South Korea, in its pan-national homogeneity across many fronts, has been a friendly and profitable market for the mass media industry. All South Koreans speak in just one common language of their own, and they all come from just one identical race. Hence they all share an identical heritage from their common history, ancient and modern. The literacy rate is extremely high at 99 percent. The literate and educated public, armed with affluence from the vibrant economy, handsomely supports a steady consumption of the traditional media as well as ready experimentation with the rapidly advancing new media.
Though the press and other media in South Korea now enjoy a full range of freedom, they nevertheless retain a mixed bag of various legacies from Korea’s turbulent modern history (Lee 1982, 2003). During the last 100 years alone, South Korea changed from a five-century-old kingdom (1392–1910) to Japanese colonial rule (1910–1945), to US military government (1945–1948), to the beginning of an independent democratic state (1948), through the Korean War (1950–1953) to a military coup and successive military dictatorships (1961–1992), and to the beginning of civilian governments since 1993.
While the present shape of the South Korean political system is an unmistakable democracy, it often exhibits the characteristics of “formal democracy,” where consolidation of democracy is still to be desired (Halvorsen 1992).
South Korea is a country of national dailies dominating the nation’s media scene. Eleven general-interest national dailies, all published in the capital city of Seoul, fiercely compete for circulations, often resorting to free distribution with gifts to potential subscribers. The Big Three general-interest national dailies – Chosun Ilbo, Dong-a Ilbo, and Joong-ang Ilbo – sell more than two million copies each, with a fourth paper, Hankook Ilbo, publishing around 750,000 copies (KPF 2004a, 2004b). The first three papers are not only the most influential and prestigious dailies but also the ones with mainstream conservative orientations. Contrasting to this set of papers is a group of three other national dailies – Hankyoreh, Seoul Shinmun, and Kyunghyang Shinmun – that are rather progressive and center-left in editorial leaning The circulations of this second group are much smaller – 200,000 to 400,000 each.
Of the total of 138 dailies being published in South Korea, 79 are local dailies, which are relatively weak in financial base and mostly being published out of local boosterism or for the influence or prestige accruing from owning news media. Among the local dailies, the Busan Ilbo and the (Daegu) Maeil Shinmun are exceptionally strong and influential in their respective provinces. The total includes eight foreign-language dailies (in English and Chinese), eight business papers, three sports dailies, three children’s papers, and ten others exclusively specializing in a variety of industrial fields. The Korea Audit Bureau of Circulations (KABC) estimated the newspaper readership rate at 338 per 1,000 population unit in 2005 (KABC 2006).
The Big Three national dailies, as of 2006, have been engaging in a continual tug-ofwar with the center-left President Roh Moo-hyun (2003–) over his populist government’s “engagement” policy toward North Korea. The Big Three define the Roh administration as communist sympathizers, while the ruling power tries to undercut these powerful media as outdated conservative complainants. The Big Three are more than dailies; they are all huge media complexes, each additionally publishing a very popular weekly news magazine, a monthly magazine (often over 600 pages in length), a women’s monthly, and also some other periodicals – literary, outdoors, fashion, etc. Dailies print 24 to 52 pages in broadsheet. Only one national news agency, Yonhap, operates in South Korea.
Radio And Television
In South Korea, television is assumed to have reached full saturation, with every household owning at least one set. Leading the television sector are three major networks: KBS (Korean Broadcasting System, public-service television), MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, operating commercially but legally required to be public television), and SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System, commercial television). Also on air is a fourth network,
EBS (Educational Broadcasting System), which specializes in instructional programming. Additionally, cable television, with about 120 channels, is available in some 77 percent of the nation’s households, though most of these channels operate on shoestring budgets. Radio is everywhere with its specialized services from traffic to religious groups. The broadcasting sector cultivates the digital television (DTV) and digital multimedia broadcasting (DMB) services, while the new-media sector pursues the WiBro (wireless broadband) services.
The three major television networks are electronic counterparts of the Big Three print press. They are especially influential during election times for their ability to reach millions of people with images and messages critical to setting agendas for public discourse. On occasion, they compete in news reporting, as the MBC network did in 2005 by exposing the globally controversial stem-cell research scandal involving a Korean scientist. But, generally, the television networks compete in serial drama programs, perhaps the most popular television fare among South Koreans. Such programs, resembling the popular telenovela genre in Latin America, are the key players in the popularity of South Korean pop arts in the adjacent countries, including China, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and other Southeast Asian nations. This trend is referred to as “Hallyu” or the Korean wave (Lee 2005; Ming 2005).
The KBS network has been continually controversial for its public service mission, which is often undermined by the ruling regime’s political influence. The president of the country has de facto power to appoint the network’s top managers, who have been invariably the president’s or the ruling party’s cronies. Budget-wise, KBS is bound to be stable since it collects license fees from all television set owners. It draws an additional revenue from airing commercials on its second television channel. The network is equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and manned by some 5,500 employees. KBS is criticized for its perceived indifference to quality programming and for indulging instead in ratings competitions in the domestic market. The network rarely deviates from the ruling power’s policy lines in its news broadcast.
New Media And The Internet
South Korea ranks among the top countries in the use of the Internet-based electronic media of various recent technological advances. Mobile phones are ubiquitous; it is not uncommon for a large family to have one for everyone, from children to grandparents. Especially remarkable is the high rate of broadband access – 77 percents of households, as of 2005 (MIC 2005). Nationally, about 73 percent of the population aged 6 and over use Internet-related services, with personal computers being owned by some 78 percent of all households.
“Information Highway” has been a national capital improvement endeavor ever since the early 1990s. Besides this government initiative, South Korea enjoys another advantage in this field in being the home of the world’s two leading electronic manufacturers – Samsung Corporation and LG Group. These two often use the home base as a test market for their latest innovations. The government also promotes and supports production of software programs and online digital contents as a service-sector industry and a potential trade item for export. In mid-2006, there was a national uproar over the widespread misuse of the very successful computer games programs for gambling by millions of people. Addiction to this habit is increasingly becoming a societal concern.
All the traditional media, like the daily papers and television networks, provide highly elaborate online versions of their services, often in multiple languages beyond their vernacular version. News portals of various orientations are growing in number constantly. Independent online newspapers – numbering around 260 as of mid-2006 – also flourish, sometimes posing competition to the mainstream media’s online service. Especially notable is the emergence and success of several “citizens’ media” that promote “citizen reporters” and interactive journalism. One of them, Ohmynews (www.ohmynews.com, english.ohmynews.com), is recognized as a leading model of this genre in the relevant global arena.
Though the future of the South Korean media industry looks bright, there are several systemic issues that continue to plague the South Korean press, like growing pains in a body that refuses to leave the cradle of tradition. One example is the temptation and practice on the part of the ruling power to indirectly undermine the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press. Since the Press Acts stipulate press responsibility as well as freedom, various government offices, including the presidential Blue House, readily take reports of any critical stance to the Press Arbitration Commission, thus fostering an environment of chilling effects. Even some of the powerful national prosecutors often file complaints against the media with the commission, requesting hefty fines for alleged wrongful reporting. President Roh himself has resorted to such measures several times. His press secretary often orders offlimit sanctions against “unfriendly” reporters for their critical reporting.
Roh’s administration manipulated the antitrust provisions in the Press Acts and the Press Arbitration Acts to charge large-circulation papers with monopoly practices, and thus to control the papers, if their circulation tops 30 percent of the subscriber-based market. Leading dailies took the case to the Constitutional Court, which rendered this particular provision unconstitutional in a decision in 2006. Roh’s administration, however, instituted a measure by which the government can financially help weak or failing papers with subsidies. The prospective beneficiaries, the smaller dailies, included several papers well known for their pro-government editorial stance.
Another issue endemic in the South Korean press is the relative ethical lapse in the newsroom, often involving cash payments for favorable coverage. There is a specific word for this practice, “chonji,” meaning “a small consideration.” This under-the-table transaction remains a cause of shame to most other ethically conscientious practitioners, but the tradition goes on in many different variations: free golf games paid for by affluent news sources, free trips abroad in the name of on-site news coverage, expensive gifts during holiday seasons, quid-pro-quo favors arranged for influential media figures, and so on. Popular television anchors and influential politics editors often jump ship, becoming congressional candidates of certain political parties the next day. But, structurally speaking, South Korea’s system of ethical control should be airtight, as it has not just one but two separate institutional devices: the Korea Press Ethics Commission, run as a voluntary press council, and the Press Arbitration Commission, a statutory organ with the power of sanctions.
Also problematic is the confrontational relationship between media owners and press unions. Major dailies are all owned by families, but these owners, relatively speaking, are not well known for their intellectual leadership in editorial integrity and dedication to professionalism in journalism. The family owners of the Big Three press were all convicted of dodging tax at one time or another, though their supporters attribute this to the government’s political use of the magical power of tax auditing. In this climate, press unions raise their voice for “editorial independence in the newsroom”.
Finally, it is instructive to note the fact that, in spite of the media-rich setting in South Korea, the mainstream leaders in the influential national dailies are rather underperforming in their editorially enterprising endeavor. Their coverage of daily news is often excessively redundant, lacking long-term projects of investigative in-depth reportage. They have cutting-edge facilities and they hire well-educated personnel in the newsroom, thanks to the prestige of the reporting job. A case in point here is their apparent weakness in reporting on the North Korean concern, one hot global issue in recent years. The South Korean media, though geographically well positioned for exclusive, insightful reporting on the North, continue a “he said, she said” level of news reporting and nothing much more.
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