Collection pays tribute to Korea’s journalistic past

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Collection pays tribute to Korea’s journalistic past


In today’s Korea, government Web sites put the top brass in direct contact with the common people. Domestic newspapers lock horns with the government without fear of censorship or intimidation. Protesters of all colors march in legal demonstrations. Even some corporations, those impenetrable fiefdoms of the Korean economy, have buckled to the pressure to open their books.
A journalist, coming here to find public press conferences, freedom of movement and no immediate threat of being shot at, could easily forget that it wasn’t always this way.
“Korea Witness,” a collection of essays, recollections and articles by foreign correspondents throughout Korea’s modern history, is a potent reminder of just how much things have changed. But more than that, hearing from the front line troops of Korean journalism gives even the now-distant past the same immediacy it had when it first rolled off the press.
The attitudes of the correspondents run the gamut. Some are impressed by Korean tenacity, some frustrated at limits to access ― Jack London, the famous author of “Call of the Wild,” is quoted as feeling murderous rage and suicidal depression on his brief Seoul visit in 1904.
Most of the book’s reporters were more stalwart than London, many in harrowing circumstances. When Louis Heren wrote his account, reprinted in the book, in January 1951, it was just five months after Ian Morrison, his experienced predecessor at the Times of London, was found dead in a burned-out jeep near Daegu. Heren’s story, of dodging mortar rounds and machine gun fire during the day and shouting his reports into an unreliable phone line to Tokyo in the middle of the night, becomes familiar as it is retold by the other contributors. Frank Gibney tells of his race to get across the Han River and out of Seoul after a midnight phone call informed him North Korean troops were advancing on the city ― and being asked by a refugee ajumma, “Why you Americans quit?”

The stories of all the biggest scoops are here: Jack James, who had the start of the Korean War by sheer luck, Robert Elegant, who had the armistice 10 hours ahead.
Richard Halloran gives his account from the audience of the day President Park Chung Hee’s first lady Yook Young Soo was shot and killed. Shim Jae Hoon, Philippe Pons, Juergen Hinzpeter and Norman Thorpe give extensive accounts of covering the Gwangju uprising and subsequent massacre against all the efforts of the military regime to stop them. Then-AP reporter K.C. Hwang tells of his abduction by the KCIA. Edwin White tells of receiving a death threat from an anti-American group in 1986.
Nearly every chapter has its surprising revelation. For instance, consider that until March 2003, when Lee Bong-hyun of Reuters was voted into the press club at the Bank of Korea, no foreign media correspondents had ever been included in these exclusive briefings. In the ’80s and ’90s, foreign journalists often had to rely on brashness or subterfuge to get the stories that came to the domestic media straight from the Blue House’s mouth.

But even today, when such barriers are gone from the South, an entire half of the peninsula remains out of reach to journalists ― against 248 kilometers (154 miles) of machine guns, land mines and heavy artillery, balls and brains only get you so far, and yet another intriguing chapter follows the challenges, frustrations and temptations of reporting on the modern Hermit Kingdom. Barbara Demick offers a useful guide to sources on the North, explaining when to trust and when to be skeptical of aid workers in Pyongyang, Koreans on the Chinese border, defectors and hidden cameras, while Donald MacIntyre expounds on the danger in ― and necessity of ― veering from the “demonization script” that often leads to exaggerations about the North. Both pieces are useful not only to journalists but to readers trying to make sense of contradictory North Korea news stories.
“Korea Witness” is a history and a tribute to the heroes of Korean journalism. No other history I have read has made modern Korea’s noblest hopes and bitterest defeats seem so close. The ability to transport the reader through space and time with printed words ― that’s the debt the reader owes to the skilled chroniclers in this book, and to those journalists who will take up the Seoul dateline after they’re gone.

by Ben Applegate
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