Tuesday, 24 March 2009

I Want To Kill The President (just kidding)... Free Speech and What NOT to Joke About In Korea

OK. So there's this interesting subplot going on right now, where a Korean blogger named Minerva has been arrested... basically for being popular, and right. He wrote stuff that seemed to show access to inside information about Korea's economic policy, and his predictions were so uncannily accurate that some think his soothsaying turned into self-fulfilling prophecies (or so the prosecution claims) as his following began to use his posts to guide their financial decisions.

Now, he never claimed to be an insider...he just happened to be right, again and again and again, speaking as if he were one, until people assumed he WAS one, until one of his correct predictions supposedly led to a big drop in the Korean won, costing the government a bunch of money needed to restabilize it. (So sez the article.)

I took a shortened, simplified version of this article from the Korea Times into my conversation class this evening (it was written by Sean Hayes of The Korean Law Blog), along with this story, about three bloggers in Suncheon who are being investigated for manipulating their posts' readership statistics in order to get on web-portal DAUM's "Most-read articles" list and gain wider readership for their anti-Lee Myung-bak articles.

The basics of the article I brought to class:

1. Foreign bloggers are nervous about Minerva being arrested basically for being popular, and right: a lot of us write stuff that might actually be illegal, naming names, saying bad things about public figures, and such. However, it would be a big black eye, and possibly cause an international incident for Korea if a foreign blogger is investigated for pure speech.

2. There are so many people writing material on blogs that might be construed as illegal, that the bigwigs pretty much get to pick who to prosecute and who to ignore. Unsurprisingly, they pick on people who disagree with them.

3. Free speech in Korea is not protected in the same way it is in the West. Korea's free speech laws balance freedom of speech against the limitation that "neither speech nor the press shall violate the honor or rights of other person nor undermine public morals or social ethics" (quoted from my shortened version, not the original article)... not to mention, rights may be restricted again as necessary "for national security, law and order, or [the public good]"

Now I'm not a lawyer, so I might be getting this all wrong. If I am, please correct me in regular English, not legalese. However, being a Westerner, it makes me nervous that such vaguely defined terms as "honor" "rights" "public morals" and "social ethics" are included in these laws, because terms like "public morals" can be twisted to fit pretty much any definition, if a clever enough sophist is involved.

Anyway, some interesting things came out of the discussion, which I brought into two different classes.

A few of the things I gathered:

1. In America, truth is the ultimate defense against libel: that is, if what you say is true, you're protected from charges of libel. Not so in Korea: as my friend Joe discovered when he got sued by his ex-boss for blogging his attempts to get his contractually-guaranteed severance payment, you can still be found liable for libel, even if you're telling the truth, if you damage someone's reputation, here in Korea. Calling his boss a crook got him in hot water, even though his boss WAS a crook!

2. Now, I'm not a lawyer, but what I gathered from the article and the conversations is basically that in Korea, freedom of speech is balanced against the public good, and social harmony, where in the West, generally truth is the final arbiter of freedom of speech, and other than hate speech or things like holocaust denial, you're pretty much free to say what you like.

3. We discussed the difference between bloggers and journalists, and whether the government just painted themselves as the bogeyman by picking on bloggers, making bloggers who disagreed with the government's policy into sympathetic figures. On the other hand, we also discussed who, if not the government, was to hold journalists to account for distortions, yellow journalism, or agenda-driven writing.

North Korea came up here: see, comparing the USA or Canada, which have enjoyed democracy and a free press just about forever, with Korea, enjoying democracy since 1987, is a case of apples and oranges. Sure, USA can have lots of free speech laws: they don't have an open enemy bordering it, sending spies across their borders with instructions to use whatever means possible to stir up civil unrest and destabilize the government.

4. We discussed some other aspects of what is and isn't discussed in Korea, and how it is or isn't discussed, and I came across this:

First of all, I mentioned how mocking our leadership is practically a national sport in Canada: one of the high points of my week back in high school was the weekly episode of the "Royal Canadian Air Farce," a comedy troupe that deliciously skewered the leaders of the day, and I asked, "I've watched some Korean comedy...do Korean comedians imitate politicians and laugh at them, or make fun of them?"

Blank stares.

Nope. No, they pretty much don't, according to my class.

I showed them this clip, as an example of just. how. far. people push free speech in America, and how these guys got away with giving instructions on how to kill the president (hence the post title: I seriously don't want to kill anyone except that mosquito in my room), under the banner of free speech, and the defense that "I was only kidding!"

One of my students found this video laugh-out-loud hilarious. One was visibly bothered, and several just glazed over with quizzical looks.

5. When harmony instead of truth is the main currency of discourse, identity suddenly becomes important again, doesn't it? After all, if words must be balanced against one's responsibility to play their part in a harmonious society, how is one to be held accountable? Well...maybe the way Koreans are required use their ID numbers to log onto web portals starts making sense then.

6. When I asked two of my students, "If a Korean blogger wrote a page that seemed anti-government, but was actually all a satirical piss-take (I didn't use the word piss-take, but you know)... if the police came to arrest that blogger, and he said, 'but it was all a joke' - what should we do?"

And I was floored by their response. Both my students agreed that the comic intent was beside the point when spreading dissension, even sarcastically, and wouldn't have a problem with that satirist being brought to account. Does this reveal a focus on the effects of one's words, rather than the intentions... I'm not enough of a sociologist to say, nor to fit that into a larger context, but it's something I'll be watching for in the future, and maybe also asking others to weigh in on. It should be noted, and even they mentioned, that they belonged to an older generation, and that it's possible "the young kids" wouldn't have a problem with that kind of satire, even though they, the fogeys, did.

7. In asking about a person's freedom to tell a joke about assassinating a world leader, one of my students spoke up quite passionately, saying that it's not fair -- apples and oranges (I provided that idiom) to compare Canada or America's tradition of free speech with modes of discourse in Korea, that comparing Korea with China or Japan, rather than the USA, gave a more fair context for comparison.

On the other hand, I responded, globalization is pulling societies out of their comfortable contexts, and shining spotlights into dark corners and unspoken social contracts that nobody wanted to mention, in all kinds of countries, and making things way more complex than they used to be, before the days of instant communication.

If a South-African is arrested on Korean soil for running a website through a British portal that uses satiric humor to mock the Korean president, and he says, "I was just kidding: don't you understand my quirky South-African sense of humor?"...which country's rules should we use to judge him?

Personally, I'm torn. Even for a Korean on Korean case, for example, if Jang Ja-yeon, the Korean actress who committed suicide, knew that the truth was an iron-clad protection against libel, she might still be alive and fighting against the bastards who mistreated her, instead of her dying, and her manager facing a libel lawsuit from the same @$$holes who (allegedly) abused her. On the other hand, is my hard-nosed "The truth will set you free" wish for such unflinching truthspeaking just a leftover of my upbringing, and an unfair judgement on a high-context culture I ought to judge from the inside instead of the outside? Ech. I don't know. I think I'm not against free speech being balanced against responsibility. As a blogger whose real name is on his blog and circulated out and about, I know that my words will be attached to me. And I'm OK with that. In a way, yeah, I think people shouldn't write stuff online that they wouldn't want attached to their real name. Unless, for example, you're getting information about police suppression of Tibetan citizens out to the world. But you know, if your idea of fun is to write the most offensive blog you possibly can (and no, I'm not linking it), well, that's being irresponsible with your right to speak freely, frankly, and while I suppose you're free to do what you like as anonymously as you wish, buddy, I have nothing but contempt for your cowardice and pettiness.

I have a much lower "delete comment forever" threshhold for comments left anonymously, compared to commenters who leave a name and a link.

Let it be known that my students are not stupid. They know that the system ain't perfect, that right now the person in power gets to define what "the social good" means -- I asked if they thought those Suncheon bloggers would be in trouble if the articles they'd cheated to promote were pro-Lee Myungbak, and I got the kinds of knowing smiles that said they knew who had the power, and exactly how it was being wielded. I also asked what they think the president should do instead of arresting bloggers, but didn't have much class time to tease that out.

But until next time..."I was only kidding" doesn't quite carry the water it did back home, so be careful and all.

Now that I think about it, it might be another step towards understanding why discussions with Koreans about hot topics are often fairly humorless: When I joked back in World Cup '06 that the winner of the next Korea-Japan soccer game should keep Dokdo, my Korean friend snarled, "But DOKDO belongs to KOREA!" failing completely to catch my attempt to make light of a hot topic. Even just last Saturday, a friend's offhand Dokdo quip got girlfriendoseyo's hackles up a bit, the topic had to be changed rather than things smoothed over. Sure, she was tired at the time...but still. This might well be a language gap, or a gap in types of humor...but might a cultural tendency not to make light of current affairs (at least not in a mocking way) play a part of it?

So the question of the post, after all that meandering, is:
I've heard it said before that Korean comedy shows are pretty much devoid of political humour. What about conversations? Especially for those of you who are behind the language barrier (because Koreans who have learned English very well have adapted more to western modes of discourse, so as a sample group, they're spoiled): is there such thing as a Dokdo joke behind the language barrier? Are politics made light of, laughed about and mocked, or does the awful earnestness of Dokdo advertising campaigns, for example, or humourless political discussions in English conversation classes, carry right through into the Korean language discussions of the same?

Other food for thought about limitations on free speech: you might enjoy checking out South Park's brilliant two-part "Cartoon Wars" (Part 1) (Part 2) series in season ten, not long after the controversy over Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed, which ends with Jesus, George Bush, and a pregnant, single woman all crapping on an American Flag, and gets away with it because of the context in which they framed it. (See the clip here. Warning: there's crap.)

(speaking of censorship:)

I'm looking forward to an interesting conversation about this topic, readers. Don't let me down.


Bekah said...

Having never been to Korea to experience any of these things first hand, I can only base my judgments off of bloggers such as yourself.

But the main thing I'm coming away with is the feeling that Koreans have no problem adapting to western standards when they wish to talk about any country that is not Korea. They are willing to make fun of and laugh at foreign political figures (sometimes, from what I read, I get the feeling that it is encouraged) and point out flaws of other countries quite loudly while hushing those around them who would point out anything negative about Korea.

As I said before, having not had the chance to experience this first hand, these are merely observations of a distance so please add on to them.

jeanny said...

I liked this blog post very much- insightful and thought-provoking.

I think that ultimately, it all comes down to cultural differences. Koreans, even young ones (I still count myself as young!), have Confucian morals drummed into their (our) heads from a very early age. We are the way we are because ... of our parents.

Bekah, I don't totally agree with you- I'm a Korean living in the U.S., but I don't make fun of any racial group as much as I make fun of my own. I do laugh at politicians freely, no matter what country they're from.

Deb said...

All I can say is: you sure never had conversations like this with the 4-year-olds you used to teach!!

the Korean said...


I don't exactly know the demographics of your students, but I strongly disagree with one premise that they apparently support.

Political satire is alive and well in Korea. For example, YTN (the 24-hour news channel) has a very popular clip show (called 돌발영상 I think) that compiles the week's dumb moments by politicians. Ddanzi Ilbo, www.ddanzi.com, provides The Onion style political satire, although with a little more substance than The Onion. I can go on -- where do you think all the characterizations of Lee Myung-Bak as a rat come from?

Roboseyo said...

Thanks, The Korean.

Actually, I'd love it if you DID go on. I'm curious though, whether, for example, comedy troupes in Korea would get away with an LMB impersonator acting the fool the way SNL tore Sarah Palin a new one during the election campaign, and how popular and well-read those sources are.

There is an impression among expats that political satire doesn't exist in Korea, and the engine of most comedy groups are not so much mocking our leaders, as dressing men as old ladies and having them fall down, and having famous good looking people do three-legged races and fall down in mud and do multiple cuts of their facial expressions when they get dirty while that guy with the bleached hair shouts a lot.

And have you ever heard a born-and-raised Korean make a Dokdo joke? Because I've sure never seen one taken in stride...but then, I'm operating in the wrong language.

Roboseyo said...

also: I'm curious about the tone of that satire. Light-hearted Oscar Wilde-ish (Horatian: I looked it up) satire says a much different thing than bitter, Juvenalian harsh satire, about the writer, or the culture where it's the accepted/most common mode of satire.

The rat-ears LMB seems to be on the bitter end of the satire spectrum: almost verging into "character attack" territory... is there light-hearted satire balancing it out?


jeanny said...

Perhaps I am a cynical person full of acid, but I think that the Korean version of "poke fun at the politician" is always Horatian.

I'm Korean and I'm very sarcastic. Luckily, my family gets me. No other Korean in my parents' generation understands my form of humor, which I believe is directly related to the general Korean population's inability to write or even appreciate Juvenalian satire.

From the shows I've seen, Korean comics doing an impersonation of a political figure and Korean comics doing a cross-dressing bit are alarmingly similar. Perhaps that's why you can't tell the difference.

Sorry to butt in; I'm sure the Korean has more facts that will be better written!

Fun conversation, can't resist.

Roboseyo said...

no need to apologise, jeanny. thanks for the comment.

Bekah said...

Perhaps it isn't so much Koreans in general who lack the drive to have fun at politics but more of the people in the receiving chair not taking kindly to the jokes or find it "threatening" to whatever image/power they might have...

I mean isn't image a very big thing in Korea? Like so big that family would shun each other in order to maintain a "good" image? (once again, these are simply things that come across when I read about Korea.)

Chris in South Korea said...

I wonder how much of a double standard exists in humor - both here in Korea, the US, and almost anywhere else. It's not just humor - but anything meant to be understood by the 'in' crowd. The first example that comes to mind (admittedly a little off-topic) is the use of the n-word in African-American society vs. the rest of America. A black person can say it to another person; a black person might even say it to a white person. God forbid a white person say it to a black person, however, as that's just racist.

Being foreigners in Korea, we're far from equal to Koreans on many levels, the language barrier being only one of many concerns. However, I wonder the sentiment of Koreans when they hear a Korean joking about something (LMB, Dokdo, etc.) versus a foreigner saying the same thing. It might be something as simple as 'you don't belong here' - or 'you're not Korean - how could you know the entire situation?' - or 'you don't share my / our groups views, be gone!' I find the third most threatening to 'free' speech, since disagreement of opinions - a right highly cherished by other democracies - is required for honest discourse.

We might also remember that Korea's 'democracy' is quite new compared to the rest of the world. Most foreign teachers are older than Korea's 'democracy', and thus Korea's efforts at 'democracy' should be viewed as such. What's missing from this story and from most discourses is a certain level of outrage and helplessness. What exactly can one do to speak their mind without fear of some Orwellian '1984' retribution?

Wayne0714 said...

1. Your impression that political satire doesn't do well in Korea is not unfounded. There aren't any SNL type of comedy shows in Korea for sure (as far as I know. I don't pay much attention to smaller cable channels so I can't be sure); most of the comedy you see on the major networks is pretty much brain-dead, slapstick stuff. I'm sure some of these comedians are perfectly capable of doing much more sophisticated political/social satire but the networks don't seem to have an appetite for it. Maybe the networks are simply making programming decisions based on supply-and-demand dynamics or they find the lowest common denominator, when it comes to comedy business, the most lucrative. I agree with The Korean that many Koreans are very much capable of creating and appreciating biting political satire (돌발영상 is not exactly satire but my favorite nonetheless)
2. I bet the biggest reason why the major networks shy away from political/social satire in prime time slot is they don't want to deal with libel suits. They probably know that there's a market for political/social satire in Korea but many Koreans being so hypersensitive to criticisms (this is another topic worthy of very long discussion) and the major networks being so pussycats, they'd stay away from whatever may hurt their bottom-line financially. I'm often amazed at how American late-night comics get away with mocking certain products and companies (Jimmy Dean Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick is definitely shit but I'm sure they wouldn't like the negative publicity) ; maybe their lawyers are quite good at dealing with that. I'm glad Roboseyo mentioned the US law that protects you from libel suits as long as you have truth on your side. One of my pet peeves is that news magazine shows (시사고발프로그램) in Korea always protect the identities of their subjects even though the companies/individuals in discussion are clearly guilty of the crime or unscrupulous business practices they are accused of. If you as a journalist can't own up to you own mistakes if any, why bother putting the story on the air?
3. Another of my pet peeves is the groupthink culture in Korea (yes, it's a generalization and another topic worthy of discussion). I know people of other nations are as prone to groupthink as Koreans but I see more of it here in this country. As Roboseyo mentioned, Dokdo is a prime example of that. I remember Mr.Michael Breen's comment on the issue and his suggestion that Korea and Japan come to some sort of an agreement to share the natural resources around that bunch of rocks (gasp! how dare you refer to Dokdo as rocks!!). This kind view would not be accepted kindly by the majority of Koreans (is this another unfair generalization? I know from my personal experience how monolithic thinking is dominant in the Korean population when it comes to sensitive subjects like Korea-Japan relationship). I remember watching the other day the SBS 8 o'clock news coverage of the WBC game between Korea and Japan (I think it was the third game where Korea won) and I was irritated by how long they were covering this sports story; it was more than half of their programming (it's a f*cking sports story, people! It's not like Korea defeated an invading Japanese army). Now I confess that I LOVE watching or hearing about my fellow Koreans kicking Japanese butt as much as the next guy but on that particular day, there were other important news stories such as the Yemen bombing, soaring unemployment rate among 20-30 group, North Korea getting uppity again refusing food assistance, Jang Ja-yeon story, corruption charges against a CEO who greased the palms of some politicians in the Roh administration, and last but not least the ailing economy. Imagine how dumbfounded I was when a few days later I saw all other major new networks doing the same sh*t again, only this time more time devoted to the baseball games. Maybe the networks are simply following the supply-and-demand rule or maybe it's a kind of groupthink that we've seen before (remember World Cup 2002 where you could not avoid watching soccer on TV even during news hours? My memory is fuzzy but I'm sure other important things were going on during that period). In all fairness, I see this kind of pimping for ratings on American networks but sometimes I feel as if I were watching North Korean television when I see news on Korean TV.
4. The Minerva story is definitely disturbing. It sets such a dangerous precedence and is certainly a backward move. Besides why elevate and legitimize the status of some blogger by arresting him and making a federal case out of it? What's next? Arrest all the foretune tellers? If netizens get their stock tips from some blogger, they are doing that at their own risk. If Minerva is so clairvoyant, why not consider hiring him? Companies hire hackers all the time, don't they?

Wayne0714 said...

The LMB-rat comparison is hardly a form of satire; it rather belongs in ad hominem category.
The "Myungtendo" parody was much more clever and effective than the rat stuff.
(I can't find any articles n English on this story. Maybe you could get one of your students to translate it?)

the Korean said...


I have been getting slammed at work, so I am trying to conserve my long writing for my blog. So I will just throw out some quick hitters. Caveat: these are not thought through at all. I'm just writing whatever that is coming to my head, which I dislike doing. But I'm sure you understand.

1. There is an impression among expats that political satire doesn't exist in Korea[.]

Well, you know how I think about expats' impressions. :)

2. The harsh stuff is mostly contained in the Internet, and the satires on TV in Korea are definitely softer in tone than their American counterpart. In particular, the satire is more about politicians or National Assemblymen in general, not necessarily about specific person.

3. Dokdo jokes are probably outside of the boundaries. It is not as if patriotic boundaries do not exist in America. If Gallagher wrapped a watermelon in Stars and Stripes before he smashed it, not too many people would find it funny. Whether the appropriate boundaries make sense in a given country is a question too complicated for this little space.

On this point, your point is crossing over from government censorship to peer-pressure censorship. Both are valid (and interesting) concerns, but it is conceptually helpful to consider them separately.

4. You said this already, but it bears repeating. Remember the keystone knowledge aobut Korea - that it has developed extremely fast. Military dictatorship in Korea did not go away until 1993. (You said 1987 -- that's arguable.) Even the democratically elected presidents afterwards found the censorship law to be convenient. To this day, there are many ways in which the government can screw with you if you get on the wrong side of it. Quick example - in the early 80s, a particular bald actor could not be on TV for many years because the military dictator/president at the time was also bald, and people projected their feeling towards the president to that actor.

5. We gotta understand a few assumptions underlying the idea that the ability to satirize public officials in a specifically insulting way is a good thing, and question the validity of them.

- How much does specifically insulting forms of satire add to the general welfare?

- To the extent that they do add to the general welfare, does it outweigh the genuine feeling of offense and outrage suffered by a person, regardless of public or private person?

- Similarly, does the added welfare outweigh the damage in reputation that the person suffers? (Does it make a difference if a society is particularly reputation-sensitive? Does it make a difference if information travels particularly fast in a given society?)

I am educated in the Common Law legal tradition, so my answers to these questions have a decidedly American/British slant. But legal scholars of Civil Law tradition countries (the rest of Europe, Japan and Korea) have a very different approach to these questions. It's not just Korea.

6. You raised this idea -- which legal tradition prevails in that case? Globalization does take countries out of their comfort zone, but to be sure, it takes out stronger countries less, and weaker countries more.

7. I don't know what happened to Joe exactly, but I doubt it was exactly as you told it. Truth IS a defense to "damage to reputation". (명예훼손) There has to be some context missing there.

8. it makes me nervous that such vaguely defined terms as "honor" "rights" "public morals" and "social ethics" are included in these laws, because terms like "public morals" can be twisted to fit pretty much any definition

I don't think this is a valid point. All laws are vague to an extent, and it is a job of the courts to shape them. There is a series of firm precedents of the courts in Korea as to what all those words mean, and those case laws are almost invariably followed. It is not any different from any other law in the world. The words "actual malice", a critical element in establishing libel in America, is no less vague that "public morals".

Roboseyo said...

The Korean:

You've made some good points: especially about drawing the distinction between social and legal censorship -- a blind spot that I sensed but couldn't put my finger on at 2am when I hit publish.

"We gotta understand a few assumptions underlying the idea that the ability to satirize public officials in a specifically insulting way is a good thing, and question the validity of them."

OK...but I'd argue that there's a big difference between insulting and mocking. If I imitate the way my friend interrupts, that's mocking, and it's a funny way to (possibly) embarrass him into changing his unacceptable manners; if I just call him an asshole when he interrupts me, that's insulting. Even mockery can be constructive if it gently points out hypocrisy, and depending on how close to the truth it is, it can be devastating: if the election results were closer, I might even have argued that SNL's Sarah Palin send-up could have been the thing that tipped the balance, BECAUSE it was so close to the truth.

In general, as I think about it more, in the legal, public sense, I think that the main point of protecting free speech is giving the powerless a venue to hold the powerful accountable, and any time that's curbed, we're in danger.

Also...I'm busy so I can't check who I'm responding to here, but I think it's true that foreigners must ALWAYS be aware that their foreignness will, to at least some degree, color all their comments on Korea to Koreans...so even if a Korean might get away with a Dokdo joke, I wouldn't try, even if I were fluent in the language.

As for Joe's case...I'd be interested too, to know the details. I haven't picked his brain about it yet, though one day I may have to.

Kelsey said...

This is really a great post.

Mark Eaton said...

An excellent post dealing with the issue of censorship.

Marie-France said...
This comment has been removed by the author.