KOREA: The Korea Times - A Diehard in Struggle for Free Press

In it's 54th Anniversary Special, The Korea Times reviews its own history and struggles for a free press

The Korea Times
Tuesday, October 26, 2004

By Park Chang-seok

The decades-long National Security Law (NSL) is in for repeal. Political arguments are heating up over whether or not to retain the much-talked-about controversial law.


Now, the NSL remains a centerpiece of hot legal debate between the progressive ruling Uri Party and the conservative opposition Grand National Party. The inter-party political battle is obviously developing into an unprecedented serious ideological war between pre-Korean War younger generations and war-experienced older conservatives. The ruling camp insists on scrapping the law for what it claims to be dysfunctions proscribing democratic activities, while oppositionists stick to its retention out of fear that it could undermine national security.

The governing camp in support of the Roh Moo-hyun administration recently decided on abrogating the NSL, which was put into practice on Dec. 1, 1948 upon the birth of the anti-Communist Syngman Rhee government in the southern part of the divided Korean peninsula and has seen revisions for various political reasons under authoritarian governments ever since.

Looking back upon the ups and downs of security law history, it was amended in some cases for raising the efficiency of its intrinsic function of either checking espionage activities in the South or acts sympathizing with Communists. In other cases, it was changed to control freedom of press and democratic movements.

The Korea Times, the oldest English-language newspaper in Korea, remains one of the dynamic players that has made a great contribution to inciting authoritarian governments to revise the security law through printing articles critical of governmental misadministration.

A prominent article that stimulated the government was one written by Chang Su-young, a former managing editor of The Korea Times, which was contributed under the title of ``Definition of a Gambler’’ on July 30, 1958. Chang, whose English name was Henry and better known by his pen name Hensyc, was arrested and jailed for 16 days for violating the law governing sedition under the Syngman Rhee government. Two other journalists were indicted when Chang was landed in prison in connection with their writings. They were Choi Won-kak, a defense writer at the Dong-A Ilbo vernacular daily; and Ham Sok-hon, a columnist assigned to Sasanggye, a monthly current news magazine.

Prosecution of Chang Su-young

Chang, citing an article in the U.S. magazine, Time, about former United Arab Republic President Gamal Abdel Nassel, wrote an article linking popular uprisings in two Middle East countries, Lebanon and Iraq, with Korea's then uneasy socio-political situation under the Rhee government.

A disputable part of Chang's article that enraged the government reads as follows: ``...The revolt in Lebanon and the coup d'etat in Iraq are manifestations of the people's will like the Democratic landslides in our city elections last May, the will of populaces fed up with the status quo. In the Middle East, the manifestations were positive; in Korea, negative. In the Middle East, the people can protest positively because they have a back -- the United Arab Republic. Korea, alas, has no such luck! We are but surrounded by wolves. On one hand, by the large Communist world that would swallow up our freedom; on the other hand, by a hard-pressed Japanese one that would swallow up our market....’’

After the publication of this article, law-enforcement authorities concluded that Chang's analogy smacks of an implicit scheme to overthrow the Syngman Rhee government.

The prosecution of three journalists, including 35-year-old Chang, drew sharp attention from the press overseas. The Associated Press (AP) wrote a lengthy article on Aug. 20, titled ``Korean Newspapers in New Flight for Free Press,’’ focusing on the South Korean media's battle with the government and condemning the detention of journalists. The AP was particularly interested in Chang's arrest since he was a former AP reporter assigned in Pusan.

Announcing the indictment of the three journalists, government spokesman Oh Chae-kyung said that articles written by the detained three journalists were either seditious or contained military information advantageous to the enemy. The government mouthpiece pointed out, ``The United States is generally recognized as having the freest press in the world. Yet during the both World Wars I and II, the American authorities were compelled to proceed against journalists who threatened the security of the nation.’’

The Cabinet then proposed a revision to the National Security Law on Dec. 24 in spite of strong repercussions from the opposition and Rhee's camp-dominant National Assembly railroading of the disputable amendment bill, which made it easier to arrest anti-government journalists, charging them with violating the security law.

First Private English-Language Newspaper

The Times' stubborn fight against government media suppression came to light last year when a popular SBS TV documentary drama ``Yain Sidae,’’ about gangster-turned-politician Kim Dun-han in the turbulent era of the 1950s and 1960s, aired on Sept. 15, 2003. It showed a scene in which Lee Ki-bung, the No. 2 man under the Rhee government, talked with the justice minister about the indictment of three journalists and the possibility of rewriting the security law ahead of the elections.

The Times' indomitable fighting spirit against the government's oppression apparently stems from its inborn policy of editorial independence maintained by Korea's first private English-language newspaper, founded by Dr. Helen Kim (Kim Hwal-lan, 1899-1970). Kim, a pioneering educator-administrator who was the first Korean president of Ewha Womans University, had an idea of launching an English daily as a means to promote national publicity abroad in 1949 when she assumed the university presidency. Her plan came to be translated into action under the aegis of the American-educated President Syngman Rhee. Kim and Rhee, both armed with American-educated backgrounds, were of the view to inaugurate an English daily as a medium linking Korea to the outside world. This was the background for founding The Korea Times. To be more specific, the primary reason for publishing the paper was to keep the large number of foreign forces participating in the Korean War informed of what was happening on the reclusive peninsula, notably the war. Publication started on Nov. 1, 1950 at the height of the Korean War (1950-53).

Born in Inchon and educated at Boston College and Columbia University where she earned a Ph.D., Kim initially formed an editorial team largely composed of a handful of her colleague professors from Ewha, including Ewha English literature professor Kim Sang-yong as president-publisher.

In an inaugural issue editorial printed on Nov. 1, 1950, headlined ``A Really New Start’’ in a two-page tabloid, The Korea Times said, ``Korea is not the hermit nation any more, for she shed off the coat of the long dormancy, and stepping out of her ancient shell.

``One of the best ways to foster goodwill, mutual understanding and cooperation is to make ourselves known to those friends either in our land or in other countries.

``And it is also necessary that we keep our friends well informed on the progress we are making at the present moment and in the future. The Korea Times is born today with these objectives, intention and duty to help the world get acquainted with Korean culture.’’

The daily had initially maintained close relations with the Rhee government but was later put in serious trouble with it as he turned undemocratic in steering the state. The paper was at the front of leveling caustic criticism at Rhee’s wayward rule. Rhee, an avid reader of The Korea Times, stopped the government’s purchase of newspaper copies and had taken steps to pressure Helen Kim into following the editorial line favorable to the government policy. But Kim didn't bow to the Rhee government’s continuing pressure and refused the government’s compromising proposals.

As a result, the paper was subsequently put in a serious financial pinch due to the suspension of governmental support and it was taken over by Chang Key-young, then president of The Chosun Ilbo and later founder of The Hankook Ilbo. Chang, who served as vice president of the Bank of Korea and later as deputy premier-economic planning minister. He assumed the English daily on April 23, 1954 and it was integrated into the Hankook Ilbo media group on June 9, 1954. Hankook concurrently operates a chain of magazines and specialized newspapers, including a children's newspaper and a business paper.

The ever-growing feud with the recalcitrant Korea Times led President Rhee to think out founding a new English daily that would be obedient to the government. The government set up a new administrative agency, the Korea Information Service Inc. (KIS), to take charge of publishing a new pro-government paper.

The Korea Herald was founded on Aug. 15, 1953. It was originally named The Korean Republic, which was changed to the present name on Aug. 15, 1965.

On top of discord with the government involving Kim Hwal-lan and Chang Su-young, The Times has been often in trouble with the government for a string of articles that the government claimed to have been either hurting the state image or provocative to executive leadership.

Articles by Two American Writers

Drawing notable public attention were articles by two American writers, Bernard F. Wideman and Orianna West, which were printed in the daily essay column Thoughts of The Times on July 11 and 14, 1973 respectively. Wideman, a freelance writer in Korea, wrote an article about ``kisaeng’’ (a Korean barmaid), citing ``A Modest Proposal’’ by Irish satirical writer Jonathan Swift who is famous for ``Gulliver's Travels.’’

A part in dispute reads as follows: ``...What about the hundreds of thousands of young women catering to Korean men in bars, cabarets and salons, not to mention those in the established red-light districts such as To-dong by Seoul Station. Why aren't these women being mobilized to deal in foreign trade? Further in order to get maximum effort from the girls, I propose incentive awards. Just as industrial firms receive prizes for outstanding foreign exchange earnings, the girls should get similar awards. Their contribution must be recognized and encouraged...’’

After Wideman's article and follow-up story were published, major vernacular newspapers carried the articles translated into Korean with critical comments on the two foreigners' views about Korean women. In its July 17 issue, the JoongAng-Ilbo took issue with their article as foreigners' distorted view about Korea. The Chosun Ilbo and the Dong-A Ilbo criticized the articles as ``a dumb-founded proposal’’ in its July 18 and July 19 issues, respectively. The Seoul Shinmun harshly hit the government for its mismanagement of kisaeng, which hurts the image of Korea. In connection with the metaphorical articles that the investigative authorities claimed to have tarnished the national image, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the predecessor of the current National Intelligence Service (NIS), interrogated managing editor Hong Soon-il and makeup desk reporter Bae Chul-su.

In 1976, managing editor Chung Tae-yun, city desk editor Kim Myong-sik and reporter Park Chang-seok were taken for interrogation to the Defense Security Command for carrying a photo portraying tourists visiting the underground tunnel built by North Koreans for southern invasion in the neighborhood of the truce line. The U.N. Command authorities raised the photo, carried along with a tourism article, but they were released after an overnight investigation through consultation with the Korean Defense Ministry.

The independent editorial line, steadily pursued by The Korea Times, has gained favorable response from readers at home and abroad, especially during the era of authoritarian governments ranging from President Syngman Rhee to Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan.

Former President Kim Dae-jung

One loyal reader was former President Kim Dae-jung who maintained his reputation as a leader in the democratic struggle against iron-fisted governments. Kim learned English through reading The Korea Times and broadened his internationalized perspectives, thus helping himself become a global leader and to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. In an interview with the New York Times on the eve of his inauguration as president on Feb. 25, 1998, Kim said, ``I learned English from an American Peace Corps volunteer and by tutoring myself, puzzling over the English language daily The Korea Times with a dictionary…’’

In July 1978, President Kim, then a dissident, was confined to a hospital room under tight guard after being released from prison after a guilty verdict was handed down for his role in what was called ``the March 1 declaration for democracy’’ by dissident intellectuals in 1976.

In a note inscribed with a nail on a piece of scrap paper that was secretly delivered to his wife, Lee Hi-ho, Kim said, ``Please send me half a page of The Korea Times, editorials of two other vernacular newspapers, the Hankook Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo, articles of U.S. and Japanese correspondents stationed in Korea as well as important economic articles.’’ The message, released by Chong Wa Dae while Kim was in office, was on display in Stockholm along with personal effects of 30 other Nobel laureates.

Korea's first genuinely modern newspaper came into being on April 7, 1896 with the founding of The Independent by administrator-turned-journalist Philip Jaisohn (So Chae-pil). At first published three times a week as a tabloid, The Independent subsequently became a daily, concurrently providing a ``hangul’’ (Korean alphabet) section with the flag of ``Tongnip Sinmun.’’ April 7 is currently observed as Newspaper Day in celebration of the publication of Korea’s first private newspaper. Effective in January 1897, the bilingual daily was published in two separate editions -- one fully written in hangul without the use of Chinese letters and the other in English.


The Independent and The Korea Times have similarities, including their common editorial policy of seeking independence and equalitarianism. Another similarity is that their founders were both inborn freedom fighters. In this sense, just guess who is really the inheritor of Korea's first private English daily, The Independent.

Modern Korean Literature Translation Awards

The publication of The Korea Times since 1950 has survived as the longest running private daily, free of interventions from either the bureaucratic organs or business groups, as often seen in other English dailies published in Korea.

Decades-long annual sponsorship of presenting the ``Modern Korean Literature Translation Awards,’’ which began in 1970 is a testimony to the dauntless venture culture sought by The Korea Times.

In celebration of the centennial of the publication of the English-language daily in Korea, a book about English journals came out, titled ``History of English-Language Newspapers in Korea,’’ authored by two former Korea Times managing editors, Hong Soon-il and Park Chang-seok, and Chong Chin-sok, a journalism professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. It describes the rise and fall of English journals in Korea for the past century.

The book portrays the post-Korean War contemporary history of Korea's English dailies as a long journey to the thorny path. The Korea Times’ travels have come with a diehard struggle against the authoritarian government. I congratulate all Korea Times staff for its 54th founding anniversary today. Long live The Korea Times!

The writer is the director general for international cooperation, Muju City, Province of Jeollabuk-do and concurrently an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Local Autonomy at Hanyang University.