[OUTLOOK]An English-contest judge reflects

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[OUTLOOK]An English-contest judge reflects

One of the more pleasurable parts of my job is meeting young Koreans who are working on their English. In recent weeks I served as judge of a speech contest and an essay contest. The experiences left me impressed with the ability of Korean students to express themselves in a foreign tongue. But I also found food for thought in one judging disappointment.

The speech contest was sponsored by the International Youth Fellowship. I judged only the college division, although there are also contests for high school and middle school youth. The two dozen speakers I heard were finalists, selected from preliminary rounds, and so, of course, nearly all were excellent. Hard judging, but good for Korea.

The essay writers were divided into high school and university students. The judges, two professors at Korea University and I, set a challenge for the collegians: "Write about the role of a free and independent press in the development of democracy."

High-schoolers, we thought, might not yet be ready to do analytical thinking. So we gave them an open-ended topic: "I dream of . . . " That would give the younger essayists a chance to stretch in whatever direction they liked.

It turned out that the high schoolers wrote much better essays than the college students. Freed of the tyranny of the judges, their creativity came out. Son A-ran took first prize with a lyrical description of her future life as a doctor in Africa. There were two second-prize winners. Seol Yeon-ji wrote so cogently about the necessity and feasibility of Korean reunification that we wanted to send her essay to the Blue House and to Kim Jong-il. Kim Young-sin critically analyzed Korean high school education -- a popular subject with other writers -- but made a number of constructive suggestions instead of simply griping about it.

We judges agreed that we would have liked to award more prizes -- there were that many outstanding essays among the high school students.

Then we came to the college students. And we decided, following the precedents in certain music competitions, that if no essay was outstanding, no first prize should be awarded.

Of course it is not true that Korea's college students are intellectually inferior to its high school students -- at least I hope not. But the relationship of a free press to a living democracy seemed to be something that most of the college-age essayists had not thought much about. Maybe Miss Kim's criticism of Korean education was on the mark.

Our essayists took stands in favor of objectivity in reporting and against kowtowing to special interests. But they wrote at high rates of abstraction: "The press should be completely free from all the hierarchy powers." Well, so it should, but what does that mean? What hierarchy powers? How do they control the press? How can the press resist these controls?

One essayist, in high dudgeon, deployed this castigation of the South Korean press: "Would you call a society full of fighting and argument on some matters democratic?" Indeed I would. It is only in democratic societies that fighting and argument are permissible.

Another offered this strange prescription: Papers should have smaller circulation and should cost more. Only thus, she said, could "the press be independent from the owners of the press." Perhaps she means that if advertisers pay the bills, advertisers will call the tune. If so, perhaps she has a point. But when newspapers, unsupported by advertising, are too expensive for most people to afford, how will that build democracy? It could have made a good essay, if she had recognized the issue.

Many of the writers seemed to see salvation for the press in the Internet, where all may freely post an opinion. But none engaged the question of how to judge the accuracy or credibility of Internet postings.

To only one writer did it occur to contrast South Korea's relatively free press with North Korea's controlled press. And to only one did it occur to bring up as an issue last year's events, when an ostensibly liberal Korean government levied punitive fines and criminal indictments against major newspapers and their top executives.

So to those two we awarded second prizes. Kim Dong-hyun had a strong sense of the press's role in standing up to government: "In times of turmoil and instability, the press is the only bastion to protect people's rights and judge between right and wrong." Hear, hear.

The last word goes to Seol Yeon-ju, who was quite insistent that there is never one correct opinion (or at least no one can know at all times what it is). Therefore, "when there are several newspapers which can voice various opinions of their own, democracy will develop."

Whether the Blue House likes all those newspapers or not.


The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by Hal Piper

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