Foreign journalist’s curse draws backlashA term hardly heard in policy discourse has become a buzzword in a fracas involving the Finance Ministry and a Wall Street Journal reporter.
And what started as an awkward question about “room salons” at a ministry press conference has escalated into a bigger debate about the ethics and attitudes of foreign journalists here, their long-held frustration in communicating with Korean government agencies and the equally long-held nationalist sentiment toward the foreign media.
Finance Minister Yoon Jeung-hyun’s regular press conference on Monday is meant to help foreign correspondents in Seoul understand the latest issues in the Korean economy and government policies.
But during a question-and-answer session that had been dominated by interest rates and currency movements, Journal reporter Evan Ramstad noted the day was also International Women’s Day and asked about the country’s “terrible reputation for dealing with women in the workplace.”
“[Korea] has some of the lowest percentage of women in the workplace and it has the highest gap in pay between men and women of any developed country,” said Ramstad. “I’d like to ask you if you think that is because men in South Korea like to go to room salons after work and that is a discouragement for women in the workplace. Or if companies decide not to hire women because the men like to go out to room salons, hostess bars and places like that after work.”
The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development has reported that Korean men do in fact earn 38 percent more than women, the biggest gender pay gap among the 30 OECD member countries, and a survey by Maeil Economic Newspaper in 2008 found that women account for only 6 percent of all executives at the nation’s top 1,400 companies. But Yoon said the balance is improving.
He pointed out that among recently appointed prosecutors, half are women. “And also judges, one-third of them are women. Within the families … Korean women have a very strong voice in, you know, the household finances.
“In most cases, even the husbands’ salaries are deposited into the bank account of their wives. Therefore, I think there are a lot of changes taking place with regard to women’s engagement and entry into the workforce,” Yoon said.
But Ramstad continued, asking about “the practice of going to room salons at the ministry and if there are policies involving ministry officials who go to room salons when they’re hosted by people who the ministry regulates.”
Yoon shot back, saying that the government, including his ministry, “fully supports female activity in the workplace and tries to promote social activity by females across the workplace.”
He said it has been “at least 10 years” since he himself visited such an establishment, and he believes few if any officials patronize room salons.
“This is a matter that is strictly regulated and strictly dealt with, so if there are any questionable activities taking place, of course there are reasonable sanctions that that employee will be subject to,” Yoon said.
While Yoon, who has spent years in several top government seats and is known to deal well with reporters, fielded the question with poise, his subordinates did not.
“I just can’t believe [Ramstad] could ask such vulgar questions on such an occasion,” ministry spokesman Kim Young-min said on Monday evening, hours after the conference.
He called the questions “very inappropriate and offensive, and based on the assumption that many ministry officials are taken to such places, which is absolutely not true.
“Those incompetent foreign reporters ruined and wasted such a precious opportunity arranged for them,” he said.
As the conference room emptied, Kim and other ministry public relations officials confronted Ramstad, and that sparked off intense yelling, according to both the officials and Ramstad.
And Ramstad called the officials “f------ a------s.”
Ramstad was not the only reporter to ask about the room salons; Don Kirk, the Seoul correspondent of CBS News, asked Yoon how the government taxes business expense-account spending at such places and was told there is a “strict limit.”
But Ramstad has been the focus of news accounts since the story was catapulted into the limelight by a Yonhap News reporter, one of the few local media present, who wrote about the incident.
“The ridiculous question not only belittled all Korean women and men, it revealed the reporter had little knowledge about Korea’s workplace culture,” said the story, which led to a flurry of similar stories from other media.
The stories received unusually cynical responses from local Internet users, one of whom posted that Ramstad “just asked what everyone in Korea knows about.”
But the uproar has opened up issues of freedom of speech versus decorum. While the question could have been better directed at corporate executives than the finance minister, few debate the journalists’ right to ask questions. And indeed, the ministry replied to all the queries and has said it will not take issue with them.
However, Ramstad’s swearing has met a sterner response.
“[Ramstad] had used similar foul language on me before, and apologized back then,” Kim, the spokesman, said on Tuesday. “Now he’s done it again to another spokesman. I think it’s time for us to do something serious about it.”
Kim said the ministry stopped sending press releases to Ramstad as of Tuesday, and said he would not be invited to any future ministry briefings and press events.
In an interview with MBC Radio yesterday, Ramstad admitted he is “ashamed and embarrassed” by his cursing.
But he defended his questions, saying the male-dominated corporate culture that often involves “drinking too much or wanting to go to room salons” is one reason Korea sees fewer women in executive positions in private companies than other countries - and many have no female executives at all.
“It’s a controversial thing many people don’t talk about. But to me, that doesn’t mean that no one should talk about it,” Ramstad said.
“People may not like it when a foreign reporter tries to talk about it, but I think South Korea can only make progress when there is an open discussion even if what I was saying was uncomfortable and controversial.”
A Korean reporter working for a foreign news organization echoed a similar sentiment.
“Any local media that says the questions belittled Korean society are fooling themselves. Look at all the room salons thriving everywhere in this country,” said the reporter, who refused to be named because the company's policy forbids it.
“Korean government officials and the media get overly delighted by any tiny positive coverage about Korea in the foreign media … then they get extremely angry if the smallest negative coverage shows up in the same media.”
But even the reporter called Ramstad’s swearing “totally out of line,” and said his questions at the conference gave the impression he was acting too arrogantly.
Lee Jae-kyung, journalism professor at Ewha Womans University, said the incident brought out decades of frustration.
“The government officials say the foreign media exaggerate the slightest economic problems that may be brewing in Korea, especially since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis,” he said.
“And the foreign correspondents here have constantly complained about the lack of information the government provides and the lack of access or translation services for reporting.
“Do we really have sufficiently effective communication with the foreign correspondents here? We still have a long way to go for that.”
By Jung Ha-won [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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