Sunday, June 13, 2004

South Korea Dissolves Press Clubs

One of the many things Japan and South Korea have long shared in common has been the "press club" system of political reporting, but it now it seems that, as with its response to the 1997 economic crisis, Korea is quickly pulling ahead of its former colonial ruler.

I know it isn't quite the done thing these days to speak of "national character", but it cannot really be denied that there's something about Korea that makes it more flexible and responsive to the need for change than Japan. Where the Japanese have been talking about "reform" for years, the Koreans achieved far greater results in the blink of an eye, relatively speaking; where Japan's one-party status quo has only briefly been challenged in the 1990s by the opposition, Korea's electoral system is manifestly contestable, with major swings in the balance of power occurring regularly.

SEOUL, South Korea - As a vigorous, debate-filled democracy becomes entrenched here, South Korea is rapidly dismantling the press club system, an enduring symbol of the collusive relationship between the government and the news media.

Starting a year ago at the presidential offices, known as the Blue House, press clubs - in which reporters from major media outlets excluded other journalists and decided what to report, sometimes in conjunction with government officials - have been eliminated in one government office after another. Where they survive, as in Seoul's Police Department, they are expected to go soon.

Instead, shiny new briefing rooms have been built, their doors flung open to all. Although journalists and government officials are still groping for a new balance in their relationship, most believe that the changes will lead to the emergence of something rare in East Asia: a fiercely independent press.

The dismantling of the deep-rooted press club system, a vestige of the Japanese colonial rule that ended in 1945, resulted from the confluence of several events. In 2002, President Roh Moo Hyun was elected despite the fierce opposition of traditional outlets, especially conservative newspapers and television networks. At the same time, Internet-based alternative sources of information, popular among the young and generally supportive of Mr. Roh, have emerged as rivals to the traditional media here in the world's most wired nation.

The speed of the change is particularly stunning because, in Japan, the press club system survives intact. Hyun Seung Yoon, 39, a reporter for The Korea Economic Daily and the former vice president of the Finance Ministry's press club, which was abolished on Dec. 29, said that in the past the government and the media were united.

"Fundamentally, it's better now," Mr. Hyun said. "It's healthier now. The relationship that existed before was a collusive one."


In Japan, a de facto one-party state for the last half century, only maverick politicians in a few places, like Kamakura and Nagano, have abolished the press clubs, saying they are not appropriate in a democracy. Press clubs still exist in government agencies, companies and institutions all over the country, curtailing the nature and level of information available to the public.

The media revolution in South Korea has been almost completely ignored by Japan's own media, even though almost all have bureaus in Seoul. Japan's Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association argues that press clubs have officially been opened to non-members since 2002, though most Japanese journalists will acknowledge that, in practice, little has changed.

Hiroshi Wada, an official at Japan's newspaper association, went so far as to deny the changes occurring here.

"We checked the Korean situation and we do not think press clubs in South Korea have been abolished," Mr. Wada said. "It is that they allow everyone's participation freely, but press clubs still exist."

He added: "So it is not that Japan is more conservative with regards to press clubs. We understand that South Korea has caught up with us."
The denial by Mr. Wada of the changes in Korean journalism is interesting, seeming as it does to stem from a combination of self-interest ("no need to give the folks back home strange ideas") and nationalist pride ("the Koreans can't possibly be better at anything than we are"), but the true state of affairs is palpable even to foreigners on the other side of the world.

The odd thing about Japan's conservatism on this and other issues is that it too was once capable of undertaking drastic changes to meet with new challenges - changes don't come much bigger than the Meiji "restoration" to power of an emperor whose predecessors had last exercised real power in the 8th century A.D. - but a combination of decades of economic success seems to have had a dulling effect on the national psyche, an aversion to anything more than the most marginal tweaking. Prime Minister Koizumi, for all path-blazing on the international arena, has hardly lived up to the bold reformer image he played on in his ascent to power, but in that respect he's no different from Silvio Berlusconi or any number of other big-talking politicos who threaten thunder and brimstone only to do little once they get into office; the important difference here is that the Japanese populace actually seems very pleased to discover that he isn't the radical they elected him to be.