Freedom of Information Smacked

In my earlier post I laid out my basic thesis:

Tribalism – Violence = Confucianism

This is the first of 7 in-depth posts that analyze Korea against the characteristics that, according to professor Steven Dutch, are common to tribal “honor” based societies:

  1. Restrictions on the free flow of information
  2. The subjugation of women
  3. Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure
  4. The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization
  5. Domination by a restrictive religion
  6. A low valuation of education
  7. Low prestige assigned to work

Restriction 1: The Internet

Being one of the most wired countries in the world, you’d think Korea would immediately disqualify on this count.  But there’s more to the flow of information than connectivity and bandwidth.

Korea is as much an island on the internet as it is geographically (OK technically it’s a peninsula, but when your 4th border contains one million landmines it might as well be water).

Like a virtual Galapagos, every niche has its locally evolved specimen that stands in competition with the brands that are ubiquitous to the English speaking world:

  • search engine: Daum/Naver instead of Google
  • social media: Cyworld instead of Facebook*
  • call/chat: Kakao instead of Skype
  • shopping: GMarket instead of Amazon/EBay

*It’s worth noting that Facebook has been gaining popularity quickly in recent years.  But its initial growth was slow after launching in Korea in 2009, and only accelerated when a hacking scandal compromised the privacy data of millions of Cyworld users.

Furthermore, even when Koreans use the same platform (e.g. rapid rise of Twitter) the language barrier effectively segregates the Korean into their own separate space.

Thus while the internet might have increased the speed at which Koreans get information, the source of that information almost overwhelmingly originates from within Korean.

Or put more simply, Korea is just as much the Hermit Kingdom online as it is in real life.

Restriction 2: Traditional Media

But perhaps that isolation is just an innocent idiosyncrasy of language and the internet.  Does that qualify as “restrictions on the free flow of information” that characterize tribalism?

By itself, no.

But as it turns out, traditional news media – specifically the big 3 conservative newspapers that control over 50% of the subscription market – do in a big way.

At my second Toastmasters meeting, I was surprised to learn from a Korean member that the big 3 have a standing policy of never criticizing Samsung (I also learned just how much pent up criticism there is for Samsung, but that’s for another post).

This is a company whose revenues amount to range from 1/6 to 1/3 of the entire country’s GDP.  By it indirectly accounts for as much about 1/4 of the nation’s employment.

Imagine if the New York Times had a policy of never criticizing any one of the following firms: Apple, Citibank, or Wal-Mart.

Now imagine of all of them combined together as a single conglomerate.

ExpatHELL has a fantastic breakdown of all the ways Samsung gratuitously ripped off the Apple iPhone, down to the ad campaign, but all the big 3 would say about the case was that Apple looked at Sony first.

Now let’s be clear here: Korea has freedom of the press.  There are a number of liberal newspapers which the government makes no effort to censor.

But the government does make sure to promote the interests of the big 3 as aggressively as possible, and it has strong financial ties that make a mockery of conflict of interest.  Add to the mix suspected collusion between the firms themselves through senior executive intermarriage (Korean conglomerates and corporations are generally family owned), and they resemble less an oligopoly than a cartel.

Add the rapid but isolated nature of the internet, and media is less a free press and more a government mouthpiece, with the internet as an echo chamber for the conservative party line.

Sounds familiar?

It took me a minute to make the connection, but Korean media resembles above all the Republican Party/Fox News Channel/Talk Show Radio nexus of the American right.

It is what Andrew Sullivan, my favorite blogger, would call epistemic closure.


Restriction 3: Frozen Speech

On a different note from mass media and communication, Korea has incredibly strong anti-defamation laws.

For instance, the Pepsi Challenge ad wouldn’t be legal here because showing someone choosing Pepsi over Coke constitutes slander.

Also, one of my mentors for my startup warned me to only register my business as a Sole Proprietorship (SP) under our own name – never as a partnership with a local Korean.  On more than one occasion, after the business reached a certain level of maturity the Korean partner would raise an accusation of slander to have the foreigner kicked out of the country, giving him full control of the business.

But this is more than just a matter of business and property.

Did I mention that the laws kick in even if the facts stated are unequivocally true?


Article 61 (Penal Provisions)

(1) Any person who has defamed any other person by alleging openly facts through information and communications networks [internet and email] with the purpose of slandering him shall be subject to imprisonment with or without prison labor for not more than 3 years or by a fine not exceeding 20 million won.

(2) Any person who has defamed any other person by alleging openly false facts via information and communications networks with the purpose of slandering him/her shall be subject to imprisonment with prison labor for not more than 7 years or the suspension of disqualification for not more than 10 years, or by a fine not exceeding 50 million won.

Notice how only part 2 mentions veracity of the claim?  If the court rules that the motivation is slander, then part 1 automatically kicks in, even if the claims are true.

How chilling of an effect does this have on free speech?  Try civil AND criminal charges against a journalist for an article about the president pardoning Samsung’s Chairman for tax evasion and bribery:

In his Christmas Day 2009 column for the Korea Times, Michael Breen decided to lampoon such national newsmakers as President Lee Myung-bak and the pop idol Rain.

Headlined “What People Got for Christmas,” the English-language column also poked fun at global technology giant Samsung Electronics, referring to past bribery scandals as well as perceptions that its leaders are arrogant.

The piece was meant as a satirical spoof, the columnist says, but Samsung wasn’t laughing.

Breen’s column ran as local media reported that President Lee would soon pardon Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee on a 2008 conviction for tax evasion. Chairman Lee, 68, had already received a federal pardon in the 1990s on a conviction for bribing two former presidents while he was with the firm.

On Dec. 29, the day of Lee’s pardon, Samsung sued the freelance columnist, the newspaper and its top editor for $1 million, claiming damage to its reputation and potential earnings. After the Korea Times ran clarifications, the newspaper and its editor were dropped from the suit.

But Samsung continues to pursue Breen personally for libel, both civilly and on criminal charges that he intentionally libeled the company. If convicted, he faces a hefty fine and even jail time.

To put it simply: it is against the law to speak truth to power – does anyone remember what happened to America the last time such a situation arose?

Restriction 4: Face > Public Safety

Free speech concerns are intellectually galling, but they’re a bit abstract for day to day life.

But the anti-defamation laws provide another twist of the knife that’s a lot more relevant to the average citizen who’s got her hands full just raising her kids.

Specifically, the government forbids releasing the names and photos of criminals.

So take, for instance, the middle-aged Korean man on vacation in Thailand knifed his brother while in a drunken argument over a prostitute.  Since the victim decided not to press charges they were both let go, but not before the Thai press had their names and photos across the front page of the local paper.  Had these events occurred in Korea, their identities would have been concealed and their wives might have never found out (provided he could come up with a good cover story for the stab wound, that is).

Or more horrifically, the teacher (a Korean native, not a foreigner or gyopo) who abused his students and then simply transferred to another school without parents being made aware (EH link?).

Sounds familiar?

While the scale of abuse is only a fraction the size, the instinctive reflex to defend the perpetrator’s reputation at the cost of the victim’s safety is exactly the same as what’s going on in the Catholic Church.

No wonder that Korea is one of the few developed countries where the Catholic Church is still growing, with its emphasis on reputation, rank, and hierarchy.


Given all of the above, ask yourself again whether you see in Korea restrictions on the free flow of information that hint at a shade of tribalism?

Korea desperately wants to be promoted from “recently developed nation” status to parity with the “developed nation” status of Japan.

Some good places to start:

The isolation of Korea on the internet is a more entrenched structural problem.  The move away from Korea-specific platforms to global ones (e.g. Cyworld to Facebook) is necessary but not sufficient.  So long as content is effectively segregated by language, there will always be an implicit boundary between Korea and the rest of the world.

The only solution I can think of is to convert increasingly to English.  Already universities offer courses taught in English, but it will require a change in culture over the course of a generation for this to take root.  No easy solution here.

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