Media men got lost in translationIn 2008, Stephen Revere, an expat who has lived 15 years in Korea, wanted to start a magazine that would help expatriates adjusting to a new country get around the inevitable roadblocks.
Ironically, he quickly ran into a big one himself. Revere discovered he couldn’t establish the magazine without help from Korean natives.
According to current Korean media law, foreigners cannot become chief executive officers or executive editors. The media ownership law also states that foreigners cannot own a majority share of any media outlet in Korea.
So to establish his English-language magazine called “10,” Revere had to look well outside the expatriate community whose audience he sought.
“Because I wasn’t a citizen, I had to find Koreans who were willing to represent the magazine,” says Revere. “Without my Korean friends’ help, 10 Magazine couldn’t have come alive.” Because of that, today he’s listed as the “managing editor,” despite being the founder.
Craig White, who has been in Korea for seven years, faced the same requirement that snarled Revere when he co-founded “Daegu Pockets,” a bilingual guide to Daegu City that currently distributes about 3,000 copies a month. But he had an out: “Most of our ownership nucleus are Koreans, which helped us overcome some legal and paperwork issues,” he says.
Ownership is not the only legal problem foreigners must negotiate to start a publication in Korea. Under Article 5 of Enforcement Ordinance of Periodical Publications, all magazines must receive a registration number from a district office before they can be legally distributed. Getting that final approval, however, also became a roadblock.
“It is extremely difficult to get this registration number,” Revere emphasizes. Although he submitted all the required documents, it took many visits, phone calls, and a long wait - for no stated reason - for Revere to finally get the approval.
Korean officials admit that navigating these laws can be both frustrating and time-consuming for foreigners.
“We understand that these limitations pose constraints,” concedes an official from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, who asked not to be named. “However, just like other countries, we have to have our own laws regarding foreigners to protect Koreans’ interests.”
The pre-emptive measures, however, are nothing but nuisances to those like Revere and White, who say they just want to make foreigners’ lives easier.
Another government official points out the inherent complexity of any country’s legal system. The most direct and effective way to serve entrepreneurial foreigners, according to Choi Jin-on, would be for the National Assembly to modify existing laws. “But there is, of course, a very slim chance that this would become a major political issue to propel politicians,” says Choi.
In addition to the legal difficulties and bureaucratic impracticalities, a bigger problem seems to lie in the inaccessibility of Korean laws to non-Korean speakers.
“Not many foreigners know about all these legal procedures you have to go through,” Revere observed. “Although I speak Korean, things would’ve been much easier if legal information was readily available to foreigners.”
Currently, there are few places - such as the Ministry of Justice, Seoul Global Center, and Korea Bar Association - where foreigners can receive legal guidance. These, however, tend to focus on worker’s visa issues, and most of them are congregated in Seoul.
For the one million expatriates that are estimated to live in Korea, not just the legal system, but any kind of comprehensive guide to Korea is almost impossible to find, on- or off-line. “Much of Korea is inaccessible to foreigners,” Revere says. “Just figuring out what to do for the weekend can be a problem.”
That leaves most foreigners relying on word of mouth - when they can understand it.
“As a foreigner having lived in Korea for the past seven years and for my foreign peers, it has been a rollercoaster ride of emotions,” White recounts of his experience living in Korea.
“The only constant has been miscommunication, misunderstanding and frustration.”
By Tami Kim Contributing writer [email@example.com]