apartments manifestly nonsense. The point here is fairness becomes unnecessary when describing a place that is so alien, difficult and visits all manner of woes on its own citizens. And also on bears, who I agree should not be forced to skate.

Finally, South Korean media culture fits into what Hallin and Mancini call the “polarized pluralist model”. In this model, the processes that disembedded news media from political parties, interests and the state has not taken place. Pre-democratic South Korea has left a legacy wherein the expectation of cooperation between media and government is high. The government also has more leverage over news organizations than in the UnitedStates or UK.

There is a conservative press and a progressive press, both of which favor different approaches to North Korea, though overall within the framework of an alliance and good relations with the United States. The DPRK is a competitor state, after all, even if a pro-engagement administration like the current one is in power.

Along with this news-industry model, the specific news culture allows single anonymous sources to be the basis of a story, something not really possible in the United States or Britain. News stories can be much more “rumor-y” in Korea in general.

The nature of government leaks and anonymous source stories on North Korea, of which there are many, does change according to which kind of government is in power. Under the previous two conservative administrations, the stories pushed in the direction of the media tended to emphasize instability, human rights violations and deprivation. Under this progressive one, stories are more likely to emphasize stability, reasonable leadership and areas where compromise might be possible. What matters for English-language news is these are the pool of leaks that get picked up by the South Korean press, then sometimes re-interpreted by western outlets.

Ultimately, none of this is about what is true or false per se. But as media consumers being aware without being hyperbolic – no need to scream “fake news” or any of that nonsense – is important as we attempt to understand a difficult and complicated country.

Andray Abrahamian is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute, Visiting Scholar at George Mason University Korea, and Senior Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.


[1] Mark Hampton, “The ‘Objectivity’ Ideal And Its Limitations In 20th-Century British Journalism,” Journalism Studies Vol. 9, No. 4, (2008): 477.

[2] Daniel Hallin, The Uncensored War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 7

[3] Michael Schudson, The Sociology of News (New York: Norton, 2003), 40.

Picture from flickr account of Eli

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Fake News from Pyongyang! How North Korea is Using the Internet

By Robert R. King

“Fake News” from Pyongyang is hardly new news, but the self-isolated country is now taking a more aggressive and creative approach in its effort to discredit information about the regime that circulates where there is greater access to information beyond the borders of the hermit kingdom.  In addition to the turgid denunciations from KCNA (Korea Central News Agency), a more sophisticated and creative approach has emerged recently in the effort to deny claims that the North Korean regime finds offensive.

This latest show of creativity comes in response to media reports about food shortages in the North.  The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) appealed to UN member countries for $10 million in assistance to help 513,000 food-insecure North Koreans.  The FAO said that the international coronavirus pandemic has increased pressure on the North’s always precarious food supply.

Press Reports on Food Shortages

In late April reports appeared that people in Pyongyang were “panic buying” food staples and causing empty store shelves in the capital city.  These reports were widely circulated.  U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “There is a real risk that there will be a famine, a food shortage, inside of North Korea,” and he added that the United States is closely watching the food situation there.

Reports of food shortages in North Korea are frequent.  Since the horrific famine of the 1990s, North Korea has relied on United Nations, other international agencies, and many individual countries to provide food assistance over the last two decades.

North Korea is in an awkward position.  On the one hand there is, in fact, a significant shortfall in food production, in part because of limited arable land but more significantly as a result of the government focusing resources on maintaining an enormous military and developing nuclear weapons and missiles.  Providing luxuries for Kim Jong-un and the leadership elite is also drains resources.  Economic management, focused on maintaining regime control, does not provide needed incentives to encourage greater food output, efficiency, and distribution.

On the other hand, the North wants to be considered an advanced developed nation.  Its legitimacy is based on the claim that it has a superior social and economic system. Particularly in its competition with South Korea to claim that it is the “true” Korea, the North has difficulty maintaining its reputation.  South Korea’s per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is 23 times greater per person than North Korea’s. South Korea is ranked 14th largest economy in the world in terms of total GDP, while North Korea with half the population of the South is ranked 118th—just ahead of Georgia, Madagascar and Botswana.

Thus, North Korea faces a conflict between the need for food from outside to supplement its inadequate domestic production and the stigma of begging for aid from its wealthier allies (China and Russia) and from the international community.  This inconsistency between the desire and need for international food assistance and the wish to be seen as a sophisticated first-world country puts Pyongyang in an awkward position.  Despite these contradictions, the North has taken a very interesting direction in its international media efforts

Sophisticated Social Media Information Campaign

In an effort to burnish the image of North Korea by countering the recent reports of food shortages and internal problems, a much more sophisticated campaign is underway.  The North has shown some real skill in using social media to its benefit.  A series of items have recently appeared on YouTube and Twitter showing a new face of North Korea propaganda.

Here are a few samples of items that have appeared recently on the internet.  These pieces are well produced, there is peppy background music, the journalists who narrate the items sometime speak in English, and other North Koreans who are “interviewed” and speak all have English subtitles translating their remarks.

“True or False:  Pyongyang Tour Series.”   Posted April 24 (2 minutes).  The narrator speaks English but comments from other individuals are in Korean with English subtitles.  A pleasant young Korean woman on a Pyongyang street starts:  “Today is April 24 and I am here for a reason.  Recently Western media reported about DPRK’s economy, so I’m here today to check it out.”  Clearly the YouTube video was aimed at countering the reports of food shortages because we then go to footage of what we are supposed to believe is a typical Pyongyang market.  The grocery store has all kinds of colorfully packaged processed food products, full shelves, neat glass front cold foods storage, and we see a few well-dressed patrons shopping.  Most are women.  Two messages are clear—(1) everyone prefers domestic goods over imports, and (2) there are no food shortages.  A shopper is asked, “Does it happen that the shop lacks of products lately?”  The store clerk responds, “No, there are products popular and less popular, but we are always stocked enough.”

The appearance of the store makes the places where I shop in Palo Alto, California, and the affluent suburbs of Washington, D.C. look a bit tawdry by comparison.  The women who are shopping are all smartly dressed with high-heel boots, chic coats, and stylishly coiffed hair.  Although the North has no cases of COVID-19 (at least so we are told), sales clerks and customers are all wearing face masks.

“My Life in Pyongyang: Happy Lunch.”  Posted May 12, 2020.  (3 ½ minutes).  The message of this post is that there is plenty of good food in Pyongang.  The young woman protagonist goes to lunch at the Pyongyang’s Taedonggang Seafood Restaurant.  Clearly, however, this is not a place for the average North Korean, even the average person living in Pyongyang.  We are told that the site of the restaurant was chosen by Kim Jong-un himself and that he also personally attended the grand opening.  The restaurant is as nice as some of the best restaurants in Seoul.  In the center of the main part of the restaurant is a large fish pond, where diners choose the fresh fish they want as it swims around.  The young woman picks a carp.  It is scooped up in a net, put in a plastic box, weighed, and then cooked for the young woman.  Walking to the table, she chats with the restaurant hostess.  They discuss what dishes are most popular—raw fish (sushi) and fish soup.  We next see her eating carp soup with a large piece of the fish she chose.  Her message:  “I think I can eat to my heart’s content today.”  Our narrator also notes that “I personally love to eat in this restaurant with glass tables.”  On the way out she stops at the take home counter where guests can picks up crab and other prepared delicacies to take home.

“Back to Campus:  Pyongyang Tour Series.”  Posted April 21, 2020.  (3 minutes).  This vignette focuses on students returning to university and how happy they all are to be back at their studies.  In addition to footage of students in class, with students and teacher wearing face masks, there were four interviews with different students, all expressing how delighted they are to be back in school.  One of the students gives the key message:  “Watching the news about spread of COVID-19 and watching how we are successfully preventing its inflow, I witnessed how great our socialist system is.”  But the last student, who is studying English, was asked to give a greeting in English, and she ended the broadcast on a softer tone:  “Hello, everybody.  I’d like to send my friendly greetings to all the students around the world.  And I hope from the bottom of my heart, you return to your study as soon as possible.”

“My Song from Pyongyang: Pyongyang Tour Series.”  Posted April 30, 2020.  (4 minutes)  A young woman who is obviously a professional singer introduces her music:  “I’m here today to talk about, not differences, but something in common.  I know everyone’s going through a hard time now.  I think this is the time we should stand together against our common enemy, the COVID-19, instead of criticizing each other or throwing some sarcasms to each other.  And the fact that we are free from COVID-19 does not mean we do not see or feel the other’s pain.  So I say we should fight the virus with love and trust for a peaceful and healthy world.”  She then sings a slow ballad with very professional musical backup.  The song is  “Green Willow”—“You beautiful green willow, Always keeping your head down . . .”   A subtle way of saying even though we are better off than you because we have no cases of COVID-19, we feel your pain.  This approach is certainly more subtle and it may be more successful than the usual bluster and bombast that comes from the propaganda apparatchiks.

The Messages Have Official Approval

Clearly this material now being posted to YouTube and other social media has official sanction and appears to be part of a shift in tactics.  Such material could not be produced without official approval.  Since access to the international internet is tightly and strictly controlled in North Korea, such material would not find its way to the YouTube and Twitter without official approval.  It clearly hits back on issues—food shortages, regime success in dealing with COVID-19—in a soft sell fashion, but it is also clear that this is conscious regime counter-messaging.

This is not material for domestic North Korean consumption.  North Koreans do not have access to the wider internet.  If it were for internal consumption, it would not be put on the internet which is not accessed in the North.

This is also not just material produced for the domestic audience on the internal intranet that was set out to a broader audience.  Messages on the internal intranet would not include English speakers and English subtitles.  Furthermore, the luxurious seafood restaurant and the Potemkin supermarket showing a wide variety of beautifully packaged food and the well-stocked shelves would not be shown.  Average North Koreans, even those in Pyongyang, would likely be envious of the luxuries their elite enjoy.

These YouTube pieces and similar ones on Twitter are clearly intended to counter the stories of food shortages in North Korea and burnish the image of the North, but it is done in a more subtle and sophisticated way.  In the past, discounting foreign press reporting usually involved a scathing response from KCNA (Korea Central News Agency), the official North Korean news agency.  Reports would be delivered with vigor and bombast.  This new pleasant soft sell approach reflects Pyongyang’s increasing sophistication in selling itself and its image.


Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.   

Photo from Uri Tours’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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An Adversarial Media? Or Bad Public Policy?

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • President Moon Jae-in placed emphasis on stabilizing the real estate market in his New Year’s press conference. He stressed the importance of the media’s cooperation in policy implementation.
  • The government is hinting that it will reintroduce permitting requirements for putting a property on the market – a controversial policy that was briefly tabled under the Roh Moo-hyun administration.
  • Despite the government’s appeal, the media is pushing back against the policy proposal.

Implications: President Moon’s call for media cooperation betrays the administration’s suspicion that many progressive policies have failed because of negative coverage by an adversarial press. This implicit suggestion also justifies the incumbent administration’s reintroduction of a policy that was withdrawn by a previous government. But with or without a supportive media narrative, the log record of successive administrations failing to stabilize real estate prices will significantly shape the public’s outlook on the government’s capacity to curb the current economic realities.

Context: The proposed “selling permit system” requires prospective home sellers to first receive government approval before their properties could be listed on the market. During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the government considered the policy but faced severe media backlash. Most mainstream newspapers argued that excessive government intervention in the market would further destabilize real estate prices. The criticism eventually led the government to indefinitely postpone the policy’s implementation.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from user Chris Harber on Flickr

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The Objectives of Collaboration by Russia and North Korea’s News Agencies

By Olga Krasnyak

On 8 October 2019 a delegation of top Russian media representatives visited Pyongyang where TASS, the largest Russian news agency, and KCNA, the Korean Central News Agency, signed a new cooperation agreement. As reported, TASS is the only foreign news agency that operates in Pyongyang on a regular basis.

Considering the fact that foreign correspondents from Western news agencies have difficulties gaining access to North Korea, and when they eventually do are normally supervised by intelligence agents, they do not enjoy freedom of the press in North Korea. An example of such constraints are the foreign reporters who were given access to cover the propaganda-like dismantling of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. The charade of that dismantling was obvious to the international expert community, while the role of foreign reporters was undermined in their failure to understand that it had not been irreversibly dismantled.

Of course, Russian reporters would not be given absolute freedom in an authoritarian country, yet their permanent presence and access to North Korea will enable Russian journalists to watch the country closer.

The objectives of the collaboration between news agencies can be assessed as follows.

First, news exchanges. This objective looks obvious and might not require extra explanation: what would be easier than to exchange the news in the digital era? Moreover, the circulation of all kinds of news could not be solely dependent on the willingness or otherwise acceptance of political authorities to share the news. One way or another, the news will come out. What is important to note is that when accessing the agreement of news exchanges between Russia and North Korea, it becomes visible that the agreement critically eases North Korea-Russia journalistic exchanges and the exchange of experiences on a regular basis. People-to-people exchanges that aim to build interpersonal trust and grow understanding help to deepen bilateral relations.

Second, deepening bilateral relations. On a more broad scale, collaboration between news agencies helps both countries to maintain inter-state relations. For example, TASS has never missed the opportunity to mention that it is the only foreign agency that interviewed Kim Jong-il (the father of Kim Jong-un) twice, in 2001 and 2011 (in Russian). This fact might indicate close ties and a certain level of trust between the two countries. Alternatively, this fact might also point out the direction that other countries — who are interested in reaching North Korea — might be willing to take in order to approach North Korea. In any case, pragmatism and calculation explain the intentions to maintain friendship and solidarity between two peoples. If this objective sounds too ambitions and unrealistic, bearing in mind that North Korea is not the main priority of Russia’s foreign policy but Russia is interested in securing its Far East from any potential threat posed by North Korea, then there is no harm in declaring a peoples’ friendship and solidarity.

Third, strategizing and formulating the state narrative. This objective might be the most important to take into consideration. The reputation of KCNA and its tone for news interpretation to voice North Korea’s foreign policy is peculiar and mostly propagandistic. In contrast (even some propaganda experts might argue), Russia’s TASS new agency is more reputable. The Soviet times propaganda unveiled that people have little trust in the state narrative that had been voiced by a state news agency. TASS, however, has acknowledged the Soviet experience and reframed its news coverage in a more balanced and transparent way.

Imagine that KCNA cares about its international reputation and might tend to reframe its image as more reliable at the same time continuing to be the mouthpiece of North Korea’s leadership. If this is the case, then cooperating with TASS might be taken as a small step to learn from Russia’s experience to create a more positive image of a news agency.

One might argue that Russia cannot teach the freedom of the press to anyone, yet inviting Western liberal mainstream media representatives to North Korea for close cooperation is unthinkable and unimaginable at the moment. Gradual changes might be the only harmless option for North Korea.

Going deeper, Russia’s contemporary stance and self-positioning on the international stage includes promoting the idea of national sovereignty. For example, Russia insists that regardless of political regime, any currently existing statehood must not be destroyed but only changed through reforms. Moscow is certain that through gradual evolutionary change and state reform, it would be possible to create new models of progressive development and competitiveness intrinsic to the modern world (i.e. human rights and the freedom of the press). This scheme is well applied to North Korea.

When talking about national sovereignty — that by default must be preserved — North Korea’s sovereignty cannot be removed from the international discourse. The notion of national sovereignty that cannot be compromised, is the cornerstone in inter-state relations and peaceful coexistence. Thinking logically, North Korea might adapt the principle of promoting a certain state narrative and news interpretation close to Russia’s concept of national sovereignty.

In sum, through the collaboration of news agencies, North Korea and Russia are more likely pursue their pragmatic goals. When promoting its foreign policy objectives and deepening bilateral relations with North Korea, Russia makes a contribution to preserving the peace on the Korean peninsula and securing its Far East. North Korea’s pragmatic goal is to enlist the support of its closest neighbor from the North and, perhaps, stabilizing ideological battles with the implicit support of Russia. The long term outcome of the collaboration is yet to be fully evaluated, but a positive dynamic in bilateral relations should not be overlooked by whether Western or Asian powers who have stepped in the Northeast Asian region.

Dr. Olga Krasnyak is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Theory and History of International Relations at RUDN University in Moscow. Her research interests lie within diplomatic studies with a focus on science diplomacy and its implementation into a state’s foreign policy agenda. Dr. Krasnyak is the author of National Styles in Science, Diplomacy, and Science Diplomacy (Leiden, Boston: Brill 2018). She often provides media commentary on diplomacy, foreign policy, and international relations. She tweets @OlgaKrasnyak 

Photo from Uri Tour’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Robust Online Political Discourse Carries Side Effects

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • Many online platforms served as venues for the political debate around the controversial confirmation of Justice Minister-designate Cho Kuk.
  • Supporters and detractors engaged in online campaigns to elevate their respective taglines on the ranking of most-searched keywords on major search portals.
  • A group of petitioners claimed that detractors attempted to reduce the credibility of their online petition by using fake accounts and uploading hoax signatures.

Implications: While the high rate of online penetration has been an economic boon to South Korea, the absence of vigilant monitoring on online platforms have raised concerns that savvy users may hijack the algorithm to manipulate political discourse. Both detractors and supporters of Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s confirmation mobilized users to input specific taglines into the search bars of popular online portals, causing key phrases to appear in real-time search rankings. Their aim was to influence public opinion. Observers have also raised suspicions that automated programs were used to boost these search terms. Similarly, some activists have alleged that fake accounts were being used to both inflate and sabotage online petitions. With limited progress from the public or private sectors to control this abuse, civil society leaders worry that these tactics will pose threats to the credibility of democratic institutions and processes.

Context: Concerns around misinformation and public opinion manipulation are acute in South Korea because of the country’s extensive smartphone and internet penetration. The courts recently convicted power-blogger Kim Dong-won for engaging in an illicit cyber-operation to influence public opinion. Kim ran a computer program to artificially inflate the number of “likes” on online comments to boost positive public sentiment for then-candidate Moon Jae-in ahead of the 2017 election. Although the problem had been previously acknowledged, this scandal created a very public spotlight on the risks posed by digital technology.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

Picture from user TFurban on flickr

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What did Kim Jong-un Mean by “Dealing a Telling Blow to Hostile Forces”?

By Mark Tokola

Reporting on the April 10, 2019 meeting of the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, the North Korean state media headline was: “N. Korea must deal a ‘blow’ against hostile forces, Kim Jung-un tells the ruling party.” The Central Committee meeting was held in advance of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) that was held on April 11. Particular attention was paid to the belligerent headline in the U.S. media because commentators were waiting to see how Kim would react to the failure to reach an agreement with President Trump at the February 27-28 Hanoi Summit.  In context, however, Kim’s remarks were not as alarming as they appeared to be in the headline.

Kim Jong-un’s presentation to the Central Committee was mostly noteworthy for its heavy emphasis on the North Korean economy and for its lack of any direct criticism of the United States.  There were some references to defending the DPRK, but mostly in terms of what North Koreans need to do to advance their own country rather than about the evil intentions of hostile outsiders.

What Kim said about a “telling blow” as reported in the North Korean media beyond the headline was, “[North Korea] should vigorously advance socialist construction…to deal a telling blow to hostile forces who with bloodshot eyes miscalculate that sanctions can bring the DPRK to its knees.”  In other words, the “telling blow” would be that North Korea would be able to confound its enemies by withstanding economic sanctions.

The North Korean media reported that Kim Jong-un in his report to the Central Committee had “made a scientific analysis of the changed international landscape and the peculiarities of the present situation becoming daily acute and clarified the main tenor of the recent DPRK-U.S. summit talks and the Party’s stance towards it.”  Kim’s prescription to deal with the ”peculiarities of the present situation,” is to “more vigorously advance socialist construction by dint of self-supporting national economy… Self-reliance and self-supporting national economy are the bedrock of the existence of our own style socialism.”

Kim’s appeals for more efforts to advance the North Korean economy came close to admitting that it has underperformed in the past, “[there is a need to] put the national economy on a new phase of growth by expanding and reinforcing the foundation of the economy.”  North Korea has “reserved strength…and tremendous potential” — words which imply that its strength is not being exercised and its potential is not being met.  One difference between Kim Jong-un and his predecessors is his willingness to admit that everything is not perfect in North Korea.

What can be drawn from Kim Jong-un’s comments to the Central Committee?  Two main points are: (1) sanctions must be having an effect on the North Korean economy or he wouldn’t be so vociferous about the need to mobilize the country to resist them; and (2) he is continuing to stake his legitimacy on a promise to improve the North Korean economy.  Kim called on “the entire party, the whole country, and all the people [to] courageously wage an all-out, death-defying campaign to bring about a great surge in socialist construction.  Building an economic power is the main political task.”  That doesn’t sound like a man who is satisfied with the way things are going.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from user MarsmanRom on Wikimedia Commons.

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Korean Trust in the Media Remains Low, Despite Recent Victories for Press Freedom

By Jenna Gibson

In the United States, the rise of terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts,” as well as scandals about election manipulation through made-up news stories and biased sources have led to a spike in discussion about the inherent trustworthiness of the news media. However, when it comes to overall distrust in the news, the United States has nothing on South Korea.

According to the University of Oxford Reuters Institute’s 2017 Digital News Report, South Korea has the lowest trust in news out of the 36 countries surveyed around the world. Just 23 percent of Koreans said they trust news overall in that survey, and only 12 percent said that the news is free from political and business influence. By contrast, the United States also reported a low trust in news, just 38 percent, putting it at number 28 out of 36. The report, which has examined media consumption around the world since 2013, added Korea in 2016, and the results that year were about the same – 22 percent said they trusted the news, which was 25th out of the 26 countries surveyed (only ahead of Greece).

Another interesting finding in the 2017 report was that Koreans have a narrow gap between their trust of news overall (23 percent) and their trust in the news they personally consume (27 percent). In most other countries surveyed, that gap was significantly higher (38 percent vs. 53 percent in the US, for example), reflecting the fact that people presumably seek out and follow news outlets that they find particularly trustworthy. In Korea, however, the popularity of news aggregation platforms like Naver and Daum mean that people often consume the news through a third party. According to the Oxford researchers, “The small difference between overall trust and trust in the news I use, relates to the heavy use of portals, where people often don’t remember specific news brands.”

Several major scandals in the last few years have dealt major blows to Korean trust in the news media. Former President Park Geun Hye was accused of using South Korea’s strict defamation laws to silence critics in the media, causing many moderate to left-leaning publications to self-censor out of fear of prosecution. The Park administration was also criticized for manipulating major public broadcasters KBS and MBC by appointing conservative pro-Park CEOs to both organizations. Employees of both companies have protested these appointments on and off for years, culminating in a months-long strike last fall that eventually resulted in the removal of the two leaders. After the announcement that their strike was successful, the KBS Union released a statement reading, “We have only just removed the biggest hurdle that stood in the way of KBS becoming a true broadcasting company of the people. Our goal isn’t just to make KBS what it was 10 years ago, our goal is to end the broadcasting company’s shameful history of servitude and submission to power. We will create a KBS that touches the lives of our citizens and reflects their opinions and ideas.”

These issues are not just limited to Park Geun Hye’s time, however. Earlier this year, an online blogger known as “Druking” was accused of using a computer program to “like” comments on news stories on Naver, thus artificially inflating certain comments to make sure that they were shown first in the comment section below political stories, as well as writing critical comments. Police say he used as many as 2,000 online IDs at a time to manipulate Naver comment sections. The blogger was recently indicted along with three former members of the Minjoo Party, who were also allegedly participating in online opinion rigging. Naver has since announced that they are overhauling their news portal to prevent similar issues in the future, and hope to make their process more transparent to regain the trust of the public.

In the Reporters Without Borders annual World Press Freedom Index, South Korea fell from 31st in the world in 2006 to 70th in 2016, largely on the back of these influence scandals. But in 2017 the country returned to 63rd, and then jumped 20 places to hit 43rd in 2018’s report. According to the index, the media’s work to expose Park’s corruption, as well as President Moon’s efforts to end the MBC and KBS strikes were the main reasons for this improvement.

The Moon administration has openly stated that they want to make these issues a priority. Right after his election last summer, Moon’s team pledged to bring Korea back to 30th in the ranking, and listed that pledge fourth among the incoming administration’s 100 policy priorities. Solving the MBC/KBS issue shows he is serious in following through on this promise. But issues remain – the structure that allows the government to appoint managers at these broadcasters are still in place, leaving open the possibility for future influence. Plus, South Korea’s defamation laws allow for harsh punishments for a range of political and non-political speech, and could still be used to silence opponents of the government. By eliminating these structural issues within South Korea’s free speech landscape, as well as considering whether the National Security Law which criminalizes viewing of a wide range of North Korea-related material, Moon can ensure that his commitment to free speech lasts long after he leaves the Blue House.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo by KEI Intern Minhee Lee

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Hazy Shade of Winter: Air Pollution Sparks Emergency Measures in Korea

By Jenna Gibson

This week, Seoul’s residents were in a haze – literally. Dangerously high levels of particulate matter in the air prompted emergency measures from the Seoul city government, including making public transportation free during peak hours and asking residents to leave their cars in park as much as possible.

These policies are triggered based on the amount of PM2.5 in the air, with levels above 50 µg/m³ being considered unsafe. On Thursday morning, though, PM2.5 in Seoul hit 160 µg/m³, more than three times that level. Even before this week’s spike, the OECD announced that South Korea has the worst air quality among its members.

The government’s emergency measures may have had limited success, however – according to Arirang, use of buses and subways increased by only 2.1 percent on Monday, and traffic only dropped 1.8 percent.

This was the first time emergency smog measures have been activated since the government announced their new policies in July 2017. Besides the free subway and bus rides, other measures include implementing an odd-even license plate program, where drivers alternate days they can be on the road depending on the last digit of their license plate, as well as upping environmental standards for industries like construction and heating/cooling.

The public discourse surrounding the pollution issue, however, doesn’t often zero in on these domestic industries as the source of the problem. Instead, many media reports about the air pollution problem mention particulates blowing over from China, picking up pollutants from the large country’s many factories before making its way to Seoul. However, a KEI analysis by Professor Matthew Shapiro suggests it’s more complicated than that: “While it is true that the pollution originates in China and is carried eastward on the trade winds, China is not the sole contributor to this problem. Rather, Korean investments in China and the subsequent exports of goods from firms in China all play a role,” he writes. “This is an urgent problem, requiring the cooperation of both countries to manage what is ultimately a regional pollution issue.”

The government is scrambling to get a handle on the pollution issue now not only because of public health, but also because of concerns with the PyeongChang Olympic Games starting in less than a month. To keep particulate levels low, an old theromoelectric power plant near the Olympic venues has been shut down until June, and the government is planning to deploy sensors around the PyeongChang area to measure pollution in real time.

Meanwhile, residents are finding ways to cope with the dangerously high pollution rates. After the government announced its first fine dust emergency day on Monday, stock shares of companies that make eye drops and face masks soared. Demand for clothing dryers is also on the rise – although many Koreans still air dry their clothes, concerns about pollution pushed the domestic market for dryers up 474 percent in 2017, according to e-commerce site Auction.

Realistically, offering free rides on the bus or subway is great as a temporary, emergency measure, and can be particularly helpful for those on the lower end of the income spectrum who may be forced to walk in the polluted air if they can’t afford to pay for public transportation. However, not only is it not financially feasible for the Seoul city to offer free rides on a long-term basis, it also does nothing to solve the underlying problem of emissions generated both in Korea and blowing in from abroad.

Although it may take more than a few days of free rides to change people’s habits, clearly the measure didn’t incentivize that many drivers to leave their cars at home for the day. The Korean government, coordinating closely with major cities like Seoul, is going to have to step up their attention to this issue, and find ways to address the root of the problem, whether through domestic or diplomatic efforts.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. Image taken by Jenna Gibson.

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About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.