[VIEWPOINT]A win-win war against the pressTowards the end of the administration of former President Roh Tae-woo in 1992, the Korean economy was deteriorating in every sense. While price indices rose, the economic growth rate declined and the deficit in the balance of trade was growing.
The government and the press were fighting a war of words over the issue of whether the economy was in a recession. President Roh, who took over the most prosperous economy in Korea's history from the government of Chun Doo-hwan, started to feel uncomfortable as he watched the economy decline in the later half of his term.
From “The Chronicles of the Economy of the Sixth Republic,” published by the JoongAng Ilbo, we know that Mr. Roh reacted with irritation when the press reported articles critical of government policy. In those days, cabinet ministers worked till late in the evening to avoid getting a “yellow card” from the prime minister’s office. When the press carried a negative report on matters under its jurisdiction, the prime minister’s office would issue a warning letter immediately. For the sake of formality, the letter was written in the prime minister’s name, but it was in practice a stern reprimand from the president.
Similar to the way soccer referrees issue red cards (or two yellow cards) to remove players from the field, ministers would be sacked if they got the warning letters often, so they had to pay close attention to the news. Instead of focusing on developing good policies or explaining economic realities to the president, they paid attention to how the newspapers reported on government policies. Since the cabinet ministers put their heart and soul into preventing critical new reports, government officials in charge of public relations suffered a lot, by necessity.
The more the economy worsened, the more the president would express dissatisfaction toward the press and emphasize the importance of publicizing economic achievements. He thought that the government had been driven into a corner because the press exaggerated economic difficulties and the opposition made use of such reports for political purposes, although the economy was not in such bad shape.
In March 1992, after the ruling party suffered a landslide defeat in the 14th National Assembly elections, Mr. Roh called all the presidential secretaries into his office and burst into a fit of rage, saying, “You have been reporting to me that there is no problem in the economy. How could the results of the National Assembly elections turn out like this? Isn’t it because the people think that the national economy is getting worse, that the ruling Democratic Liberal Party failed to get majority seats in the Assembly? Under such circumstances, how can we win the presidential election at the end of the year? Concentrate all your efforts on publicizing economic policy and achievements.”
After that incident, the office of the senior presidential secretary for economic affairs published a public relations booklet claiming that the economic achievement of the Sixth Republic under Roh Tae-woo was nothing but good, and sent the booklets to even the lowest level of local government offices. Cabinet ministers even ran policy advertisements carrying their names, which was quite unusual for the time, and the deputy prime minister of finance and economy repeatedly criticized the opposition’s economic policy in a series of press conferences.
The behavior of the presidential secretaries and cabinet ministers nowadays is, miraculously, no different from that of the officials under the Sixth Republic, something the current government ardently denies and criticizes.
President Roh Moo-hyun seems to think that the problem lies in the reports of some critical newspapers that exaggerate the present difficulties or carry maliciously distorted articles. Upon being ordered by the president to strengthen public relations, every government agency began to engage in a war of sorts against critical press agencies. If a single negative line of reporting appears in the press, the government, spearheaded by the cabinet minister in charge of the issue, launches a massive counterattack out of proportion to the issue or even common sense. The attitude of Kim Jin-pyo, the deputy prime minister of education and human resources development, and Byeun Yang-kyoon, the minister of planning and budget, are good examples.
In reality, the government officials, even if they fight against the press on each and every case, have little to lose. The president encourages their actions by writing comments over newspaper articles that reported the official’s criticism of the press. That way, officials are directly praised by the president, and they can even land a sweet promotion, if they force the press to surrender to their counterattacks. Even if they are defeated by the press, they will no doubt be commended by the president for responding “courageously” to critical press reports.
For a goverment official, that’s a win-win proposition.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jong-soo