Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Media Strike in Korea

Dear Korean,

Could you expound a bit on the background of the labour strikes at KBS and, particularly, MBC? I'm given to understand that there's been some kind of political meddling, but as you've intimated before, English-language Korean news sources seem to be lacking in a number of ways.


This question is long overdue, as the strike has been going on since January. In fact, KBS union ended its strike last week. In the spirit of better late than never, the Korean is picking up this question for a few reasons, to wit:  a lot of Korea-lovers rely on TV shows, and it would be helpful to know why a lot of their favorite shows. And like a lot of Korean history, the background of the media strike is an interesting story of rough-and-tumble intrigue.

Also, the media strike is indirectly responsible for this racist MBC "expose" on interracial relationships in Korea, which can be roughly summarized as:  "Dey terk er weemin!" As the regular news staff of MBC has been on strike nearly six months, MBC has been filling its lineup with a lot of crap that are produced by outside production companies. One of the results is that a completely beyond-the-pale program like this one goes through the filters.

(Aside:  The Korean really does not have much to add on this whole thing without repeating what others have already said. It was racist, misogynistic and shitty. Even Koreans in Korea have overwhelmingly called this program out as racist, misogynistic and shitty.

The Korean would like to point out one thing though: only 17 people showed up in the protest in front of MBC. Seventeen. Even though the Facebook group denouncing the program has nearly 9,000 members. You want things to change? It's not going to happen with clicking a few things on Facebook.)

First of all, a quick background about TV stations in Korea. The biggest thing you have to remember as you read through the history of TV stations in Korea is that as recently as 1987, Korea was a fascist dictatorship much like a lot of countries in South America were at the same time. Because controlling the media has always been essential to the life of a dictatorship, Korea's TV stations were under the thumb of the government for a very long time. Because of the remnants of those times, Korea's TV stations are still under a huge degree of government control, to a degree that may appear ludicrously unbefitting to a robust democracy.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Media Consolidation of 1980, and the Aftermath

The most significant event in modern Korean media history, whose effects still resonate today, is an incident called "Media Consolidation" of 1980 [언론 통폐합].

By November 1980, General Chun Doo-Hwan had taken over power by a bloody coup d'etat in which he arrested and/or killed his senior officers, and massacred hundreds of citizens in Gwangju who protested the usurpation. Korea was under martial law during most of 1980, as Chun was consolidating his power. For nearly a year, under the pretense of the martial law, the military government censored every single newspaper and television news reports. The newspaper editors literally had to deliver the draft of the next day's newspaper, pre-printed, to the military government's temporary headquarters, to be reviewed by the censoring officer. The same was true for television/radio news programs and their directors.

The martial law could not go on forever, and Chun knew it. But ending the martial law meant freeing up the media, which would predictably rebel against Chun. Chun's solution was characteristically simple and brutal -- shut down the most "problematic" news organizations, and leave a few alive to serve as the regime's trumpeters.

The result of this was far-reaching. Before the consolidation, Korea had 64 media organizations -- 28 newspapers, 29 television/radio stations, and seven wire services. Vast majority of them were independent and privately owned. After the consolidation, there were only 14 newspapers, three television/radio stations and one wire service. More than 172 magazines were banned. The owners of the media organizations were summoned to the military government's headquarters, and were forced to relinquish their ownership with a gun pointed on their heads. More than 1500 journalists were fired for being critical to the military government, and were blacklisted from the re-organized media companies. As many as 30 of them were sent to Samcheong Gyoyuk-dae [삼청교육대], a hard labor camp that was no better than a North Korean gulag of today.

TV and radio broadcasting companies were the most affected, as they went from 29 stations to merely three. Five broadcasting companies -- Dongyang, Donga, Jeonil, Seohae and Hankuk -- were forcibly merged into Korea Broadcasting System (KBS), a public company, and ceased to exist. Christian Broadcasting System, an instrumental force for democratization movement, was banned from reporting news.

But it was the Munhwa Broadcasting Company that took the greatest hit. MBC, in its original form, was not a single company. Rather, it was a federation of 20 loosely affiliated member stations located in various parts of Korea. Although they shared much of their programming, each member station was privately owned. After the consolidation, however, each affiliate was forced to give up majority of their shares to the MBC based in Seoul, and MBC Seoul, in turn, was forced to give up majority of its shares to KBS.

This is the genesis of Korea's two major network television stations -- KBS and MBC. This structure more or less survived even after Chun's regime fell in 1987. In 1988, the majority shares of MBC (70 percent, to be exact) that KBS used to hold were transferred to Foundation for Broadcast Culture, a non-profit organization whose directors are appointed by Korea Communications Commission. (The president of Korea, in turn, appoints the head of KCC.)

Today, Korea today has three major network television stations -- KBS, MBC and SBS (which opened in 1990.) And Korean government owns 100% of KBS, and 70% of MBC. Ludicrous, right?

(Aside:  Guess who owns the remaining 30% of MBC, by the way. It is Jeongsu Scholarship Foundation, i.e. the nonprofit foundation to which the late dictator Park Chung-Hee funneled his slush funds, part of which were the shares in MBC. The current presidential forerunner of the conservative New Frontier Party is Park Chung-Hee's daughter Park Geun-Hye, and she was the chairwoman of JSF until she entered party politics. Isn't Korean politics fascinating?)

Another effect of media consolidation is that, quite obviously, only the pro-military government media companies managed to survive. Further, the success of the media companies, post-consolidation, was directly correlated to how vigorously those newspapers sucked up to the military government. This affected newspapers more than the TV stations, since the newspapers were still privately owned. Consequently, the three largest newspapers of Korea today -- Chosun, JoongAng and Dong-A -- are reliably conservative. This will become relevant in understanding what is going on today.

Media under Lee Myeong-Bak Administration

The legal ownership structure of MBC did not change since the democratization of Korea, but in practicality, MBC became a private company since 1988. MBC made money entirely through advertisement income, without receiving any taxpayer support. (In contrast, KBS 1 TV carries no advertisement, and is instead supported by taxpayer money.) As MBC practically grew in its independence, its news desk came to lean more strongly toward the progressive side of Korean politics, critical of the conservative Lee Myeong-Bak administration that took the Blue House in 2007.

In June 2008, Lee Myeong-Bak administration made a concession to the United States by relaxing its stance against Mad Cow Disease control. MBC's news bureau began hammering away at Lee administration for endangering public health. Particularly effective was MBC's PD Notebook, an esteemed news magazine show, which ran an expose on the danger of Mad Cow Disease in American beef. Several days of massive protests ensued, to a point that there were whispers that President Lee might have to resign.

The protests eventually faded out, and the President survived. But it is safe to say that the protests completely traumatized the Lee Administration, for the Lee Administration sought to exact its revenge on the major actors of that episode for the next several years leading up to today. And of course, the media, and particularly MBC, was the prime target.

The first volley was in December 2008, when the conservative Grand National Party (which is now called the New Frontier Party) proposed an amendment to the Media Law, which would allow newspapers to operate network television stations also. On its face, this law appears to be an act of liberalization, as it opens up the TV market to new players. But the subtext was obvious, because only the largest newspapers (i.e. the conservative ones) would be able to afford to open the television stations. From the progressives' perspective, it was a transparent ploy to give more firepower to the conservative news organizations. In July 2009, the Grand National Party rammed through the bill in the National Assembly against the fiercely physical opposition from the Democratic Party. Later, Korea's Constitutional Court ruled that the procedure by which the GNP passed the bill was unconstitutional, but curiously refused to strike down the law.

At least, the Media Law move had a pretty decent cover -- in theory, it is not a bad thing that there are more network television stations. Other steps taken by the administration, however, were self-evident attempts to suppress the media.

Remember how MBC's president is appointed. The president of Korea appoints the head of the Korean Communications Commission; the KCC appoints the directors of Foundation of Broadcast Culture; then the directors of FBC appoints the head of MBC. This chain of command was mostly reduced to formalism since the end of the dictatorship. But under this administration, the presidential influence over MBC's executives became much more overt.

MBC's PD Notebook, the program that did the most to fan the flames of the Mad Cow beef protest, was hit the hardest. MBC executives nixed several items from PD Notebook that would have been critical of the Lee Administration. Six out of 11 production directors (i.e. the PDs) of PD Notebook were moved to a different department. Some of the PDs who defied the management's order and ran the programs that were nixed, were transferred to a department in MBC that has nothing to do with directing a television program. (One of the PDs, for example, was transferred to a department that manages the land that MBC owns, for the purpose of on-location filming.)

Other MBC programs that tended to be critical toward the administration were arbitrarily cancelled, or the hosts of the shows were replaced. At least six MBC television or radio shows, generally perceived to be more critical about the government, were cancelled or had their hosts replaced.

The National Union of Media Workers, the labor union for journalists and employees of media companies in Korea, went on strike several times to protest these moves. The union went on strike three times in 2009, to protest the Media Law amendment. More recently, on December 1, 2011, the union led a nationwide strike, participated by 45 media companies, to protest the opening of four new network television stations -- which were, as expected, affiliated with the four largest conservative newspapers of Korea.

Within MBC, the conflict between the union and the management crested in January of this year. Pursuant to company regulations, MBC's labor union demanded the management to replace the executives who were in charge of the news desk (i.e. the same executives who cancelled scheduled programs.) MBC's management, in response, summarily relieved Park Seong-Ho (one of the leaders of the union) from his job as an anchorman. On January 25, MBC's journalists voted to boycott news production. Finally, the entire MBC union voted to a total strike on January 30, demanding MBC's president to resign and establish procedure to ensure fair reporting. The entire MBC -- not just news, but dramas, show programs, everything -- was shutting down. Popular shows like "Infinite Challenge" [무한도전] and "We Got Married" [우리 결혼했어요] were immediately cancelled. MBC's journalists took to YouTube to air "the Real MBC Newsdesk," their own version of "MBC Newsdesk," MBC's flagship news show.

MBC's management dug in their heels. The management suspended or fired more than 100 union members, sued the labor union for interfering with business, and ordered the union to return to their posts. As a part of the lawsuit, the management petitioned the court to freeze the assets of the union leaders and the union itself, and the court granted the petition. The management also paid bonus to the employees who did not participate in the strike. The union responded by revealing the management's corporate credit card statement, which showed that MBC's president spent more than $700,000 in two years -- three times as much as his predecessor. The statement showed huge amounts spent in designer boutiques, jewelry stores and four star hotels, arousing suspicion that MBC's president was using his corporate card for his mistress.

As the strike continued, the unions for other television stations began to join. KBS union began striking on March 6. YTN, a cable news television, began striking on March 8. The unions for Yonhap News (Korea's only wire service) and Kukmin Ilbo, a newspaper, also began striking.

And that is the state of play as of now. KBS union ended its strike on June 7, and Kukmin Ilbo ended its strike on June 12. But MBC, YTN and Yonhap News are continuing on with their strike. At this point, the media strike is far beyond the point at which the MBC management alone could handle. The striking unions are now demanding that the National Assembly hold a hearing to investigate the precise connection between the MBC management and the Lee Administration. Barring something dramatic, MBC's strike will continue to drag on.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. Excellent blog post, as always.

    One mistake, however - the drama division of MBC was not impacted, save for one day's cancellation of a certain drama. This is because the dramas are produced by outside companies, and not in-house by MBC.

    Things have been remarkably normal for the variety programs, as well. In certain cases like 놀러와 (Come to Play), MBC brought in an outside team to run the day-to-day tasks of the program while the original producing team (affiliated with MBC) participated in the strike. The same goes for We Got Married, which recently announced its decision to return to the air.

    The only variety program that isn't broadcasting *at all* due to the strike is Infinity Challenge, and that's because the producer of that show - Kim Tae Ho - is considered an irreplacable member of the crew, and the show commands a huge fandom that will literally go berserk once they hear that an outside team will be handling that as well (which recent news reports seem to indicate might possibly happen).

  2. well, I just would like to ask if the whole MBC go against that president, would he be kicked out of his position? I mean, if the whole world is against one, how can that one remain anyway?

  3. Very informative. I didn't know much about the TV media side of things, other than knowing that KBS and MBC were owned in part by the government. I think it's rather unjust for any particular presidential administration to have that much power over the media.

  4. The 'membership' of Facebook groups seems to be created by an automatic process where anyone who joins gets everyone on their friend list added as well, and then they need to take themselves off, if they notice.

    There is a picnic planned for tomorrow and almost a 140 people have said they will attend with 150 more in the maybe category. It's not a protest or a demonstration. It's a picnic. If the media drops by they will see images contrary to what the MBC video showed: they will see mixed-race couples enjoying the summer sun, some with beautiful children. Some of us will be eating kimbap. Others will be throwing Frisbees, I suppose. No one will be victimizing anyone or spreading AIDS or making Korean girls pregnant and running away.

    There won't be any speeches made or people walking around with signs and shouting. Maybe no one will care. That would be too bad, but at least we will have a picnic. Let's hope for another sunny day.


  5. Excellent as usual. I have one comment, though. You state:
    "Particularly effective was MBC's PD Notebook, an esteemed news magazine show, which ran an expose on the danger of Mad Cow Disease in American beef. Several days of massive protests ensued, to a point that there were whispers that President Lee might have to resign."

    This glosses over the fact that the reporters who presented this episode that so enraged the public were later convicted for basically lying and making up facts for this report. So it may have been effective reporting, but not necessarily good reporting.

    1. A lot of people seem to think that the Mad Cow Disease episode was the only episode that PD Notebook ever aired. PD Notebook has been in existence for more than 20 years, and has created many path-breaking investigative journalism work. It was PD Notebook, for example, that uncovered the Hwang Woo-Seok fraud for the first time. Considering its entire history, PD Notebook is excellent journalism.

  6. Great stuff,really informative. One thing though. You comment that more should have joined the campaign, but it is illegal for foreigners to take part in any kind of political activity, so it was a very risky move. You could say that those that did attend got away without any problems, but that may not have been the case if more had showed up. i'm sure 100+ campaigners would have drawn more media attention, therefore more political + police attention. not what anyone on an e-2 or d visa needs. I hear the 'picnic' was much better attended

  7. Nothing about Kim Jae-cheol? That guy's largely responsible for the downfall of MBC.


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