Sohn Suk-hee’s live interview with Hong Joon-pyo didn’t go the way he planned.
Sohn, the president of broadcaster JTBC’s news division, is arguably South Korea’s most famous news anchor. He’s perceived as a hero in many young, progressive circles: He was praised for keeping his cool, but also displaying appropriately restrained emotion, when reporting on the loss of nearly 300 passengers, mainly teenagers, in the Sewol ferry disaster. He was instrumental in reporting on the recent Park Geun-hye scandal, in which his newsroom played a critical role, by discovering confidante Choi Soon-sil’s tablet PC containing confidential government documents.
Meet Hong Joon-pyo, a presidential candidate and the only conservative not performing dismally in the polls, although he is still far behind the two leading liberal candidates. Hong, the governor of South Gyeongsang Province, is sometimes called “Hongrump” in a reference to Donald Trump. He bashes his critics with colorful, often extreme language; he often doesn’t stick to conventional decorum; he promotes himself as a champion of the powerless and the ordinary. To many of Hong’s supporters, especially the older ones, someone like Sohn is a leftist instigator, “a communist” and a propagator of fake news, especially Choi’s tablet PC, which the small but loud group of Park Geun-hye supporters still claims is fake (JTBC denies this).
When Sohn and Hong met on Tuesday evening for a teleconference interview, the result was interesting, to say the least. What was supposed to be a short five-minute interview stretched into ten minutes of news-tertainment.
It started out inconspicuously, with Sohn in the studio, Hong in another location. Sohn asked a difficult but predictable question about Hong’s confusing stance regarding the remaining pro-Park Geun-hye faction inside his Liberty Korea Party. “You say that the pro-Park faction doesn’t exist anymore,” Sohn pressed. “But regardless of what you say, if [the politicians’] actions resemble that of pro-Park politicians, wouldn’t people think they’re pro-Park?”
“It’s been a while since we met,” Hong deflected the question. “Why do you keep pressing me like this, instead of talking about more pleasant stuff? Stop reading from your script. Just talk naturally.”
The interview became noticeably more heated when Sohn asked about Hong’s qualifications as a presidential candidate. Hong appeared on the infamous Sung Wan-jong List, which lists the names of politicians — including Hong — that businessman Sung illegally funded. Sung committed suicide in April 2015 after giving the scoop to South Korean newspaper Kyunghyang Shinmun. In February, about a month before Hong declared his bid for the presidency, a court in Seoul declared him innocent of violating the Political Fund Act.
So it was a loaded question, when Sohn asked about Hong’s qualifications. “I’m not going to answer that,” Hong told Sohn. “You’re also involved in a court case. What would you say if I asked about your qualifications to be a broadcaster?” (Sohn has been charged by conservative groups for allegedly fabricating Choi Soon-sil’s tablet PC. But he has not actually been indicted and is therefore not involved in a court case.)
“I’m not running for president,” Sohn replied, growing increasingly defensive. Eventually he asked, “Are you saying I’m not qualified to be on air?”
For the remaining five minutes (in a ten-minute interview), Sohn and Hong went back and forth on essentially the same topic: asking and deflecting this particular question. Hong criticized Sohn for asking something that he had already answered in another media outlet; Sohn replied, “If I can just find your answers on the internet, what’s the point of me interviewing you?”
A Sohn Suk-hee supporter compiled moments showing Sohn’s growing frustration towards Hong during the interview. Meanwhile, many conservative supporters called Hong’s performance “refreshing” and lauded him for putting Sohn to the test.
Safe to say, the interview isn’t groundbreaking: There have been more contentious moments in the history of journalists interviewing presidential candidates. Compared to the real Donald Trump, “Hongrump”‘s exchange was relatively mild. But the interview with the conservative candidate, who vows to be as strong as Park Chung-hee (Park Geun-hye’s father and a military dictator), offers telling insights into the presidential race and the image he wants to promote. Of course, whether Hong’s rather reckless communicative style and defensiveness against critical questions will translate into an effective presidency is another question — one that Hong probably wouldn’t like to answer.
“Viewers probably had fun,” Hong told reporters the next day. “Politics is about making the people comfortable and keeping them entertained. I don’t obsess over decorum.” He said he had exchanged apologetic text messages with Sohn Suk-hee, whose interview with Hong on JTBC Newsroom did get slightly higher ratings than the previous day’s show.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article erroneously stated that the interview took place on Monday. It took place on Tuesday, Apr. 4.
Cover Image: Sohn Suk-hee and Hong Joon-pyo on JTBC’s news program. (Source: JTBC)
Haeryun Kang wrote this radar report.