North Korea has been much in the news lately, but, for an object-lesson in how to combat news management by the state, we may look south of the 38th parallel. For, during recent months, the legacy of authoritarian rule in the Republic of Korea (ROK) has once again exploded into public view – not as an ancient memory, but as a continuing abuse of democratic freedoms. Media workers’ response to the South Korean state’s controls over free expression merit our attention.
Thirty years ago, a nation-wide democracy movement led by intellectuals, students, workers, farmers and various other groups drew a global spotlight on the Republic of Korea. It led, in 1987, to the toppling of the country’s long-standing military dictatorship. This regime change opened up additional opportunities for Koreans to pursue the process of political democratization. These, however, did not succeed. While there were continued efforts to reduce economic disparity, curtail corporate power and improve social welfare, successive liberal governments weren’t able to deliver the political and economic reforms that they had promised. Instead, South Korea subordinated itself to a market-driven neoliberal system. Regaining power, conservative administrations, first under Lee Myung-Bak and then Park Geun-hye – whose father, General Park Jung-Hee, had imposed a military regime on the country until his assassination in 1979 – have again undermined Korea’s democratic path.
The seesaw has now thankfully swung the other way. One year ago, millions of Koreans filled the streets for a period of six months: students, women’s groups, labor- and farmers unions, and the general public. The trigger was a corruption scandal that the president proved unable to contain. But the underlying factors included widespread anger about increasing economic inequality, rising youth unemployment, contingent labor and the deteriorating conditions faced by public sector workers. This “candlelight movement” ultimately succeeded in bringing down President Park Geun-Hye in December, 2016. In the wake of historically massive protests, Park was impeached for her corruption and abuses of power. A new president, Moon Jae-in of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, took office in 2017.
But the movement, the latest incarnation of South Korea’s decades-long struggle for a democracy that would include media reform as well as government- and corporate accountability and workers’ rights, is still far from finished.