Politics and culture clash in Korea, especially in Park administration

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Politics and culture clash in Korea, especially in Park administration

In December 2014, an official from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism allegedly hurried to the office of the Arts Council Korea in Naju, South Jeolla, to deliver a 10-page list of the names of artists the ministry refused to sponsor. A top executive at the Arts Council Korea told the JoongAng Ilbo on the condition of anonymity of the so-called blacklist.

“If I remember correctly, there were roughly 1,500 names on the list,” he said. “They were divided by genre or artistic categories, but the reasons why they were on the list weren’t specified. Anyone would’ve known at a glance that it was a shoddily-made list.”

The Arts Council Korea had already decided on supporting various artists before the list arrived, but pressure to obey the ministry was almost irresistible, according to the source.

“When it’s a decision from above [the Blue House], you must comply,” a ministry official was quoted as saying.

As a result, the Arts Council Korea made excuses to change its support plans. It claimed that the subsidies it was receiving decreased, so it had no choice but to cut support for some recipients.

“Employees were also ordered to dismiss some applicants for local programs,” the source added.

Cha Eun-taek, an associate of controversial presidential friend Choi Soon-sil and a former TV commercial director, had a major role in deciding who got support. Under Cha’s control, individuals who were allegedly “left-wing” received disadvantages.

“I can say that there was pressure to favor specific artists in the past,” said the Arts Council Korea executive, “but this was the first time the government openly delivered a so-called blacklist, saying those on the list cannot receive government support.”

“Support but not interfere” is an unwritten rule in the dynamic between the government and artists. Culture and art often depend on government subsidies, but sometimes the support comes with a political twist.

Favoritism allegations plagued the Roh Moo-hyun administration (2003-08). The administration put liberal-minded people in the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and art-related organizations. At the same time, the subsidies for the Korean People Artist Federation almost doubled from 250 million won ($213,790) in 2000 to 580 million won in 2004, while support for the Federation of Artistic and Cultural Organization of Korea, which was considered right-wing, decreased slightly. “The administration, in fact, tried to push its ideology starting with the cultural field,” said film critic Cho Hee-moon.

The Lee Myung-bak administration (2008-13) openly reshuffled staff in favor of right-wingers, while the Korean Film Council reportedly cold shouldered people with leftist tendencies.

Favoritism was a factor in the sponsoring of culture and art, admits Jung Soo-yeon, an adjunct professor at Hanyang University, but, “The Park Geun-hye administration pressured individual artists and interfered with their works illegally. This was not favoritism but a crime.”

The Arts Council Korea became a private organization in 2005, but never really became independent from the government and political favoritism. Following a series of censorship allegations, including a dispute over the politically controversial documentary “The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol” in 2014, the ministry started giving less power to the Arts Council Korea.

“We have a monthly meeting, but we can barely do anything with the given time,” the executive explained. “The existence of a so-called blacklist being used in the support of culture and art questions the role of the organization, which now does more censoring than support.”

BY CHOI MIN-WOO [kim.yuna1@joongang.co.kr]
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