Culture, Censored: A Look into South Korea’s State-Sponsored Blacklist

The sprawling scandal of corruption in South Korea is a complex and challenging crisis with serious implications not only for the future of Korea’s democracy, but for the personal freedom of its citizens as well. The country celebrated its ousting of scandal-ridden President Park Geun-hye this March, with hope for the future of the democracy palpable in the air, and the desire for change prominent in the impending 2017 elections, but many Koreans worry that those hopes may prove to be in vain.

The pattern of corruption and culture censorship is woven throughout South Korea’s short history, and begs the question of whether this could be a repeating phenomenon in this young democracy with an authoritarian past. In light of the most recent President Park’s scandalous administration, the future of corruption and censorship is particularly daunting.

Image courtesy of Phil America, © 2017.

The current cultural landscape continues to be eerily reminiscent of the 1961-1979 reign of Park Chung-Hee, former president Park Geun-hye’s father. He was ruthless in his censorship of the arts, and unbounded in his tendency for corruption.

Park Chung-Hee is widely considered the orchestrator of Korean arts’ gloomiest epoch, who led with dictatorial rule in the ’70s. Chun Doo-hwan, a military authoritarian leader from the ’80s, exiled a famous comedian from television after viewers compared their appearances in what he believed was a negative light (both men were bald). Later administrations faced allegations of favoring pro-government academics and municipal groups when bestowing grant money. The National Museum of Modern Contemporary Art, the largest institution of its kind in South Korea, has also been accused of “restricting freedoms” after the culture ministry chose a new director who had been mired by censorship allegations the year prior. Even as recently as Park’s conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, certain liberal celebrities and journalists were prohibited from broadcasting on state-controlled channels.

With South Korea’s dark history of censorship of the arts, their present revered place in Korean society makes sense. Since the 1992 election of South Korea’s first president without a military background, the country has witnessed a revival of freedom of expression that led Korean entertainment and popular culture to sweep Asian pop culture in what became known as the Korean Wave. Korea’s TV dramas, movies, and celebrities maintain massive followings throughout Asia and even the international community as a whole. In an interview with The Inquirer, Choi Hyung-Yong, head of the Korea Motion Picture Industry Strategy Center, said: “Freedom of expression is the root of our strength as a cultural powerhouse.”

So in December, at the height of Park Geun-hye’s mounting corruption scandal, the news of a leaked blacklist of 9,500 artists served as a particularly painful twist in a power-peddling scandal that led to Park’s impeachment later that month. The list included a diverse array of actors, artists, writers, calligraphers, musicians, film directors, publishers. They had one thing in common: all were critical of then-President Park Geun-hye.

Infringements upon artistic freedom had steadily worsened throughout Park’s reign, with artists slapped with fines or arrested if their work showed satire or criticism of the administration.

Sources say the government blacklist was designed to be particularly painful for impoverished artists, who were likely to be critical of Park, as they benefit from both official funding, using personal information collected through the state-sponsored benefits they receive. Minister of Culture, Cho Yoon-Sun, was arrested in January over the blacklist, on charges of corruption and perjury, including instances of ordering tickets to blacklisted artists’ exhibits in bulk in an effort to prevent the public from seeing certain films and exhibits, and refusing grant money to artists the regime wished to silence.

The Culture Ministry apologized shortly after news of the blacklist broke, and admitted to making methodical efforts to sideline Park’s critics. The administration’s efforts to silence the artistic voices with which it disagreed was an unequivocal abuse of power that “seriously undermined the freedom of thought and expression,” the special prosecutor’s office said.

After Park Geun-hye’s removal from office, many are hopeful that the worst of the assailment on artistic freedom, and freedom of speech as a whole, is over. ButPark’s removal does not mean South Korea is safe. The encroachment on artistic freedom in recent years parallels a dark pattern within South Korea’s history that transcends much further back than the rule of Park, her conservative predecessors, and her father. South Koreans will need to keep an eye on censorship as means of corruption, even after the presidential victory of Moon Jae-in this week, who ran on a platform of improving transparency in government

Moon’s victory means an end to nearly a decade of rule of the conservative party in South Korea, but whether it means an end to the corruption that the Park scandal exposed remains to be seen.

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