Monday, May 10, 2010

The Korea Times is not a real paper and as soon as Samsung and the rest of the world figures that out we'll all be better off

Not being a KoKo who grew up in Korea, I've approached my life in Seoul — where I've lived off and on since I was a teenager — by applying working paradigms to different aspects of life in the Big Kochu.

For example, when addressing or thinking about the plight of English teachers, it's helpful to consider them as KoKos do: as guests who have been invited (or have invited themselves) to stay with a family, with all that entails (from not banging the hosts' daughter to not being able to get away with the same boorish behavior performed by the head of the house). And yeah, the "one big family" paradigm works quite well when analyzing any Korea-versus-outsider dynamic.

When it comes to thinking about the Korea Times, my preference is to just say no, for the KT makes my head hurt. Likewise, reading K-blog post after K-blog post about the latest "Did you see what so-and-so in the KT wrote?" transgression du jour just makes me close my eyes and think of a happy place where the KT does not exist. Where the long-defunct Korea Daily is the newspaper of record and Brian Deutsch writes only about Chŏlla festivals, and the occasional outrage over Konglish in K-pop. 

You see, my paradigm for the Korea Times is that it's essentially a high school newspaper run by a team of headstrong sophomores. And really, that basically saps me of any drive I might have to complain about anything that's in there. And it certainly puts anything written by Kang Shin-who in perspective.

But obviously, not everyone in the world agrees with me (though the sooner they do, the better off they'll be). Any K-blogger or commenter who gets their panties in a bunch over the latest "Oh, my God, did you see what they wrote about NSETs this time?" article is obviously someone who thinks that the KT somehow influences opinion among KoKos.

Ditto with Samsung. That this chaebol powerhouse takes the KT seriously is apparent because Samsung had sued the Korea Times over a "satirical spoof" written by Michael Breen, he of books on Korea fame, that was aimed at this pillar of the South Korean economy.

From the Los Angeles Times:
The Christmas Day column imagined what gifts public figures in the news might send. "I wanted to give people a laugh at Christmas," Breen said. "One of the prices of being a public figure is to be the occasional butt of a joke."

One item read that Samsung had sent to all employees photographs of the son of the firm's chairman with instructions for hanging the photo next to one of his father — an allusion to North Korea's Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Breen also wrote that Samsung, "the rock upon which the Korean economy rests, sent traditional year-end cards offering best wishes for 2010 to the country's politicians, prosecutors and journalists along with [$50,000] gift certificates."
If only Michael Breen weren't a published expert on Korea, he could claim ignorance of something that just about anyone who reads, say, The Marmot's Hole already knows: you're treading dangerous waters when you say something critical, mocking, or even satirical about someone else in a public forum. For our purposes, a "public forum" can include a venue which is read, heard, or watched by many people, and the KT just barely qualifies. Just barely. Quoting barrister Brendon:
In South Korea, experts say, "Saturday Night Live"-style satire is not a common form of humor.

Additionally, both South Korean civil and criminal codes regarding defamation are stricter than in many other countries, including the U.S., said Brendon Carr, an American attorney who practices in Seoul.

"In South Korea, injury to one's reputation is the key element, not the truth," he said. "The fact that a statement is true is not an absolute defense. Satire is not a defense. That's different from the American definition. America is a free speech society, whereas Korea is not. It has historically been a 'sit down and shut up' society."

Punishment here is tougher if the statement is not true. "But you're punished in all cases for revealing things that injure someone's reputation," Carr said. "If you say, 'Look out for Jim. He's a crook. He swindled me,' that's a crime in South Korea. And people use it. Defamation may be the No. 1 criminal complaint here."
South Korea's face-saving, reputation-protecting standard, as we've heard time and time again, is ominous enough even when the offending utterance is true, but especially bad news for the utterer when it's not true. One wonders what got into Korea expert Michael Breen that he suddenly forgot where he was.

And this brings me back to my KT-is-a-high-school-newspaper paradigm: A real paper would have seen the red flags on this one over the horizon, and they would have run it by their hot-and-juicy lawyers before allowing it into print. Mr Breen, of course, would have protested that this is self-censorship that wouldn't be allowed back in Britannia, and the real paper's editors would have walked up to the giant world map on the east wall and pointed out that, no, Seoul is not a part of Britannia.

Instead the Korea Times printed it, they got called on it, they apologized, and then they left Mr Breen hanging like so much Florida chad. Or rather, Mr Breen left himself hanging, because "in all conscience, I don't know whom to apologize to and what I'd be apologizing for."

I hate to be the one saying, "Hey, scrap those liberal attitudes about the press and get with the program and apologize," but Mr Breen prolly needs to do just that. As much as I loathe the state of the news media in South Korea, Mr Breen is in something of an indefensible position. He writes serious articles like this one on the North Korea threat, while getting royalties off books like this, and then he uses "satirical spoof" as a defense for what was written in a different article in the same column in the same paper: Is he a serious analyst of serious news or is he a comic? More to the point, is this usually serious author hinting that Samsung is really doing the things that he jokingly referred to them as doing?

Really, the man who has taught so many non-Koreans just who the Koreans are, what they want, and where their future lies should have known better, don't you think? Or at the very least, since accusations of offense can fly out of nowhere when we easily misjudge how thick someone else's skin is, he should know that apologizing is probably the best Korean way to handle this instead of standing on a very British (and American) defense of satire.

Because on that score, Samsung may have an ace in the hole: It's not satire if it's not humorous.

All that said, Samsung is really shooting themselves in the foot if they keep up this lawsuit now that it's gone "global" (unlike the KT, the LAT is taken seriously around the world). They need to just suck it up and let it go. Otherwise you've got Samsung boycotts on the horizon by people who aren't so amenable to the idea that in Korea you follow Korea's rules of the press.

Regarding the KT's "correction":
The column indicated in its introduction that it was a factual roundup of stories in the news, and the columnist did not explain clearly at any point that it was intended to be humorous or satirical.
Before anyone says "well it was obviously satire," I'd like to point out that my own often-lame, hit-or-miss (this is probably the best one) final story in my daily news roundups is always a gag story, but I frequently get people emailing me or commenting that the link doesn't work, because they think it's a real story. And I'm not talking about stupid people, either (this includes some prominent bloggers).

In other words, in a world of OinK ("only in Korea"), satire can backfire because the truth is sometimes even stranger. Again, Mr Breen is a serious news analyst and author whose usual material is not normally the type one would find at, say, "Dokdo Is Ours." It's plausible that a less-than-perfect English speaker or even a native anglophone might be credulous on reading part of Mr Breen's "satirical spoof."

UPDATE (May 15, 2010):
The civil case against Mr Breen has been dropped. The criminal case is still pending, but Mr Breen seems himself to believe that if the plaintiff (Samsung) drops the civil complaint, then the prosecutors are likely to drop the criminal complaint.

[above: Moby has really let himself go.]


  1. I hold Mr. Breen in high regard like many Korean watchers and feel empathy for his David versus Goliath conflict. However, I put little stock in any threats of global boycotts. The LAT is a real paper, but still one that reaches only a small audience in the US, and its stories on Korea aren't likely to be read and remembered by people with no connection to the country.

  2. Love your depiction of the KT here and accept your logic to a degree, but all of Breen's columns in the KT are tongue-in-cheek, some more, some less.

    In he event Samsung abandoned its suit and the PR effect was quite negative, so maybe there is some method in Breen's apparent madness.

  3. While having an article about this in LA Times does not normally get it true "global" attention, the fact that Korea is about to host the G20 Summit may.

    World attention may be particularly attuned into Korea at this time, through non K-Bloggers, as Korea tries again to present itself as an 'advanced country' and more people in the west will see this and ask, 'What's up with that.'

    This may also be seen, tangentially, reflective of what is happening now in the EU with Greece, as people over there maybe be for the first time asking, 'Were they ever really one of us', to the point of emphatically stating that, 'They never should have ever been considered to be one of us.


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