It happened during the tough times of President Park Chung-hee’s “Yushin” rule of the 1970s.
I open the door of Reuters Seoul bureau office at Ulchiro 1-ga one morning to find a piece of paper on the floor, apparently inserted through the crack by a secret messenger. The hand-written note informs us where and when an anti-government rally will be held that day.
I go to Jangchungdan Park, or the Catholic Myeongdong Cathedral, at the given time and watch a leader read a statement and his colleagues distribute leaflets to a small crowd that includes several international media reporters. Some of the demonstrators are taken to a police station to face charges of violating “emergency measures.” Journalists keep the fliers in their pockets although police ask bystanders to surrender the “subversive documents.”
Back in the office, I write a story, turn it over to the teletype operator who transmits it right away to the Reuters Asian regional center in Singapore, where the article is distributed to clients across the globe. A bigger, more violent action may make headline in US, Japanese of European papers to portray pro-democracy struggles continuing in Seoul, even if it finds no space in local papers.
In those legendary days, I do not recall operatives of the Park regime calling us “black-haired foreign correspondents.” As far as I know, the “black-haired” term began in financial circles here during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, to indicate some Korean-born, foreign-trained traders who came here from the Wall Street for M&As, purchases of real estate or arranging loans.
When irregular practices were exposed, the activities of those migrant financial workers came under the authorities’ scrutiny. Investigators conveniently categorized them as “black-haired foreigners” to make a negative ethical judgment about taking advantage of their dual backgrounds.
So, it was utterly surprising that the spokesman for the ruling Democratic Party of Korea used the description to finger a Korean reporter working for an international news agency during a recent political squabble. “This black-haired ‘foreign correspondent’ was almost traitorous …” were the words that came from the party mouthpiece.
He was responding to an address by the main opposition party’s floor leader who borrowed words from a Bloomberg article calling President Moon a virtual spokesman for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Democratic Party spokesman Lee Hae-sik’s rather explosive comment set off a chain of protests from international press groups.
“It is disturbing for a politician to accuse any journalist of treason -- a criminal offence -- for reporting on matters of public interest or voicing an opinion. This is a form of censorship and journalistically chilling,” the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club said in a statement. Similar rebukes came from the International Press Institute, the Asian American Journalists Association and Bloomberg. The party spokesman retracted part of his statement.
Since the 1950-53 Korean War, major international press organizations have kept their bureaus in Seoul, a news hot spot with recurring political upheavals and military tension continuing with the North. Instead of assigning staff members from the head office, they have employed native journalists here for two advantages: lower cost and easier access to news sources.
The domestic media had a tradition of defiant struggle against political power throughout the postwar years but were not free from power holders’ attempts at control through intimidation, censorship either open or hidden, and offers of favoritism. Korean reporters working for the international media, although insulated from such interference, still risked harm because of their nationality.
Anti-government demonstrators welcomed on-the-spot coverage by reporters with foreign press insignia. Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, giant figures in the democratization process, took interviews with the foreign press almost regularly in their homes, and their appeals for an end to dictatorship reached the conscience of the world via major international news outlets.
Democracy was restored at the price of bloodshed and many sufferings. Koreans have passed through one democratically-installed administration after another last three decades. Then all of a sudden, we hear a ruling party spokesman bitterly criticize a “black-haired foreign media reporter” for her unflattering observation of presidential diplomacy, questioning her civic loyalty as a Korean national. Instantly, I wondered whether an ultranationalist party, instead of a liberal one, was in power.
In this age of global communication, with Korea being among those countries leading the advancement, it is of little meaning to seek distinction between the international and local press or to determine whether a story is written by a black-haired journalist or a blue-eyed one. The target audience might change, but a true journalist would not deliver different views and conclusions, let alone interpretation, when writing for compatriots or international readers.
In order to help clarify the controversy, let me pick up the Bloomberg article published on Sept. 26, 2018. It read:
“While Kim Jong Un isn’t attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, he had what amounted to a de facto spokesman singing his praises: South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
“In speeches and television appearances, Moon … portrayed the North Korean autocrat as a normal world leader who wants to bring economic prosperity to his people. He made no mention of atrocities that prompted President Donald Trump to call North Korea a ‘cruel dictatorship’ during his State of the Union address in January …”
Liberty Korea Party floor leader Na Kyung-won in her March 13 National Assembly address warned President Moon to be more discreet in his denuclearization diplomacy so that “we never again hear the embarrassing talk that the president of the Republic of Korea is Kim Jong-un’s top spokesman.” Ruling party lawmakers wildly protested her speech, stalling the session for half an hour.
The Democratic Party spokesman has also challenged a New York Times article published last October that said Moon was serving as Kim’s “agent.” He said it was “merely a story written by a black-haired wire reporter,” by now his favorite descripton for his compatriots. It is scary if this kind of name-calling indicates chauvinism rising among the new power group here, initially directed against Korean professionals involved in international services.
President Moon, under stress from a bumpy economy and the ever elusive goal of rapprochement with the North, needs to caution his aides against causing unnecessary friction with the press, which is usually a sign of weakening self-confidence.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He was a Reuters correspondent in Seoul in the 1970s. -- Ed.