SEOUL — Some days ago I received an e-mail from a friend I hadn’t heard from for a while, who teaches North Korean affairs at one of the major universities in Seoul. “I am worried,” he wrote. “This is not a good time for South Korean scholars dealing with North Korea to express their views freely.” I had heard this sort of complaint before in the recent past. Another person dealing with analysis of North Korea even said that all those expressing opposing views regarding the engagement policy are victimized in a witch hunt of sorts.
“Now if you make even a constructive criticism of the North, this may result in you being condemned as anti-reunification oriented, or accused as a perpetrator of Cold War structures,” a commentator of one of the leading South Korean dailies wrote a few days ago.
An important segment of the South Korean media — and here I refer mainly to the press — is not at all happy with the pace of Korean rapprochement. On top of this, many South Korean commentators express their concern about the rapid transformation of South Korean public opinion. South Korea’s conservative press is worried about a new public disposition that discourages any serious criticism of the dictatorship on the other side of the Korean divide.
Even though the worries in parts of the South Korean press may be exaggerated, the spectacular rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula has no doubt had very significant influence on public opinion in the South. Not long ago, the average South Korean would view his neighbor as the personification of all evil. These perceptions are clearly passe: According to an opinion poll published a few days ago in a Seoul daily, over 98 percent of respondents deemed that the image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has improved in the wake of the inter-Korean summit in June. About 81 percent of the South Koreans polled said North Korea will change due to the process initiated at the Pyongyang summit.
The main driving force behind this remarkable conversion in the minds of the majority of the people have been the media. One source says 95 percent of the adult South Korean population witnessed the historic scenes of the Pyongyang summit on TV. These astonishing figures were presented at an international seminar titled, “The role of the electronic media in the era of reconciliation and cooperation” organized by the Korean Broadcasting System some days ago.
This conference has been one of numerous events to which the Korean side invited specialists from Germany. This time the organizers made a particularly successful choice, as they managed to recruit two prominent German television journalists with firsthand experience reporting before unification. One hailed from the West, the other from the East. Together with their Korean colleagues and media experts, the German editors discussed the role of the electronic media in the process leading to unification.
It was difficult to overlook one important divergence regarding the professional attitudes of the Germans and the South Koreans. The South Koreans stated that it is one of the main responsibilities of the media to create a sense of national harmony between the South and the North. It became apparent that the leadership of the main South Korean TV station seems prepared to accept the North Korean demand to scrap all programs that could appear offensive to the North. One South Korean speaker addressed this position, which in effect boils down to submission and surrender of the very basic ethos of independent journalism, in the following well-sounding phrase: “South Korean television programs must adhere to the spirit of the June 15 declaration.”
On this point, there was no agreement between the South Korean hosts and the guests from Europe. The German journalists, one of whom had just come back from a two-week trip to North Korea, went out of their way to stress the differences between the current situation on the Peninsula and in the two Germanys before unification.
In those days, West German correspondents were permitted to work in the East. Their reports transmitted by the West German media (and accessible in the East) soon became the most important source of uncensored information for the East German population. They never ceased to be guided by the journalistic canon: Only critical journalism is good journalism. Today we know, that the disclosure of the true conditions prevailing in East Germany by courageous Western correspondents was one main factor that discredited the communist rulers in the eyes of the masses. The ensuing loss of legitimacy was the first stage in a process that eventually lead to the downfall of the tyrants, opening the door to Germany’s peaceful unification.
It is no exaggeration to claim that uncensored information is a nail in the coffin of every dictatorship. In North Korea, the population is blindfolded. North Korea may appropriately be called an “information dictatorship.” The regime has set up what one expert has called “a secure mosquito net against the penetration of outside information.”
We have witnessed progress in the diplomatic field, and also very impressive developments regarding economic and cultural exchanges. But genuine North-South media cooperation will remain a taboo for the rulers in Pyongyang for a long time to come. The power of illiberal regimes is based on force and the ignorance of the masses. To preserve this ignorance is a matter of survival for every dictator. Therefore, we should not expect reciprocity regarding media affairs. This is a deplorable situation that the South Koreans will have to get accustomed to. It is a state of affairs many South Korean editorial writers still have to come to terms with. I can understand those who have problems doing so.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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