A Long Fight for Media Democracy in South Korea

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.[1] 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.[2] 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[3] 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.[4] 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,[5] is still far from finished.

The internal task force of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) formed under the new administration revealed that former President Lee Myung-Bak had exercised a heavy hand over the media[6] – through practices well-known to media workers for years. Systematic programs were developed to crack down on dissent and to manipulate public opinion via media stretching from TV and radio to the Internet. The administration had been directly involved in hiring and firing, censorship, attacking media workers’ unions and creating a blacklist of cultural workers and intellectuals who criticized the administration and its policies.[7] For the past nine years, it was revealed, the scale of the government’s schemes to repress media had been reminiscent of South Korea’s thirty years of military dictatorship, between the 1960s and the 1980s – when draconian government measures were routinely deployed.[8]

It turned out that the Blue House (the official residence of South Korea’s President) had ordered the National Intelligence Service (NIS) to seek out left-leaning media and cultural workers, political figures and organizations.[9] According to the internal NIS taskforce, NIS also had operated a cyber-unit consisting of thousands of civilians who had penetrated social media and online communities to manipulate public opinion – and who had campaigned for then right-wing candidate and now discredited former president Park Geun-hye.[10]

This sustained crackdown on the press could not be kept fully secret. Indeed, the government’s repression of the media even gained some international attention. In 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Committee warned the South Korea government against its abuse of criminal defamation laws to prosecute people critical of the government.[11] The Financial Times reported that the number of people prosecuted under the Korean national security law had increased from 32 in 2008 to 94 in 2013 under conservative presidents Lee and Park.[12] In fact, we now know that, under Lee, hundreds of media workers were fired or forced to take paid leave and faced disciplinary action simply for doing their jobs;[13] and that, since 2010, MBC has fired 10 employees and taken punitive actions against 216 others.[14]

What is most impressive in this context is the response mounted by South Korea’s media workers. Press and media workers were not sidelined even throughout the nine years of repression, but persistently raised their collective voice in opposition. The National Union of Media Workers (NUMW)  organized a series of large-scale strikes, calling out the government and demanding that it take its hands off of the media. Protests mounted against the 2008 criminal defamation law,[15] which was designed to silence dissent, and the 2011 opening-up of new network TV channels that were expected to affiliate with the major conservative newspapers that enjoyed an inside-track with the administration.[16] In 2012, the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) union walked out for 170 days, in a bitter fight against the government’s transgressions against freedom of expression.[17] This was the longest strike ever against MBC.[18] Shortly after the MBC strike began, workers at the other flagship public broadcasting service, the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), as well as those at news cable channel YTN followed suit, though they ended their actions earlier.[19] The strikes were quelled, and many journalists, producers and other cultural workers were sacked or simply departed.

Since President Moon came into office, this struggle has continued.  On August 25, 2017, the National Union of Media Workers announced a declaration for media democracy with three basic precepts: do not submit to government power; do not serve capital; and shed light and report on injustice. On September 4, 2017, thousands of union members affiliated with the NUMW at both MBC and KBS thereupon walked out in a joint strike. They are demanding an independent media and guarantees of freedom of expression, and they are insisting that the current MBC and KBS presidents resign due to their collusion in shaping news and other media content to serve the political interests of Lee and the now-disgraced Park. Fully 1,800 workers at KBS and 2,000 at MBC participated in the strike.[20] Over 93{17f48941629941408d54a014d0f93d93b36accbdc22b35d759326eee58f33f56} of MBC union members voted to strike, the highest rate for a “yes” strike vote in the union’s history.[21]

The KBS and MBC unions are pressing forward with the fight for radical media reforms to serve the public interest. The solidarity has been impressive. The National Journalist Association[22] and the National Association of Video Journalists are supporting the strike and boycotting the production of programming.[23] As well, for the first time ever, cafeteria workers at MBC have joined with the struggle.[24] At the time of publishing, the strike has now stretched for more than a month.

The Moon administration promised media reform [25] but whether he will actually reform the corrupt media system to serve the citizenry is still uncertain. Perhaps Koreans’ best bet would be to continue the occupation of the streets to hold the administration’s feet to the fire while insisting that it adhere to the declaration for media democracy. In any case, South Korean media workers’ struggles provide an inspiration not only to Koreans but also to people around the globe who continue the long fight for freedom of expression.


[1]25 Years Ago: The Kwangju Massacre in South Korea” Democracy Now, May 18, 2005, Gwangju Uprising; June Struggle.

[2]The struggle against neoliberalism in South Korea: history and lessons” Korea Alliance against the Korea–US FTA; James Crotty & Kang-Kook Lee, “Korea’s Neoliberal Restructuring: Miracle or Disaster? August 2001.

[3] Steven Denney, “Number of Irregular Workers Continue to Rise in South Korea,” The Diplomat, November 10, 2016.

[4]  Jeong Je-hyeok, Yi Hyo-sang, Jeong Dae-yeon, “NIS ‘Outside’ Cyber Team Manipulated Public Opinion: MB Government Hired 3,500 Civilians for the Task,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, August 4, 2017; “Is South Korea’s democracy under threat from within?Al Jazeera, February 1, 2015; Youngsu Won, “South Korea’s Historic Candle Light Protests Bring Down President Park” Global Research, December 12, 2016.

[6] Kim Hyo-jin, “Noose tightens around Lee Myung-bak,”  The Korean Times, October 9, 2007; “Parties at odds over NIS’ alleged election meddling” Yonhap News, August 4, 2017.

[7]박준용, “국정원 방송장악 논란’ 이명박·원세훈 등 국감 증인 신청한겨레, September 24, 2017.

[8]김종철, “이명박게이트’의 끝은 어디일까Media Today, September 29, 2017.

[9]한정훈, “MB 정부 청와대·국정원 주도 ‘KBS 좌편향 인사 문건’ 발견”  한겨레 September 18, 2017.

[10] Song Jung-a, “South Korea spy agency admits trying to fix election,” Financial Times, August 4, 2017.

[11]South Korea: Stop Using Criminal Defamation Laws” Human Rights Watch, December 14, 2014.

[12] Tae-jun Kang, “Fears grow for freedom of expression in South Korea” Financial Times, January 25, 2017; Song Jung-a, “South Koreans fear return to authoritarian past” Financial Times, July 24, 2016.

[13]  KBS MBC YTN 징계자 명단IN 언론적폐 청산 특집호  521호.

[14]MBC 파괴공작은 그대로 실행됐다” 자유언론실천재단, September 27, 2017.

[15] Shen Hayes, “Korea’s Cyber Defamation Law: Basics of Libel and Slander in Korea” Korean Law Blog, August 7, 2015.

[16] 김형기, 언론사 45곳 총파업… 1500여명 항의집회” 경향신문, 12, 02, 2011.

[17]MBC union to stage first strike in five years,” Yonhap News, August 29, 2017.Yonhap News, August 29, 2017.

[18] Jung-yoon Choi, South Korea broadcasters keep up strike for media independence”, Los Angeles Times, July 19, 2012.

[19]KBS producers join strike against ‘biased’ news coverage,” Yonhap News, May 23, 2014

[20] “Labor Unions at KBS, MBC go on massive strike,” Yonhap News, September 4, 2017.

[21]MBC노조가 압도적으로 총파업을 결정하며 “전례 없이 강도 높은 파업”을 예고했다” Huffington Post Korea, August 29, 2017.

[22] 이진우, “MBC 장악문건, 김재철에 직접 전달…PD수첩 물갈이 이어져” Journalist Association of Korea.

[23] Kim Hyo-sil, “General strikes look set to commence from Sept. 4 at KBS, MBC,” 한겨레August 29, 2017.

[24]황금비, “사상 첫 MBC 구내식당도 파업…“정상화될때 밥하겠다” 한겨레,  October 2, 2017,

[25] Jung Min-ho, “President vows to reform broadcasters,” Korean Times, August 9, 2017.


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