War of Words over the State of South Korea

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We live in an interesting time.

Some of you may know I published an opinion piece in the New York Times last month condemning the South Korean government’s move to overhaul history textbooks. I didn’t know but apparently the foreign ministry “lodged a protest against the New York Times” for publishing my piece, according to the Korea Times.

I myself received a telephone call last week from someone who claimed to be with the foreign ministry. I told him I would call back as I was in the middle of doing something. When I called him half an hour later, he did not answer nor did he call me again.

As conveyed to me by one foreign correspondent (who will remain anonymous) the general sense is that the South Korean government is quite unhappy with the NYT, especially following the publication on Nov. 19 of an editorial excoriating Seoul’s crackdowns on dissent and the country’s general political direction under President Park Geun-hye.

And now we have a letter to the editor from Kim Gheewhan, South Korean consul general in New York, who claims that the government’s “initiative on history textbooks is not about how they are published but about the content.” Kim also rehashes the familiar but deceptive official line that the government’s controversial labor reform, which will make it easier for companies to fire workers, is good for the economy and “based on a grand bargain among labor, management and the government,” a euphemism for national consensus that in reality doesn’t exist.

Even less plausible is the notion, advanced by Kim in the same letter, that the government is prosecuting Lee Seok-woo, now former president of the popular online messenger service KakaoTalk, purely for failing to stop the spread of online child pornography. The government has been engaged in a tug-of-war with KakaoTalk since the early phase of this presidency over gaining access to the company’s vast user database and chat records.

As for the textbook reform, Kim merely confirms the point I made in my opinion piece: The government doesn’t care who publishes the history textbooks as long as they parrot the official line on what constitutes correct history. But seeing that most private publishers will not rehash the ruling party’s view on history, the government wishes to do away with them entirely and publish its own textbook for mandatory use.

There are troubling reports that the government tried to influence the editorial staff at The Nation and its writer Tim Shorrock after the magazine ran Shorrock’s article “In South Korea, a Dictator’s Daughter Cracks Down on Labor.”

That revelation, coupled with known information about standard government and corporate control over domestic journalism, paints a dreary picture of the state of free expression in South Korea. All this leads me to view the consul general’s letter to the editor of the NYT as a very positive development. In this case the government chose to address a critical editorial in a reasonable fashion, by writing a public rebuttal, in lieu of any intimidation or subversion tactics that I am aware of (unless you see the mysterious call from the foreign ministry that went nowhere as a form of intimidation).

I am sad, however, that this kind of dialogue must and can only take place in the pages of a foreign newspaper. It is downright tragic that the only way to force the government to enter into what could be a meaningful conversation over matters of national importance is subjecting the government to ‘bad press’ for readers outside South Korea to see.

I am of the opinion that South Korea’s current climate of repression will continue to worsen over the next two years in the run-up to the Dec. 2017 presidential election. But I hope that this government will choose to continue its course of constructive engagement with the media and writers of all stripes.

Let us all hope that words flow freely.

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Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Inside Higher Ed among other publications.

3 Comments

  1. Although the ROK has progressed too far along the democratic road to regress completely, it might become a watered-down version of the DPRK if things don’t turn around quickly.

  2. It’s very disconcerting… and, observing this from abroad, rather incredible. I’m glad you’re speaking out, even if currently the conversation can only be had in a foreign newspaper.

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