Tag Archive | "social issues"

South Korea Struggles to Meet Its Ecological Aspirations

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

  • At the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, President Moon announced his plan to double Seoul’s funding of the Green Climate Fund and host an international climate summit in South Korea.
  • The government’s recently released data showed that greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high in 2017.
  • South Korea’s coal consumption increased by 2.4% in 2018, the only country to do so among OECD members.

Implications: While President Moon’s pledge at the UN was consistent with his broader effort to reduce South Korea’s carbon emissions, Seoul faces the challenge of building a greener economy without nuclear power or whole-hearted private sector support. As a result of Moon’s domestic pledge to phase out nuclear energy, the Korean utility operators had no choice but to rely more heavily on coal and LNG in the past two years.

Meanwhile, South Korean firms like Doosan, Samsung, and Hyundai have won lucrative bids to build coal-fired plants in Southeast Asia. In fact, South Korea is the second-largest investor in the global coal-financing market. These realities hold up Korea’s push to become a principal player in the struggle against climate change.

Context: Following the 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima, activists began calling on the government to phase out nuclear power plants from South Korea. A 2012 scandal that revealed flaws in these plants’ safety protocols further exacerbated public anxiety around nuclear energy. Finally, a series of small earthquakes in 2016 reintroduced fears that an analogous accident to Fukushima could occur in South Korea. Cognizant of this pushback, the government pivoted its investment focus to renewable energy – but this is not expected to substitute coal output in the near future.

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

Picture from IAEA’s flickr account

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Discussion around Crime Investigations Reveal Growing Sensitivity to Individual Rights

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

  • Advanced DNA analysis technology helped identify a suspect in a three-decade-old serial murder case.
  • Since the introduction of Act on Use and Protection of DNA Identification Information and the establishment of a national DNA identification information database in 2010, more than 5,000 cases of unsolved crimes were re-opened.
  • Constitutional Court ruled that an individual has the right to reject DNA collection and gave the National Assembly until December 31, 2019 to revise the Act on Use and Protection of DNA Identification Information.

Implications: Despite growing recognition that DNA analysis is effective in criminal investigations, the Constitutional Court’s decision reflected a growing awareness of individual rights and privacy in South Korea. The Court’s ruling reflected the view that existing laws provide insufficient protections, including against forced collection of DNA samples from suspects. Detractors of the current law have also pointed out that law enforcement agents currently have the power to collect DNA samples from protesters, which could have an adverse impact on the freedom of speech.

As a result of the ruling, the National Assembly is required to revise the relevant law by the end of this year. If the legislature fails to accomplish this revision, the whole law will be nullified and prosecutors may not be able to use DNA evidence in court. While this could frustrate investigations into unsolved cases, the ruling affirms that South Korean society has become more aware of civil rights.

Context: The constitutionality of the Act on Use and Protection of DNA Identification Information was called into question as soon as the law was introduced in 2010. However, a series of appalling crimes garnered public attention and reduced support for legal action that would protect the rights of suspected criminals. In 2014, another constitutional petition regarding the DNA Act was unsuccessfully advanced to the Court. The successful ruling in favor of greater protection for individuals in 2018 is a testament to the tenacity of legal advocates and the robustness of civil society in South Korea.

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

Picture by d’n’c from Wikimedia 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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Deepening Demographic Challenge Complicates Positive Economic Data

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

Implications: Although recent data showed that overall unemployment has fallen to the lowest point since 2013, the concentration of job growth among the elderly suggests that the South Korean society is straining to absorb the cost of demographic challenge. The presence of so many workers over the age of 60 seeking employment strongly indicates that existing social safety nets are insufficiently protecting the elderly.

This underlying demographic shift also carries risks for the Korean government’s long-term fiscal position. In response to issues like elderly poverty, the Finance Ministry allocated 13% of the proposed budget to bolstering the social safety net. This continues Korea’s rapid expansion of spending on welfare, which is growing almost 4 times faster than the average OECD rate. While many analysts continue to view South Korea’s fiscal position as robust, concerns about its long-term position will likely percolate as the rapid pace of the ageing raises costs on healthcare, etc.

Context: Elderly poverty is a significant concern. The average age of households in the bottom 20% of income earners is 63.4. Meanwhile, the share of the elderly as a total percentage of the population will continue to grow – which will also grow the government’s welfare obligations. Nearly 15% of South Koreans are 65 or over. This figure will exceed 20% in 2025.

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

Picture from user Bridget Coila in Flickr

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Moon Takes on the Housing Market

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

  • The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport confirmed plans to impose a price ceiling on new apartments built on private land to curb the cost of living.
  • Real estate prices of Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district is expected to rise more rapidly in the second half of 2019.
  • Reflective of the supply constraint, Seoul Housing & Communities Corp. announced plans to undertake a pilot project to construct a compact city over a highway.

Implications: Conventional policy tools deployed by the Korean government until now have been inadequate to curb housing demand in metropolitan Seoul. New supply has been added to satellite cities surrounding the capital, but heavy traffic and insufficient public transportation connecting these new exurbs to the city center have discouraged people from moving to these new areas. Analysts fear that the price ceiling may exacerbate the situation if construction companies are insufficiently incentivized with high returns to take on new projects in the city.

While measures to add more bus routes and extending the subway line could mitigate some of the constraints, adding new supply of housing inside the city may be the most direct way to tackle the rising cost of living. To this end, one construction company has taken on an ambitious project to maximize the city’s use of vacant air space over highways and other public infrastructure. However, this plan has not yet been widely adopted. As such, volatility in Seoul’s real estate market will continue to pose a major challenge to President Moon Jae-in for the duration of his term.

Context: Successive South Korean presidential administrations have struggled to control the housing market. In 2007, the Roh Moo-hyun administration imposed a price ceiling on new apartment units in an effort to curb increases in the cost of living. The policy was unsuccessful in moderating prices because construction companies reduced investments in new projects, leading to housing scarcity in Seoul. Taking office in 2008, President Lee Myung-bak attempted to address the widening gap between supply and demand by pushing private developers to invest more aggressively. Succeeding Lee, President Park Geun-hye reversed the Roh era price ceiling in 2013 and introduced tax incentives for home buyers. However, these policies have failed to curb the rise in housing costs.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Yusong Cha, Stephen Eun, Taehwa Hong, and Hyoshin Kim.

Picture from user Chris Harber on Flickr

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Of Conscripts and Athletes: Origins of the Exemption System

By Sanghyun (Raphael) Lee

Recent developments have placed a spotlight on the guidelines that the South Korean government has used to determine military duty exemptions for the last 30 years. Some critics point out that the government has already reached the goals that it had set out to attain through the exemption system: broader recognition of South Korea by winning medals and prizes in international competitions. Moreover, with the country still technically in a state of war, conscription is viewed as a vital component of retaining military readiness. Simultaneously, re-imposing blanket conscription intuitively feels out of step with the country’s socio-economic and cultural trajectory.

Here is a review of how the rules were first established, an important starting place for the much-needed policy discussion.

During the height of the Cold War, North Korea appeared to be outpacing South Korea in the race to win international recognition as the sole legitimate government on the peninsula. While both Koreas were excluded from the United Nations until 1991, Seoul felt threatened by the prospect of Pyongyang utilizing its broader international recognition to isolate the South during a hot conflict. This was not an unreasonable fear given contemporary events: international student protests affected the U.S. government’s ability to wage war against North Vietnam and the United States was beginning the process of extending diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China.

In this backdrop, Park Chung-hee may have felt acutely threatened when North Korea attracted further international attention with its first gold medal win at the 1972 Munich Olympics – a feat that South Korean athletes had yet to achieve. Immediately after, the administration identified sports as a vehicle for promoting the country’s international status, and the first exemption guidelines were promulgated the very next year.

However, these underlying concerns and conditions have radically reversed in the past 30 years. The Cold War is officially over and the North Korean political model is universally discredited. Measuring the economic weight of the two Koreas, the South has been a member of the OECD since 1996 while the North’s market failure is widely known. Even in terms of soft power, Hallyu has only begun its proliferation around the world. The urgency of struggling for recognition via-a-vis the North has dramatically lessened. Additionally, South Koreans are now being acknowledged on the international stage in a multitude of fields beyond sports.

Furthermore, the standards for exemptions were changed several times over the years, creating ambiguities. When the system was first introduced, it covered top athletic graduates from Korea National Sports University and medalists in international competitions. Later, qualification for the privilege became higher, however, exemptions were subsequently expanded to cover a broader spectrum – the exceptions. For instance, members of the national soccer team received the privilege after they advanced to the semi-finals of the World Cup – but not based on any previously established metric.

More recently, questions have been raised on why Hallyu stars who contribute so heavily to promoting Korea’s brand across the world are not eligible for exemptions. BTS being a prime recent example. Similar arguments can be made for e-sports stars.

Given the abovementioned changes in the geopolitical environment and South Korea’s new found confidence on the global stage, existing guidelines for military duty exemptions should be reviewed. In particular, as the available number of men who can serve in the military keeps decreasing and remaining conscripts take on a heavier burden, the young men who are asked to serve their country deserve a clear explanation on what the exemption system seeks to achieve today.

Sanghyun (Raphael) Lee is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Republic of Korea Armed Forces photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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What Do We Know About Third-Country Born North Korean Children?

By Suyeon Ham

Third-country born North Korean defectors refers to the children of at least one North Korean defector born in a third country, other than North or South Korea, such as China. As the motives and routes of defection from North Korea diversify, the number of North Korean defectors’ children born in third countries has been increasing continuously. These children often experience severe difficulties in the process of their settlement in South Korea because they were not eligible for the economic support provided to other defectors under the North Korean Defectors Protection and Settlement Support Act. Considering that the reality of increased entry of third-country born North Korean children, the South Korean government has expanded its policies on economic support to them. Yet many of them face difficulties in adapting to the South Korean society.

Increasing Number of Third-country Born Defectors 

During the mid-1990s famine, which killed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, most defections were due to the lack of basic needs of life, such as starvation and forced labor. However, a recent trend has shown a steady shift in reasons for defection. Nowadays, North Koreans defect increasingly because of disgust with the North Korean regime and ideology, longing for freedom, and the desire for an improved quality of life and better future. In addition, while crossing over the Military Demarcation Line was relatively frequent in the past, defection from North Korea via third countries has increased in the recent years. North Korean defectors stay in third countries such as China, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand, but their stay in China is the longest. This is because North Korea’s boarder with China makes moving to any other third country without crossing China geographically difficult, and also because it is easier for defectors to find work, even if illegal, in China through brokers.

Besides the change in defection routes, the continued increase in the ratio of women among North Korean defectors could be cited as another reason for the increase of third-country born North Korean children. The number of female defectors surpassed that of male defectors and the percentage of female defectors has increased as a whole.[1]

Fleeing North Korea women, especially in China, are frequently forced into marriages with poor local farmers, or into the sex trade because they could be arrested and sent back to North Korea otherwise. For these reasons, there are many half-North Korean children in Northeast China, and some of them escape to South Korea with their North Korean mother. The number of third-country born North Korean young defectors in South Korea has increased constantly and as of 2015 exceeded 50 percent of all defectors in South Korea.

Change in Government Policy in South Korea

The South Korean government has recently made efforts to strengthen institutional support in line with the trend. On February 7, 2017, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification announced a new support program for North Korean defectors, called “Act on the Protection and Settlement of North Korean Defectors.”  From the end of February 2017, the parents of North Koreans living in South Korea could receive a one-time subsidy of 4,000,000 KRW per child who is born in a third country. This means that the North Korean families with third-country-born children in South Korea are now able to receive the same level of government financial support as families who are all born in the North. However, only North Korean parents or grandparents who defected to South Korea and are supporting children born in third countries that emigrated to South Korea before the age of 16 are eligible for the additional subsidy.

Further, to support the education of North Korean children born in third countries and entering South Korea in their adolescence, arrangements have been made so that they may also apply for special admission to university within entrance quotas from 2019. Moreover, various policies to reinforce educational support for them are under discussions, such as a plan for simplifying the procedure for the recognition of education completed in China, the expanded assignment of Chinese language instructors to alternative education facilities, and the college tuition support funded by private donations to the North Korean Hana Foundation.


Despite government programs and a growing number of organizations that provide support to defectors, many problems remain not well known and unsolved. The biggest difficulty that third-country-born children face is the language barrier. Korean is not their first language and most of them barely have an opportunity to learn it before they come to South Korea. Many children from unrecognized marriages in third countries did not even have access to education since they do not have a legal identity. Although they learn Korean before they enroll in a Korean educational institute, it is impossible to have the fluency needed to follow the curriculums. Language difficulty becomes a big obstacle not only for the learning ability, but for hanging out with the friends of their age. As a result, many of them fail to catch up on studies in school and have difficulties making friends and adjusting to school life. It is also a problem that there are insufficient teachers to teach the students who are poor at Korean.

In addition, identity confusion is also one of the problems the children experience. In most third-country born North Korean children, their mothers are North Korean defectors and their fathers are local third-country men. So the children who are poor at Korean and have family members with diverse nationalities and have South Korean nationality for their own cannot readily answer the question, “Where are you from?” Besides, they are often isolated by their classmates because of their broken Korean, sometimes for the difference in their appearance, and this deeply hurts them.


In these days when we have experienced a historic turning point in South-North relations and U.S.-North Korea relations under the Moon Jae-in government, unification has become a step closer. At this moment, improving government policies and the educational system is the first step for unification and true social integration. To help third-country-born Koreans settle down in society as Koreans, social attention and efforts to expand institutional support are needed for their systematic education and the development of a healthy identity.


Su Yeon Ham is a graduate student with the China Studies Program at SAIS.  She is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.  

Photo from Khaled Monsoor’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

[1] 통일부 (Ministry of Unification)

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Korean Women Protest Epidemic of Spy Cam Crimes

By Su Yeon Ham and Soyeon Kim

The issue of so-called “spy cams” is making headlines these days in South Korea. “Spy cams” refers to filming people in public or private places like toilets or the subway without their permission. Spy cam crimes have been one of many sexual related crimes women face in South Korea. However, it has gained more attention recently because of the recent “Hongdae spy cam” case. Someone secretly filmed a nude male model during a drawing class at Hongik University – the number one fine art university in South Korea – and posted the video online. The police quickly investigated the case and caught the criminal within 10 days. The culprit turned out to be a female model who was taking the same class.

However, women were surprised by how quickly the police rushed to solve this spy cam case. They claimed that the only reason it was resolved so quickly was because the victim was a man. In most spy cam cases, the victims are women, but few of them get the attention or resolution that the Hongdae case received. Therefore, the Hongdae spy cam case sparked a larger conversation on the issue of gender inequality in South Korea. On June 9, about 22,000 South Korean women marched through the streets of Seoul protesting against illegal filming and photography, and called for unbiased investigations and gender equality. This protest was reportedly the largest female protest in South Korean history.

The type of camera used in these hidden camera crimes can be easily purchased through websites that people commonly use. There are also a wide variety of types, including ones that are so small they are almost invisible. These cameras can be attached to glasses, screws, tie pins, and even fountain pens. This is why many people are angry – victims have no chance to protect themselves when a camera could literally be hidden anywhere. Even though such hidden cameras are often misused, Korea has no regulations on their sale. The fact that anyone can buy it without any special procedure and that anyone can become a victim without realizing it make the situation even more serious.

In addition, criminal punishment has often been too weak because there is no readily apparent physical damage. Under current law, in the case of filming or proliferating pictures or videos taken against a victim’s will, the perpetrator is punishable by up to five years in prison or fines up to 10 million won ($8,900). Distributing such images for the purpose of profit is punishable by up to seven years in prison or a 30 million won ($27,000) fine. However, in reality, spy cam crimes and disseminating the pictures or video go unpunished in most cases.

In April 2018, more than 200,000 people signed a petition demanding a ban on sales of hidden cameras and stronger punishments for hidden camera crimes. In response, on June 15, the Blue House announced that it would introduce a registration system for manufacturing, importing and selling disguised cameras. Moreover, the government plans to dedicate five billion won ($4.5 million) toward eradicating these crimes; the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and the National Police Agency will check 50,000 public washrooms around the nation in hopes of discovering and destroying any hidden cameras. On July 3, President Moon Jae-in called for tougher punishment for hidden camera crimes, including notifying perpetrators’ employers of their misconduct. He asserted that we must make sure perpetrators suffer a greater disadvantage than the damage they inflicted.

Hidden camera crimes are constantly taking place everywhere, including in the subway, in public toilets, on the stairs, and so on. Spy cam criminals are getting more sophisticated and intelligent with subminiature cameras. Considering the growing number of spy cam crimes, more severe punishment and countermeasures are urgently needed.

Su Yeon Ham is a current intern at the Korea Economic Institute and Soyeon Kim is a former intern. The views expressed are the authors’ alone.

Image from user kmr280 on Naver Blogs.

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Consequences of South Korea’s New Shortened Workweek

By Jihyun Joung

Known for its “inhumanely long” workweek, South Korea ranks second place for the longest work hours among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) members. This work culture has widespread consequences in Korean society – the younger generation are increasingly straying away from marriage, and the country hit record-low birth rates in 2017, a fact that President Moon Jae-in attributed to the country’s work-life imbalance.

To tackle these problems, President Moon sought to revise the Labor Standards Act, reducing Korea’s maximum working hours from 68 hours to 52 hours a week for all companies with more than 300 employees, with smaller companies to follow in 2020 and 2021. Violating the new regulation could result in a two-year sentence or a fine of up to 20 million won ($17,900).

With this legal modification, Moon pledged to improve workers’ quality of life, create more jobs, and increase the birth rate. But while these seem like positive goals that anyone can get behind, the response to this new law is more mixed. In a recent survey by local employment portal site Job Korea, about half of respondents had a positive view of the change, with many saying that productivity would improve but also expressing concern about losing overtime pay. Despite divided opinions from the public towards a shortened working week, the National Assembly’s Environment & Labor Committee passed the reform bill on February 28, and it went into effect July 1.

Many workers may benefit from a shortened workweek. Prior to the reform bill, individuals barely had any time or energy after work. Today, they relish in having spare time for leisurely activities such as cooking, watching movies, or going to the gym. Others enjoy the cutback of mandatory company gatherings or meals, known as hwesik, which are normally held after work.

However, not everyone appreciates the newly passed law. For example, some workers claim they are suffering from loss of income, and that they are taken advantage of when their bosses technically log 52 work hours but make them work overtime without being paid. Likewise, businesses claim they will lose money and productivity after the implementation of the law. For example, in the past, they were able to send workers on business trips abroad to gain more profit and partnerships. With the reduced working hours prohibiting weekend or overnight business trips, companies are suffering.

Not only do workers essentially lose income, but also receive more stress at work. Cutting down on work hours does not necessarily mean that the workload diminishes. On the contrary, workers are faced with higher work intensity, as they are obliged to complete assignments within a shorter period of time. One smartphone developer told Chosun Ilbo, “we have to go home at 5:30 p.m. no matter what, but if we are assigned work after 4 p.m., it’s hard to accommodate the request on the same day. If we leave work on time, the boss gets on our case the following day about the lack of progress. What are we supposed to do?” This is the reason to why workers have been spotted hurriedly completing their work in cafes nearby their workplace long after work hours.

Believed to improve living conditions for workers, Moon’s work-life balance campaign has ironically aggravated the situation, and lawmakers have already introduced a six-month grace period for the rest of 2018 to allow companies to adjust to the change without incurring a fine. Nonetheless, it is too early to assume the success or failure of the amendment. Perhaps this campaign can bring about an abrupt change to the deep-rooted working culture of South Korea. Looking forward, it may simply be a matter of time for people to adjust to this sudden modification.

Jihyun Joung is an incoming Masters student in Economic and Political Development at Columbia University. She is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Photo from Pixabay.

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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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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.