Defector excluded from a press pool

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Defector excluded from a press pool

The UN’s top human rights envoy in Seoul expressed concerns about curbs on press freedoms Monday after the Unification Ministry blocked a defector journalist from joining the press pool for that day’s inter-Korean talks.

Kim Myoung-song, a reporter originally from the North who writes for the conservative-leaning South Korean daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo, said his request to cover Monday’s high level talks between the two Koreas had been rejected by the ministry.

The decision prompted a note of caution from Signe Poulsen, the Seoul-based representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who stressed that press freedoms needed to be guaranteed in a radio interview with the Voice of America on Monday.

“In terms of the reporting, there should be freedom of media and media should be allowed all kinds of issues,” she said. “What’s really important … is we hope there is no censorship on reporting on summit and talks.”

Poulsen expressed concerns in February when the South Korean government was reaching out to Pyongyang to participate in the Winter Olympics, warning that Seoul may be overlooking human rights abuses by North Korea.

A spokesman for the Unification Ministry said the decision to exclude Kim from the press pool was based on “special circumstances” surrounding the inter-Korean talks, and mentioning Kim’s reputation for aggressive journalism. Pressure from North Korea was not a reason, the spokesman added.

The move, which was taken without prior consultation with reporters, drew a backlash from the press corps covering the event, which issued a statement calling the exclusion “inappropriate” and a serious violation of press freedoms. They demanded that the ministry take measures to ensure such incidents do not happen again.

The criticism forced South Korean Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon to convey his views to the press in a brief meeting that evening. Cho called Kim’s exclusion regrettable, but defended it as a political decision that was undertaken to prevent unnecessary friction between the South and North’s delegates, given that the participation of defector journalists had created problems in past inter-Korean meetings.

The ministry’s action prompted opposition parties to attack the Moon Jae-in administration for overly conciliatory dealings with the North.

Kim Byung-joon, interim chief of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP), called for Moon to guarantee the freedom of the press in a Facebook post on Monday, saying that universal values like freedom of the press must also be upheld for the sake of peace.

Reactions from other LKP members were less lofty, however, with lawmaker Kim Young-woo calling the decision nothing more than sycophancy towards the North and demanding Cho’s resignation as unification minister.

“Adulation is not a policy,” said another LKP lawmaker, Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun. “If [the government] continues to kowtow in front of North Korea, we won’t be able to achieve anything, much less denuclearization.”

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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