Moon champions act as ‘guards’

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Moon champions act as ‘guards’

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Top: The cover of the Hankyoreh 21 magazine for the third week of May. Bottom: The cover of Time Magazine’s May 15 edition. [HANKYOREH 21, TIME]

The Hankyoreh newspaper is liberal to its core. Since its start in 1988, the paper has championed progressives and their agenda. It was one of the strongest critics of the past two conservative governments of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.

But in recent months, the Hankyoreh has been accused of running a smear campaign against President Moon Jae-in - who was one of its earliest founders with a donation of 200 million won ($179,000). It is accused of secretly trying to help Moon’s rival, Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party, win the presidential election on May 9.

The accusation comes from a group of Moon supporters known as “Moon-ppa,” or “Moon Guards,” a reference to the Red Guards of Mao Zedong in China.

The word “ppa” derogatively refers to people who overzealously support some person or cause - and collectively attack anyone deemed less loyal or critical of him, her or it.

The Moon-ppas have emerged as a political force not to be ignored, intent on setting the tone of the media coverage of Moon and defending him with whatever means they can find.

These range from fiery text messages to making facetious donations of 18 won to opposition lawmakers’ in massive numbers - and then demanding refunds. That paralyzes the targeted lawmaker’s office. The number 18 in Korean is a homonym for an obscenity.

During the highly charged weeks of the campaign for the snap presidential election, the Hankyoreh was the object of particular fury from the Moon-ppas. They considered its coverage unbalanced, unfair and just not positive enough about Moon.

Moon’s ardent supporters can cite a number of perceived sins by the Hankyoreh during the campaign. But the one that provoked the most ire was the cover page of its weekly Hankyoreh 21 magazine for the third week of May.

Hankyoreh 21 printed a zoomed-in photo of Moon’s face on the cover with the caption “A New Era of Moon.” Taken from a low angle, Moon is seen looking ahead. But to Moon-ppas, the picture is simply unflattering - and they believe intentionally so.

They compare the Hankyoreh 21 cover photo to that of Time Magazine’s May 15 edition - which was on the newsstands many days earlier ? featuring a solemn-looking Moon looking straight ahead. They believe it is more flattering and dignified.

An angry Facebook posting by former Hankyoreh 21 editor Ahn Soo-chan on May 15 did little to calm things down.

“I have no choice but to confront you all as you are trying to tarnish all the effort and time we reporters here have dedicated to [unearthing the truth]. Bring it on, Moon-ppas.”

Ahn’s posting stirred up Moon’s supporters and was seen as a validation of their suspicions that the Hankyoreh was, in fact, going after the Moon Jae-in presidency.

Ahn apologized the next day, saying he was sorry for a remark he made while was under the influence of alcohol. The paper issued an official apology - to little avail.

The Hankyoreh is not the only target of the Moon guards. The Kyunghyang Sinmun and online media Ohmynews - both reliably liberal in the past - are perceived to be mistreating Moon.

The term HanKyungOh, a portmanteau the three liberal media outlets’ abbreviated names, has been circulating online. They are the unholy liberal trinity.

“The Hankyoreh attacks Moon because it thinks by doing so it can strengthen its hegemony and reaffirm its moral superiority by showing the public it can still criticize a liberal, Moon,” said Paul Lee, a U.S.-licensed attorney and a self-proclaimed Moon-ppa, whose unwavering support for Moon dates to his support for late President Roh Moo-hyun, whom Moon served as chief of staff.

“Moon was a founding board member of the Hankyoreh in the belief that the country needed a liberal paper to advance its democracy. But what the Hankyoreh is doing now is to denigrate the person who helped bring it into being.”

Examples of bias cited by Lee and his fellow Moon supporters number in the dozens. In one widely circulated meme, the Hankyoreh is called to task for two of its breaking news alerts.

In one alert on Facebook on May 16, the Hankyoreh wrote, “Moon had a luncheon with five special envoys. In the other alert on the same day, the paper wrote, “Former President Park continues to deny all charges.” Moon followers were annoyed that Park’s former title was included but Moon’s title was not.

What could be trivial issues to those outside the Moon fan club such as use of titles or simple editorial mistakes are now being immediately picked up by enthusiastic Moon supporters convinced that their president is mistreated.

The Moon-ppas’ hypersensitivity and aggressive tactics stem from their “collective trauma and guilt over the tragic death of late President Roh Moo-hyun,” said Shin Jang-sik, a former spokesman of the disbanded New Progressive Party and a lawyer.

Shin told the Korea JoongAng Daily that the Moon-ppas’ aggressive attacks on anyone perceived to be anti-Moon within the liberal base was a “manifestation” of both trauma and guilt that they could not stop former President Roh from taking his own life.

“I totally understand their trauma and guilt. They feel guilty that they either criticized or stayed silent while Roh was at the center of a bribery investigation in 2009. And that sense of trauma and guilt is now manifested through their emotional and active responses to any criticisms of Moon,” said Shin, a political commentator on cable news programs.

Roh committed suicide on May 23 in 2009, 24 days after he was questioned by prosecutors about corrupt dealings by his family and 15 months after leaving the Blue House. In the weeks leading up to his tragic end, media coverage was critical of the former president - from the conservative Chosun Ilbo on the right to Hankyoreh on the left.

“A sense of guilt that they had abetted Roh’s suicide by staying silent and not countering the bribery allegations against his family is a driving force behind their active online defense of Moon,” continued Shin.

But he also admitted that he was now censoring himself when he posts something political online. “I automatically think about the potential aftermath if I post something negative about Moon on my social media,” said the former politician. “Ironically enough, I now feel free from any type of pressure from the government with Moon Jae-in as president. But I feel pressure from his followers in the private arena.”

The Moon-ppas’ most recent flare-up was during a confirmation hearing last Wednesday for Prime Minister Nominee Lee Nak-yon. When Lee was questioned by opposition conservative Liberty Korea Party (LKP) Rep. Kyeong Dae-soo about his son being exempted from mandatory military service, Moon supporters wasted no time pointing out that Kyeong’s son was also spared military service.

On Todayhumor, an online hub of Moon enthusiasts, pictures showing their text messages demanding Kyeong provide relevant documents about his son’s military service exemption were posted in the dozens - with Kyeong’s personal phone number. At one point on Wednesday, the term “Son of Rep. Kyeong” was the most searched term on the portal site Daum.

After a cascade of text messages, the conservative lawmaker bowed to the pressure on Thursday. He said his son suffers from epileptic fits, which he had refrained from making public because of the social stigma attached to epilepsy in Korea.

The episode was a case in point that Moon-ppas’ collective action can reshape the public discourse.

Kim Ne-mo, a former spokeswoman of the Ahn Cheol-soo campaign, told the Korea JoongAng Daily that she had witnessed the power of such collective action by Moon followers first hand during the campaign.

“When a story about Moon comes up on Naver [Korea’s largest portal site], whether it was positive or negative, thousands of replies would be posted in just a couple of minutes - exponentially in favor of Moon,” said the former campaign aide.

She said it “would be a lie” if she denied the influence such collective online action had on the outcome of the snap election. Moon won with the largest margin of votes ever in Korean history.

Min Kyung-jung, a reporter for the Christian Broadcasting System for 27 years who now teaches online journalism at the graduate school of journalism of Korea University, said the Moon guards’ collective action online and its potential effects on the media illustrates the “changed terrain of media industry” from the past, when readers were largely passive recipients of information.

“In the past, readers simply and passively received news. But now they are capable of influencing the distribution of media content with greater interest in reporters’ motivations,” said the veteran journalist. “More than ever, news readers want to know about the context and reporters’ possible motivations behind the stories they write. It seems that reporters [at liberal papers] failed to catch this changed environment … Reporters now have to be extremely careful in their choice of words since they will be scrutinized word by word.”

Paul Lee agrees that “90 percent” of his fellow Moon supporters’ criticisms of the liberal HanKyungOh group come from their acute “sensitivity” to any form of criticism of Moon.

But he says it is important for them to be ready to defend Moon.

“We need it because they [the HanKyungOh] will bite [the Moon government] like zombies some time later [like they did against the Roh government], with the conservative Chosun Ilbo taking the lead in framing an attack,” said Lee.

Agreeing with the point raised by Shin Jang-sik, Lee noted that the Moon guards’ support derives from the collective pain of losing former President Roh.

“At first, we were panicked. Then we put our heads together and concluded we had failed to protect him, especially from the liberal media,” the longtime Moon supporter said.

“Now we are saying: We are here to protect Moon. People call us Moon Guards. We are willing to be called that.”

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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