S. Korea: New Media vs. Conservative Press
Netizens and the continuing struggle for democracy
Email Article  Print Article Ronda Hauben (netizen2)    
Several scholars who study South Korean politics observe that the conservative media play a particularly dominant role in South Korean politics and therefore present a particular problem for those who are interested in democratic development (1). The conservative media, they argue, provide a support structure for the autocratic political interests that must be challenged if there is to be a more democratic political structure developed in South Korea. After the June 1987 democratic victory, they explain that the conservative media emerged as an independent political institution. "Without the reform of the media, no success of democratic reform is possible," writes one commentator (2).

Since May 2, 2008, large protests in the form of candlelight demonstrations have taken place in South Korea. Directed against the neoliberal policies of the Lee Myung-bak government, they have continued for over two months. Candlelight vigils, often followed by round the clock open public meetings and demonstrations, have been common (3).

Describing these demonstrations and the online communication that helped make them possible, Kim Dae-jung, president of South Korea from 1998 to 2002, observed:

"We are experiencing an extraordinary phenomenon in Korea. We are witnessing the practice of direct democracy in Korea amid public participation and their keen interest for the first time since it was exercised in Athens 2,000 years ago. This direct democracy is practiced both on- and off-line via the Internet and text messages, and candlelight vigils on the streets" (4).

OhmyNews International held a Citizen's Reporters Forum titled Candlelight 2008 (5) on June 27. The forum explored the role of netizens and the new forms of journalism as the inspiration and catalyst for the development of the candlelight demonstrations. With the extensive wireless network in Seoul, netizens have been able to report live from the events using their laptops and Webcams. These reports have been made available to others around the world via the Internet (6). Netizens in other parts of South Korea and abroad have been able to know what is happening and to find ways to contribute to the developments.

The Internet and netizens have been playing an important role in helping to organize and inspire the candlelight protest movement through the online discussions of the issues underlying the protests and with their coverage of the candlelight events. Internet portals and forums like Agora on the portal Daum have provided a form of online public sphere where netizens have been able to discuss issues, so that shared understandings and new ideas could emerge. This has led to a growing readership and financial support for progressive media like Hankyoreh, Pressian, OhmyNews, Voice of the People and KyungHyang, and Internet sites like Daum Agora and Agorian. Coinciding with increased readership and postings to progressive media, there has been a movement to boycott the conservative media and the companies advertising in their pages.

The conservative media is referred to as ChoJoongDong which is short for the three leading conservative newspapers Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo, Dong-ah Ilbo (7).

A significant underlying issue catalyzing the protests has been the Korean government's acquiescence to the US government demand that South Korea import beef of any age and any cut without considering the health concerns of the Korean public. The South Korean government failed to take into account the risk that BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as mad cow disease) poses to the public when precautions are abandoned in favor of profit-oriented policies.

The conservative media in South Korea has tried to portray demonstrators as misguided or emotional. It has disregarded the many examples of protesters documenting the serious nature of their complaint with what their government has done.

For example, a middle school student wrote an open letter to US President George W. Bush explaining why she is opposed to the change in beef import regulations that the US has foisted on South Korea (8). She writes, "There is a high possibility of BSE infection in humans because even if humans cook their beef products thoroughly, prions are not going to be destroyed. Even the US Congress is saying that Canadian beef is dangerous and that the US shouldn't import Canadian beef aged over 30 months."

When there is no means of prevention or cure for a serious problem that can develop from a disease like BSE, the principle that should guide public policy is a precautionary one. A recent court decision in the United States granted an injunction against importing Canadian cattle that are over 30 months old, demonstrating that the concern expressed by this Korean middle school student is similarly a concern of Americans (9).

Instead of the Lee administration making any effort to communicate with the protesters, it has tried to suppress the movement with police beatings of peaceful protesters, arrests of protesters, raids on the offices of progressive organizations and other forms of suppression that remind South Koreans of the actions of the military dictatorship that was finally defeated in June 1987 (10). The conservative Korean media and some of the Western media in general have presented the protesters as being responsible for the police initiated violence against peaceful protesters (11).

The brutality of the police on the last weekend in June was viewed as an effort of the government to discourage the continuing demonstrations. The 300,000 people who were part of the July 5 candlelight demonstration made clear that the harsh police crackdowns have not dissuaded the demonstrators from presenting their demands. Similarly, on July 17, despite lots of rain and obstructions put in place by the government to prevent protests, 10,000 people demonstrated in Seoul to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean Constitution (12).

The international human rights advocacy group Amnesty International has investigated the allegations of police brutality against the candlelight demonstrators, especially with regard to what happened on the weekend of June 28-29 and has issued a press release criticizing the harsh tactics of the South Korean police and government against the demonstrators (13). The candlelight vigils continue and so too do the efforts to find ways to support the continuing development of an accurate media and to critique the conservative media's portrayal of the demonstrations.

At the OhmyNews Candlelight 2008 forum, the concluding panel discussed why there is a need to support progressive media to provide a counter to conservative media. One of the participants who spoke during the question period raised the need for an English-language media that would be able to make the continuing struggle of the Korean citizens and netizens known internationally. The aim would be to challenge effectively the inaccurate portrayal by the English-language edition of Chosun Ilbo.

Describing the current stage in the current struggle for more democracy in South Korea, the blog at DemocracyKorea explains:

"If you thought that our demonstrations would lead to some sort of bloody revolution at the end of which all the bad guys will be gone, sorry to disappoint you. We're not there yet. Especially since last Saturday's [protest (July 5)] the Korean People are taking a little time rethinking our strategies and diversifying them too. Candlelight protests are brilliant (optically as well as politically), but President Lee clearly doesn't give a damn about such protests. More protests are planned for Saturday, July 12, and Thursday, July 17 (a national holiday); but honestly, it is unlikely that they will bring about any real change. Many people are now turning towards consumer movement (boycotting pro-government newspapers and corporations), investigative Internet journalism (uncovering Lee and his gang's true motives as well as the hidden crimes), and various legal processes (judicial review). Of course, the government is already saying -- not literally, but effectively -- that it's illegal to boycott pro-government companies or to raise suspicions of the government's crimes. President Lee obviously doesn't want us to do anything that might get in his way" (14).

The netizen who blogs at DemocracyKorea has provided a helpful analysis of the current direction and dilemma of the candlelight demonstrators.

The problem that citizens and netizens in South Korea are dealing with is the difficult one of how to supervise elected officials who disregard the needs and opinions of the people. The candlelight demonstrations, as a mass movement of many people in South Korea, have been an effort to try to solve this difficult problem. For those people everywhere who want to solve this universal problem, the movement is worth watching and supporting.
1. For a further reference on this subject, see, Ronda Hauben, On Grassroots Journalism and Participatory Democracy in South Korea, draft version. The final version of the article is published in Korea Yearbook 2007, edited by Rudiger Frank et al., November 2007.

2. Cho Hee-yeon, "The Role of the NGO's in the Democratic Transition," Asia Solidarity Quarterly, 3 (winter).

3. For English-language accounts of the events as they unfold see DemocracyKorea, GlobalCandles and Hankyoreh.

4. Kim Dae-jung, Koreans Experimenting with Direct Democracy, Korea Times, June 12.

5. OhmyNews International Citizen Reporters' Forum 2008.

6. Nathalie Touret, South Korean 'Netizens' take to the streets, France 24, June18.

See also, Michael Ha, Candlelight Vigils Coin New Words, Korea Times, June 16.

7. Jo Eun-mi, Netizens Fly High and Above Korean Gov't Candlelight demonstrators take their fight online, OhmyNews International, July 7.

8. Chae-song Kim, Beef Imports to Korea: An Open Letter to President Bush
Korean middle school student Chae-song Kim asks that the trade agreement be reconsidered
, June 14.

9. Global Candles Blog, R-CALF USA Members Win 3rd Injunction Against USDA's BSE Rules.

10. G8 Dispatches: Water Cannons, Candlelight Vigils and Rebellion in the Streets, Alternet, July 3.

11. International Herald Tribune publishes a false report on the June 28th protest, June 29.

12. DemocracyKorea: Amnesty International Reports on Korea.

13. South Korea: Use of force against beef protestors should be investigated thoroughly, Amnesty International, July 18.

14. DemocracyKorea: What Next + Notice.


An earlier version of this article appeared at taz on netizenblog.

2008/07/24 오후 2:07
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