Lecture on the Cheonan Sinking

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When invited by ISC to attend an interview about the Cheonan Sinking, I jumped at the chance. About a month earlier I attended the tour of the Gyeong-san Cobalt Mine Massacre site. Though the trip, I ended up learning a lot about a Korean History that’s hard to access. I liked our tour guides’ friendly and open atmosphere when we met with local community leaders who had been researching the incident and the family members of the victims. Despite the language barrier our guides encouraged open discussion, and through our conversations, I and others were motivated to learn more about this and similar incidents in Korean History. Attending a lecture on the Cheonan Sinking offered the chance to do just that.

Kim San-gyun was listed as the lecturer and billed as a former MBC producer who had researched on the Cheonan Sinking. As with the Gyeong-san Cobalt Mine tour, I was impressed with ISC’s access to civil society leaders. I thought it was particularly interesting that a former MBC producer would be doing the lecture due to the high media profile of the incident (it made global headlines), and the fact that only a couple of years later there had been a massive walk-out of media workers, led in part by MBC employees.

I had first heard about the Cheonan Sinking shortly after it occurred in late March 2010. At that time, I was a student at Rowan University in the United States. That semester, I had been enjoying a course on the history of the Soviet Union, so Cold War subjects were often on my mind. It was this class that made me interested in Korea, the only country where the Cold War had gone “hot.”

I’m not a consumer of cable media, and I avoid major networks like CNN, MSNBC, and FOX, but I did watch the PBS Newshour religiously, due to its quality and relative lack of hyperbole. Unlike the other networks, I felt that PBS covered the sinking quite objectively, withholding any blame for the incident until more evidence was brought forth. Of course, while no judgment was ever made by the anchor or written in a bulletin, by sampling the guests interviewed-- especially those appearing after the US-led joint investigative team had made their conclusions, it seemed the general consensus was that the DPRK was to blame. The story then quickly disappeared from the headlines.

For myself, and I suppose for the most of us in America, the story was over. The DPRK had once again “proven itself” to be a “rogue nation” capable of unpredictable and seemingly unprovoked acts of aggression. However, after attending the lecture, I discovered that this was far from the case.

The lecturer, Kim San-gyun, revealed that from the very beginning of the incident, both the traditionally conservative newspapers (i.e. Joseon, Jungang, and Dong-a Ilbo) followed by the three major networks (KBS, SBS, and MBC) presented a single narrative, which echoed the government’s, placing blame solely at the feet of the DPRK and ignoring or dismissing any evidence to the contrary. In fact, some documentaries and news reports casting doubt on the official government statements were produced but never aired, and the producers of those programs faced penalties for allegedly seditious content.

Our lecturer went on to explain a bit more about the regulatory structure of Korean Media and why journalists are pressured to produce lines favorable to that of the government. While the Korean Press is nominally free and the major networks are run as independent companies, the heads of the public media companies are appointed directly by the president. While completely independent networks are allowed to and do indeed exist (such as JTBC) the three giants KBS, MBC, and SBS by far have the largest audiences, and even these networks are constrained in their criticism due the government's “anti-communist laws” which can and have been used to silence critics. It had seemed that the story ended in the late-spring of 2010, but it was clear from this lecture that a lot more had been left unexamined.

I enjoyed this lecture for the opportunity it provided to examine one of the most significant events in recent Korean history and its impact on civil society and the chance to meet with someone directly involved, Mr. Kim San-gyun. I’m looking forward to attending similar events hosted by ISC in the future.

written by James Flynn