[Observer]Arirang gets rid of annoying outside views
You don’t gain respect by pretending that Korea is perfect, that no mistakes have ever been made, that Koreans never disagree among themselves.
It was fun being a television star, but all good things must end.
Oh, you didn’t know I was a television star? Well, good for you. That probably means that you get your news from newspapers like this one, instead of from television. As the American humorist Russell Baker sagely observed: “You can learn more about the world by drinking gin from the bottle than by watching television.”
Nevertheless, for more than a year, there I was, an oasis of lucidity in the vast wasteland of television. Or so my friends told me.
I was a panelist on Arirang TV’s weekly news roundup, “Korea Today.” The show featured in-depth stories from the past week’s news and commentary from a panel that included two Arirang journalists, a Korean businessman and a foreign guest. The latter chair rotated among several resident foreigners, and I appeared once or twice a month.
We were semi-scripted. That is, we panelists were given transcripts of the news stories, and then circulated our responses among ourselves. Whatever was lost in spontaneity was more than repaid in deliberation (we didn’t just wing our thoughts), breadth (we didn’t repeat each other) and courtesy (we didn’t interrupt each other, as on American TV shoutfests). Also, the camera crew always knew who was speaking and when the next person would come in, which made for smoother camera work.
We could say whatever we wanted, and we could disagree with each other.
All went well for some time. Then, last spring, we were discussing, for the umpteenth time, Korea’s favorite gripe ― Japan’s attempt to sanitize its history. In planning my script, I decided to get real about this issue ― Japan is not the only guilty party. But I know that this is a touchy issue, so I planned my script to lay some groundwork before coming to the point.
As disgraceful as Japan’s whitewash is, Japan is not alone in perfuming its history. American history is taught entirely differently today than when I was in school. For example, the treatment of the American Indians by the European settlers used to be glossed over as the advance of a superior civilization.
And even in Korea, controversial textbooks exist. But when the American ambassador protested to the Education Ministry about a school curriculum containing alleged anti-American distortions, he was brushed off with the explanation that Korea’s sacred allegiance to the “freedom of the classroom” forbids the government from imposing correct doctrine on what teachers should teach. I mildly concluded: Does the “freedom of the classroom” apply in Korea, but not in Japan?
When I showed up for the Friday afternoon taping, I was told that I could not say that. I could say that Japanese textbooks were distorted, and that American textbooks used to be distorted. But the fact that anyone had questioned the truth of Korean textbooks was unmentionable.
Sometimes I think I am too polite. It would have been fun to nod grimly, wait until the right moment in the taping, speak my mind and storm dramatically off the set. Perfect! On the other hand, the issue, as I saw it, was not manifesting my own righteousness. So I nodded grimly, trimmed my remarks and, later, told my Arirang bosses that I was quitting the show unless I was assured that I would not be censored in the future.
And I wasn’t censored ― exactly. When the Dalai Lama’s application for a visa to attend a meeting in Korea of Nobel Peace Prize winners mysteriously disappeared in the labyrinths of bureaucracy, I was allowed to opine that it was a shame that Korea’s many millions of Buddhists would not get the chance to see an important fellow Buddhist. But I was not allowed to say that the Korean government, so loud in its assertion of Korean autonomy against the United States, had stifled the visa in deference to China. At the taping the anchor followed my remarks by stridently declaiming that “No official decision has been made on the visa, so we will just have to wait and see.”
(As the anchor well knew, the government never makes an official decision when the Dalai Lama asks to visit Korea, as has happened more than once. The decision is simply withheld until it is moot.)
Serves me right, you might say; I should have known that these are sensitive matters for Korea. Yes, but Korea, and Koreans, have an inferiority complex. They desperately want the world to respect Korea ― and they are right. The world does undervalue Korea ― its culture, its economic miracle, its rowdy democracy. I know that I did not properly respect Korea before I came here six years ago.
But you don’t gain respect by pretending that Korea is perfect, that no mistakes have ever been made, that Koreans never disagree among themselves. Yet this is the image of Korea that Arirang, under a new management composed mainly of trade-promotion flacks instead of journalists, chooses to present. The English-language service is nominally an independent entity, but it draws a hefty chunk of its budget from government funds and clearly it feels an obligation to make the government look good.
Last summer, the Arirang management vetoed a segment on the transfer of wartime command of the Korean army. It was the biggest political story of the season. The “Korea Today” panelists, both Korean and foreign, lined up with the government on this issue, so we would not have said anything hostile. But the issue is controversial among Koreans, so we could not do the story.
In the fall, President Roh Moo-hyun threatened to resign, and National Assembly members allegedly were on the North Korean payroll. You wouldn’t have heard about these events on “Korea Today” ― we discussed the 300 billionth export dollar earned and the 30 millionth cell phone manufactured, leavened with light features.
Meanwhile, the other panelists had their own run-ins. In September, we wrote to the Arirang management, asking it to respect its mission (“Korea for the world, the world for Korea”) and Korea itself. We asked to be part of “a show that would tell the world about ‘Korea Today’ ― its success and dynamism, its vibrant democracy.”
A courteous reply thanked us and assured us that our “suggestions have been well noted and reviewed.”
You can see the outcome of the review when the new show airs this weekend. There is still a show called “Korea Today.” The slogan is the same, and perhaps my picture will still be on the Web site. But the troublesome panel of outsiders has been abolished. South Korea is shown as a society without controversy, where government policies are wise and unchallenged, where only economic statistics and cultural festivals engage public attention ― in short, a society without flesh-and-blood human beings. Rather the way, in fact, that North Korea pictures itself.
*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and a professor at Yonsei GSIS.
by Harold Piper