A perennial division in local newspapers

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A perennial division in local newspapers

Lee Sang-eon

The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

I combed through the morning papers several times. I could not believe my eyes. Of six newspapers on Wednesday, three did not carry a single photo of two North Korean fishermen being unwillingly repatriated to the North in 2019. The JoongAng Ilbo and another paper carried several photos on the front page and others, including an editorial. One carried pictures and related articles inside. The other three made no mention.

When I first saw the pictures online the previous day, I could not contain my shock. I have repeatedly advised junior reporters not to use the word “shock,” as it is a cliché. But there was no other word than “shocking” to describe the feeling. The two “liberal” newspapers turned a blind eye to the scene where a state had thrown two lives to the mercy of the hands on the other side of the border. A paper claiming to be “rational centrist” also chose to ignore the news. It was hard to understand or explain how six major newspapers in South Korea could be equally divided three-three.

The pictures were disclosed through the Ministry of Unification and People Power Party (PPP) Rep. Jun Joo-hyae. As those photos were not exclusively obtained by particular media outlets, it was up to each newspaper whether to run them or not.

Of course, judgment can differ. Media organizations edit based on their values. Gone are the days when newspapers carry the same headlines and stories. Reporters today don’t try to match the stories that ran in their rivalling papers.

Still, the utter division over the involuntary repatriation of the North Korean defectors reflects a sharp division in our society. Many still believe that the revisit to human rights issues related to North Korea could be a part of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s attacks on the past administration. Some even suspect the new conservative government is digging up dirt about the previous government to make up for its sinking approval rating.

They don’t attach great significance to the repatriation of the two North Koreans against their will, as it would represent their surrendering to the tactics of the conservative administration. Some find no problem with a government sending back the defectors who had fled after killing fellow crew members on the boat as North Korea and the Moon administration claimed.

South Korea is a diverse society. Convictions and political views can differ. But community members under one nation must achieve a minimum consensus, as specified in our Constitution. In short, it is the guarantee on basic freedom and rights. Life to a human being is the foundation of freedom and rights. All civilizations respect the life of a person even without referring to the law and Constitution. That cannot change depending on whether he or she is a national, foreigner, or a North Korean.
One of the two North Korean fishermen who expressed their intention to defect is forcibly sent back to North Korea by South Korean security officials in November 2019. The two defectors vehemently resisted the South Korean government’s repatriation. [Ministry of Unification]

It seems that key officials under the Moon Jae-in administration thought that a few sacrifices could be made to sustain its engagement policy towards North Korea, materialize North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s return visit to Seoul, and achieve victories in the upcoming parliamentary elections — and the presidential election three years later.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant said that human beings must be treated as an end in themselves, and not as a means to something else. Sadly, such a common sense has to be recited in South Korea today. As I wrote in November 2019, whether the fishermen are still alive cannot be known. But South Korea has committed a crime against humanity that should be investigated and explained in the future.

The forced repatriation raises serious questions about what role a state has to play and how brutal the power can be. The role the media also should be added to the questions. Two of the three newspapers that didn’t run the repatriation photos at all carried the images of “stellar nursery” and a “cosmic dance” — transmitted by the new space telescope of NASA — on their front pages, instead.

Buddhism teaches each and every one is a small universe. We may be looking far into the sky while neglecting the universes around us.
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