Whether in published narratives or private talks, South Korean and Japanese journalists deplore the present status of relations between their two governments, which remain in an abyss of mutual distrust. They call for greater efforts to increase understanding in official as well as civil sectors across the Korea Strait.
However, the mainstream media in both countries have little respect for each other, and that poses an additional stumbling block. Korean media people generally regard their Japanese counterparts as weaker in professional independence compared with American or Western European journalists. The traditional exclusivity of government pressrooms in Tokyo and the tone of unison in their coverage of disputes with Korea support this view.
On the other hand, Japanese journalists believe the Korean media make inadequate efforts to comprehend and deliver the truth about major current affairs, but conveniently follow the policies of changing administrations. Viewed from Seoul, Japanese media outlets always have ready answers to problems arising between the two countries; even liberal papers turn conservative on any Korean move seeking a change to the status quo.
Korea and Japan need genuine cooperation on security and economic issues, but it seems little can be expected of President Moon Jae-in or Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Conscientious thinkers might well ask why the media can’t be a good umpire instead of acting like a crowd of loyal fans.
The Kwanhun Journal, reputedly the oldest magazine of all genres in Korea, in its 60th anniversary issue focused on how the Korean and Japanese media look at each other with regard to their coverage of major current issues: Seoul’s abrogation of a 2015 agreement with Tokyo on the problem of the World War II “comfort women,” the Korean Supreme Court ruling in favor of plaintiffs subjected to wartime forced labor by Japanese enterprises, and the maritime incident involving a Japanese Self-Defense Force patrol aircraft and a Korean Navy destroyer.
The magazine -- published by the Kwanhun Club, a fraternity of senior journalists -- carried articles contributed by Choe Yi-rak, the international desk editor of Yonhap News; Akiko Horiyama, Seoul correspondent for the Japanese daily Mainichi Shimbun; and Jin Chang-soo, head of the Japan Research Center at the Sejong Institute.
Horiyama observes that no solution can come from the government authorities in Tokyo and Seoul, who are bound by existing laws, systems and principles that obstruct logic that leads to the “great cause” of friendship. She argues that politicians and civil society responsible for creating laws and systems should search for a “creative solution,” with the media helping to foster national consensus.
A dilemma facing the Japanese media these days is that a factual report on the Korean position on a specific issue does not contribute to mutual understanding but rather increases distrust, unease and repercussion in the Japanese public opinion, Horiyama says. Part of the problem is that the Korean policy is often not well formulated or well explained to the Japanese media.
She took the example of the Korean government’s decision to dissolve the Foundation for Reconciliation and Healing, which was supposed to take care of the survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery. It was first briefed by the Korean minister of gender equality and family to a group of reporters at a restaurant. She got hold of the Seoul government’s plan indirectly via a Korean reporter covering the ministry, but was still unable to find out why or how the decision was made. Japanese reporters were not invited to the press conference, where the decision was officially announced.
In her opinion, Korean correspondents in Tokyo make insufficient efforts to obtain information directly from responsible Japanese authorities. Direct quotes from them could have included comments that carefully considered possible Korean reactions. When Korean correspondents pick up articles published in Japanese newspapers, they invariably contain remarks that are aimed at the Japanese public and are hence likely to offend the Korean public.
Choe of Yonhap News, who had previously been posted in Tokyo, has little doubt that the Japanese media are bent on Korea bashing and supporting their government’s policies when it comes to disputes with Korea, regardless of whether an individual media organization is liberal or conservative. Without exception, the Japanese papers reported that the Korean military’s denial of its hostile action against a Japanese SDF aircraft was a distortion of facts aimed at the local audience.
Bilateral relations are at their worst state since Lee Myung-bak landed at Dokdo in August 2012, becoming the first Korean president to do so. To salvage the situation, Choe opines that those in the Japanese press need to reflect on their general tendency of identifying themselves with right-wing groups and the Abe administration and adjust their views with those of the intelligent public. They may gain short-term favor from political power, but their credibility will suffer in the long term.
Jin at the Sejong Institute saw the media compete for the role of spokesperson for their respective governments in Seoul and Tokyo. When the Supreme Court recognized the former forced laborers’ civil right to claim compensation, Japan and Korea were set on a collision course with the media making little efforts to help readers in their respective countries understand the perspective of the other side.
Since the Korea-Japan rapprochement in 1965, two contrasting beliefs have seized Korean minds. One is that the accord fell short of justice and did not make amends for Japan’s crimes and therefore needs to be supplemented with further compensation and expressions of guilt. The other is the future-oriented, realistic approach. If the two countries keep contending over right and wrong, there will be nothing but the severance of ties, Jin concludes. The media can help solve problems by offering better strategic options, he said.
Self-reflection and awareness of mission are required of the media here and over there. But the big problem is the dwindling power of the mainstream media under siege of the emerging mass-communication instruments that are fundamentally transforming the media environment.
It is Newspaper Week, which started April 7 with Newspaper Day. When the first Newspaper Day was observed in 1957, the catchword was “Newspaper as the companion of the weak.” In the following years, the slogans featured “freedom,” “responsibility,” “truth,” “independence” and “fairness.”
In this year’s contest, the prize went to “Learning from newspapers -- seeing the trees as well as the forest.” It sounds prosaic even in Korean, but it ill have been worth the prize money if it stresses the vision of good neighborliness beyond cumbersome happenings in affairs like Korea-Japan relations.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.