Media : Payoffs, Politics and Korea's Press : The news media get a thumb up and a thumb down for disclosures during the country's largest bribery scandal in years.


Give the South Korean news media mixed grades in their first real test since President Roh Tae Woo promised in 1987 to "democratize" the country and allow freedom of the press.

On one hand, it was a newcomer to the nation's media that recently made the key revelation exposing the country's biggest bribery scandal in years.

On the other hand, the affair showed that many of South Korea's journalists were as guilty as the politicians and officials of taking payoffs. And reporting on the scandal faded at just about the time suggestions were surfacing that Roh himself might have been involved.

The scandal involved illicit payments of more than $1.4 million by the owner of the Hanbo business conglomerate to obtain official permission to build an apartment complex in a greenbelt. Nine people, including five members of the National Assembly and an aide to Roh, were arrested and indicted in the affair. Prosecutors say 80 journalists also received payments, although how much they received has not been revealed, and they have not been named or charged.

Mixed grades or not, the Hanbo affair has thrown an unaccustomed spotlight on the practices of this country's changing press.

Gone are the days when a single phone call could squelch any news story and when government officials issued regular "guidelines" to the media. No longer do TV news programs devote the first seven or eight minutes of their telecasts to the daily activities of the president. Nor do newspapers print what cynics came to call "the royal box"--a daily page-one story on the head of state. Both were regular features during President Chun Doo Hwan's eight years of authoritarian rule from 1980-88.

Today, citizens are exposed to a much broader spectrum of news on Communist North Korea and better coverage of labor issues. Activities of dissidents and opposition political leaders, who were treated as "non-persons" under Chun, also are covered widely.

It's now common here for the results of strongly negative opinion polls on government performance to be published--something unthinkable during Chun's rule.

The latest Gallup-Korea poll, published in January in cooperation with the newspaper Chosun Ilbo, found that 54.2% of South Koreans believed Roh was "not doing well" in running the country. Only 33% said he was "doing well" or "fairly well."

Roh's ruling Democratic Liberal Party fared even worse. Although it holds 72% of the seats in the National Assembly, fewer than 17% of respondents in the Gallup-Chosun Ilbo poll rated the party favorably. And that was before the Hanbo scandal.

Kim Dae Jung's opposition Party for Peace and Democracy won 18.5% support in the poll.

The loosening of control has also produced a remarkable proliferation of media outlets since Roh's 1987 democratization pledge.

The number of newspapers and magazines in Seoul has doubled, and the nationwide increase is even greater. Newspapers are also twice the number of pages they used to be, since a government limit on pages was abolished. Newspapers now average 16 pages a day.

The end of a government-sanctioned advertising cartel that distributed ads evenly among the old, established newspapers precipitated a battle for revenue that is fattening the sheep and starving the goats among newspapers and magazines.

Advertisers have to wait in line to place ads in the No. 1 newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, a morning paper, or No. 2 Dong-A Ilbo, an afternoon daily. But "among the 83 general newspapers that must report their financial balances, only 10 reported that they were breaking even or showing a profit last year," said Lee Duk Joo, director of the Information Ministry's media division.

Only Chosun Ilbo, Dong-A Ilbo and the newly established Segye Ilbo, run by Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, print more than 1 million copies a day. And Segye Ilbo distributes many of its copies free, Lee said.

No reliable circulation figures are available in South Korea, he added. Chosun Ilbo's circulation is estimated at nearly 2 million, while Dong-A Ilbo is believed to sell more than 1.5 million copies. Both of the two biggest newspapers circulate mainly in Seoul, a city of 10 million people.

Television, which remains the only segment of the media still subject to licensing and therefore the segment most susceptible to government influence, nevertheless exhibits "vastly improved" freedom to broadcast opinions, according to Park Kwon Sang, a former editor of Dong-A Ilbo purged by Chun in 1980.

"They even report what the Dong-A doesn't publish," Park said.

Seven new broadcast media have been authorized, including the country's first purely private TV network, which is to begin operating in October. The amount of television time devoted to news has not changed and the government still forbids telecasting between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. and again between midnight and 6 a.m. But commentary, panel discussions and interviews on news topics have increased dramatically.

Lee predicted that the advent of the new TV network will "apply a shock treatment" further improving the entire medium. "For the last 10 years, with only two monopolistic-like networks, TV fell into an easygoing attitude on programming," the Information Ministry official explained.

From the government's point of view, "the quality of press freedom has improved immensely, but the quality of the product hasn't improved," Lee said.

"There is nothing much we can do. One thing is clear: The era is gone in which the government can order the media to improve the quality of its product," he said.

Some respected veterans of the profession, as well as a few foreign observers, concur that South Korea's new journalism is not all positive.

Former Dong-A Ilbo editor Park decried what he called a growing tendency to "advocacy journalism."

Diplomats, who asked not to be identified, say the press has been particularly hostile toward the United States lately, re-examining history to point out blemishes on America's record as protector of South Korea.

Increasingly nationalistic young officials have found a receptive audience among young reporters for what diplomats describe as "damaging leaks to the press, particularly on trade issues," in which South Korea is portrayed as a victim.

Perhaps the most startling revelation, however, has been the extent of cooperation between the media and the business and government interests it covers.

In a 1989 Korea Press Institute survey, 93% of South Korean journalists polled said they regularly received money from their news sources, including government ministries. The payoffs are dubbed chonji , or "small gratitude." They are delivered in unmarked white envelopes.

Most reporters see nothing wrong with the practice, which has its counterparts throughout society. Elsewhere, such gifts are called ddukkap , or "the price of rice candy," and they are given by employers, friends and associates on holidays or at times of major family events.

So widespread is the practice in journalism that reporters promoted to editor positions receive a special naekun sudang , or "inside allowance," to make up for the loss of the white envelopes.

Lee Seh Yong, a director of the Korean Federation of Press Unions, an anti-Establishment trade federation, said reporters assigned to economic-related government ministries regularly receive between $500 and $1,000 a month in chonji from both business firms and the ministries.

Journalists who defend chonji insist that their reporting is not influenced. Critics agree that the most that donors can expect is for journalists to withhold a story.

In the Hanbo scandal, newsroom directors at major media firms received between 10 million won ($13,889) and 20 million won ($27,778) apiece, the organ of the Federation of Press Unions reported. And the entire Seoul City Hall press corps received 40 million won ($55,556), Lee charged.

Only the journalists' trade union and the anti-government newspaper Hankyoreh Shinmun, itself a post-1987 phenomenon, have made an issue of the bribes to journalists.

It perhaps was not by accident that the key revelation that broke the Hanbo scandal came not from one of the old, established newspapers but rather from what many critics considered the least likely source of muckraking: Rev. Moon's Segye Ilbo. In the past, Moon's Unification Church, which operates an empire of manufacturing firms here, had been rated among the staunchest supporters of anti-Communist governments in Seoul.

This time, however, as a newcomer to the mass media, Segye Ilbo was left out of the chonji distributions and published the key tip that was offered to a large number of other newspapers, journalists said. Only then did the rest of the media jump on the bandwagon.

"I treated the news media people well. I am saddened at their reporting," commented Hanbo Housing Co.'s president, Kang Byung Soo.

A "final" prosecutors' report on the Hanbo scandal left no one here satisfied that the facts had been fully revealed. Meanwhile, however, the government launched a tax investigation of the activities of Tong Il Corp., the business arm of Rev. Moon's Korean operations.

Both former editor Park and the Press Union Federation's Lee charged that the probe was intended to cool Segye Ilbo's fervor in covering the Hanbo scandal.

A government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that "it was about time that the Moonie business activities were examined."

Other media practices also remain unchanged.

At all government ministries, exclusive "press clubs" still get the only news that is distributed by officials. Reporters who are not members cannot attend news conferences. Moreover, coverage of such power centers as the presidential Blue House, the Agency for National Security Planning (the former Korean CIA) and the Defense Ministry remains highly circumspect.

Other changes aside, Park maintained, the press is not likely to go so far as to push the ruling group out of office. "Journalists know that if (opposition leader) Kim Dae Jung takes power, their vested interests will be injured," he said.

"Power has been centered in one guy in Korea for the last 500 years," he added. "Koreans are still ambivalent about democracy."

South Korea's Multiplying Media

Expansion of media outlets since President Roh Tae Woo, as a candidate in June, 1987, promised to lift government controls on the mass media and permit freedom of the press:


Newspapers Weeklies Monthlies June 1987 18 200 1,187 March 1991 44 689 2,021


Newspapers Weeklies Monthlies June 1987 28 201 1,203 March 1991 83 1,056 2,414


Radio Radio TV Companies Stations Stations June 1987 24 116 21 March 1991 29 123 23

NOTE: One new Seoul-based private national TV network has been authorized and will begin telecasting in October, and the educational TV branch of KBS, the governmental TV network, was split off to create a new network, raising the total of national networks and the number of Korean TV stations in Seoul from three to five. The U.S. Armed Forces Radio and TV network, which also telecasts on UHF in South Korea, is excluded.

SOURCE: South Korea Ministry of Information

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World