Argument

Korean Reporters Got Fired, Got Active, and Got The President

The raucous independent investigations that led to President Park Geun-hye's impeachment taught Koreans to trust the news again.

South Korean President  former senior secretary for civil affairs Woo Byung-woo standing answer to reporters question before allegations at Seoul prosecutor office in Seoul, South Korea. President Park Geun-hye's former senior secretary for civil affairs appeared before the prosecution for questioning over a string of corruption allegations on Sunday, becoming the second ex-presidential aide to face a probe. The state prosecution's special investigation team summoned Woo Byung-woo, who has been accused of the alleged abuse of authority and embezzlement. (Photo by Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
South Korean President former senior secretary for civil affairs Woo Byung-woo standing answer to reporters question before allegations at Seoul prosecutor office in Seoul, South Korea. President Park Geun-hye's former senior secretary for civil affairs appeared before the prosecution for questioning over a string of corruption allegations on Sunday, becoming the second ex-presidential aide to face a probe. The state prosecution's special investigation team summoned Woo Byung-woo, who has been accused of the alleged abuse of authority and embezzlement. (Photo by Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In late fall, I left New York City for Seoul, intending to visit for just a few days. Then, on Oct. 24, a small South Korean cable network called JTBC revealed that its reporters had discovered a tablet that had belonged to Choi Soon-sil, the hidden power behind President Park Geun-hye. The data on the device exposed a web of unprecedented corruption. In response, millions of people took to the streets, waving candles in protest, until Dec. 9, when South Korea’s parliament voted to impeach Park.

I stayed on to watch the “45-day candlelight revolution” and joined the protests as the crowd, each week, increased massively. I was born and raised in Seoul under the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, the current president’s father. In some ways, I felt as though I had stepped straight into my own past. Yet, in contrast to the violent protests during the first Park era, the crowds now were eerily peaceful as though Koreans themselves had changed with time.

Some things, however, had changed with time. There was, for instance, the country’s vigorous independent media, which lit the fuse of public anger to begin with. One of the triggers for public outrage was what Koreans call the “missing seven hours,” which refers to the mystery of Park’s whereabouts during the sinking of the Sewol ferry, a national disaster that left Koreans weeping and furious. The loaded phrases — “candlelight miracle” and “seven hours’ secret” — powerfully captured the people’s dissatisfaction with the establishment, but they were also coined and perpetuated by a handful of independent journalists.

Having just come from the United States, where a credulous media had been manipulated by the winning presidential candidate rather than holding him to account, I was particularly sensitive to the resilient and creative role played by South Korean reporters.

The vast influence of South Korea’s independent media is a belated product of dismal failures by the country’s establishment media. For instance, there have long been three main television stations in South Korea: MBC, KBS, and SBS. But after the 2007 election to the presidency of the conservative Lee Myung-bak, the heads of the news stations were replaced by people with an explicitly pro-government stance, essentially turning the press into a propaganda machine. In 2010, thousands of journalists went on strike in response, many of whom were members of the “386 Generation,” a term for those born in the 1960s who went to college during the 1980s dictatorship and student riots. Some of the strikers eventually resigned while others were transferred to lesser divisions where they would not be able to report. It was also around this time that the government took a hand in setting up brand-new cable stations, called jongpyun, linked to the existing establishment newspapers, which were mostly in favor of the ruling Saenuri Party.

It has recently been impossible to avoid political polarization in establishment South Korean media. In January 2015, when I visited Seoul on a book tour for my undercover investigation in North Korea, I was shunned by all the left-leaning newspapers and the one pro-left cable network, which are pro-North Korea and do not readily acknowledge the human rights issues there, even as they claim to resist the oppression of Koreans in their own country. I was embraced instead by the South Korean pro-government media and jongpyun determined to antagonize North Korea. Inside this polarized framework, I had bizarrely been turned into the equivalent of a poster girl for Fox News.

During the Sewol disaster, however, energized independent journalists finally managed to break the partisan establishment media’s monopoly on the public’s attention. What on the surface appeared to be just an unfortunate accident struck at the emotional core of South Koreans in the same way the 9/11 attacks did for Americans because it revealed a pervasive rottenness under the surface of the country’s political system. It was later revealed that the sinking and the lack of rescue efforts were linked to federal-level corruption involving the ferry owners, the insurance company, the Korean coast guard, and the Korean navy.

South Korea is one of the most digitally connected nations in the world. The horror was witnessed live online by the entire nation, and those trapped teenagers were texting and video chatting their parents until their final seconds. In those desperate hours, however, Park was nowhere to be found, and no statement was issued by the Blue House until the president finally appeared in public, seven hours after the accident happened, looking dazed and clueless as she asked, “Why is it so hard to find the students if they are wearing life jackets?” Everyone had drowned hours ago.

On the ground, the reporting from the mainstream news outlets seemed oddly haphazard. They first announced that all passengers had been safely rescued, which they then had to retract; then they reported on the “world’s biggest rescue operation” by the coast guard, which turned out not to be true. Yet on site were a few independent journalists who told an entirely different story.

Among them was Lee Sang-ho, a former investigative reporter for MBC TV, who had become a household name for the 2005 “Samsung X-file” report in which he exposed the secret wiretaps that revealed Samsung’s bribery around the 1997 presidential election. Born in 1968, Lee, a member of the 386 Generation, spent his college years protesting against the then-dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan. Under the new pro-government leadership at MBC, he was transferred to cover entertainment, assigned to a nonreporting desk, and eventually sent abroad to the United States on a “reporting sabbatical.” It was upon returning to Seoul, in 2011, that he set up his own internet TV news platform, which would become Gobal News, funded by private subscriptions.

When the Sewol ferry sank, Lee was one of the first reporters to arrive at the scene and was the last one to leave, more than a month later. As the mainstream media reported that there was a massive rescue team of hundreds of helicopters and ships, Lee reported that there were just two voluntary divers at the scene. A video clip of Lee, at a meeting of victims’ families, shouting at the other reporters for publishing lies and then breaking down in tears went viral.

Also at the scene was a team of investigative reporters from Newstapa, an internet TV network formed in 2012 by a group of 30 journalists who had been fired from mainstream media outlets. Because they focus on video journalism, everything was laid bare visually, and people saw with their own eyes what was happening — or not happening — with the Sewol rescue work.

The addictive real-time reporting of the Sewol disaster demonstrated the potential power of independent journalism. Now such journalists are increasingly turning to documentary reporting to engage their audience in an age where films can be made using just a phone. Lee has used this medium expertly. His first film, Diving Bell, about the Sewol tragedy was first released in theaters, then aired on YouTube, and then finally on TV on the eve of the parliament hearing on the Sewol ferry’s sinking. He will soon release a film called The President’s Seven Hours; he was the first to report the claim that during the seven-hour disappearance, Park was under anesthetic in the Blue House, getting a face-lifting, Botox-related injection treatment.

Another renegade reporter is 44-year-old Joo Jinu, who, with his long, sweeping hair and lean profile, exudes the coolness of a K-pop star. In 2006, after the publisher of Sisa Journal, the country’s leading political weekly, responded to pressure from Samsung to remove a negative article by not only complying with the request but also firing the top editors who disagreed, Joo was one of 22 journalists to quit and form a spinoff magazine, Sisa-in. Joo was given the nickname “Satan’s reporter” for exposing corruption at the Yoido Full Gospel Church, which has the world’s biggest Pentecostal congregation, as well as breaking open Lee Myung-bak’s financial corruption, including the infamous BBK scandal that nearly cost him the presidency.

Today, Joo regularly tours with his sellout Talk Concert, which often features left-leaning celebrities, and he was a founding member of the short-lived but immensely popular political podcast Naggomsu (an abbreviation for “I Am a Petty Minded Creep”), whose influence among Korea’s young people was equivalent to that of The Daily Show in its heyday under Jon Stewart, though the podcast was shut down under a federal investigation as Park Geun-hye took office. Joo has been investigating the corruption surrounding Choi Soon-sil and Park since 2007.

Among the generally pro-government jongpyun, JTBC TV stands out as the only left-leaning network. The station, which first broke the tablet story and amplified information originated by Joo and Lee, has dominated ratings during the scandal. Since the Sewol tragedy, when it was seen as the only reliable voice among the cable networks, it has also played a critical role in invigorating Korean media.

The reason for its political independence has much to do with the powerful figure of Son Suk-hee, a beloved, seasoned anchor who came from MBC TV to head its operation and host its nightly news.

This 45-day candlelight revolution, and the journalism that fueled it, was a backlash against the government’s record of controlling the media and the public. It helped, of course, that the people of South Korea are highly literate and that the country is so wired. One of the key pieces of evidence, for example, was tracked down on the internet by a private citizen and sent via text to a parliament member during the hearing probing Park and Choi, which then had a decisive result in the impeachment vote the following day.

Of course, just as it is always a few bad seeds among politicians who end up taking their country onto a devastating path, it was only a handful of standout journalists who made a difference. But there’s reason to think that others will soon follow their successful example — and hopefully not only in South Korea.

Photo Credit: SEUNG-IL RYU/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Suki Kim is an writer of fiction and nonfiction. She is the author of the NY Times Bestselling work of nonfiction "Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite"

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