President Yoon Suk-yeol’s pushback against the news media is unproductive. Tough media questions accompany the job of leading a democratic state. State leaders cannot muzzle reporters or throw them in prison like a dictator. Nor should they think the silent treatment will work. Questions will only continue and likely sharpen the more a leader hunkers down.
During and after his recent diplomatic trips, Yoon resorted to less access and information for the media. If that modus operandi continues, it will invite louder and louder accusations of withholding explanations to the public and hiding accountability on policy decisions.
Obviously, Yoon needs some competent media advisers and quick-stepping spokespersons. Without them, he will be exposed further to faulty decisions. Case in point: his wife’s unannounced visit to the home of a Cambodian boy suffering from a heart ailment last month. The unscripted departure from other first ladies during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings in Phnom Penh almost completely overshadowed Yoon’s activity in Cambodia and at the subsequent Group of 20 summit in Indonesia.
Photos of Kim Keon-hee cradling the sick Cambodian boy went viral immediately after the presidential office released them. She was widely chided for emulating the late Audrey Hepburn, who did philanthropic work in Somalia in the 1990s. It’s hard to deny that Kim’s clothing and pose evoked the famous UNICEF shot of Hepburn holding a starving child in her arms and looking in the distance. Some believed that Kim in another photo, taken with the boy on her lap, copied the Virgin Mary in Pieta.
The reaction also included an opposition lawmaker accusing the first lady of “poverty porn.” The presidential office denied using professional lighting to take what appeared to be conceptual photos, rather than press photos, and filed a complaint with police against the lawmaker. But everybody knows that the crux of the matter is not whether the first lady’s photographers used lighting. It was not the first time that photos of Kim’s "unofficial activities" have ignited controversy.
Given the significance of the multilateral diplomatic events held amid the realigning international order and the Yoon administration’s attempts at reorienting the nation’s foreign policy, the loud dispute about Kim’s media appearances was utterly frustrating. Even before leaving for Cambodia, Yoon’s trip was on thin ice.
In an abrupt notice, the presidential office banned the crew of public broadcaster MBC from the press pool on the presidential plane, alleging distorted reporting on diplomatic issues. Yoon had accused the network of damaging South Korea’s alliance with the United States and risking the Korean people’s safety by releasing video of his hot mic gaffe.
The footage contained what was widely regarded -- but denied by Yoon’s spokesperson on awkward grounds -- as vulgar language insulting US Congress members. It happened after a brief chat with President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September. Yoon has yet to clarify what he said.
Reporters and crew members of MBC and two newspapers -- Kyunghyang Shinmun and Hankyoreh, which voluntarily boycotted seats on the presidential plane to protest an “undemocratic attempt at media control” -- traveled on commercial planes. That led to difficulties in keeping pace with summit events, which effectively stifled their access.
But it wasn’t easy for reporters who were included, either. They were particularly frustrated with incomplete information about Yoon’s much-awaited talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
The content of the Yoon-Xi meeting was separately released by Korea’s presidential office and China’s official news agency. The Korean readout focused on Yoon’s request that China play a more constructive role in North Korea’s denuclearization. The Chinese report dealt mostly with Xi’s remarks on bilateral economic and security relations, without mentioning North Korea. As a result, the overall picture of the summit remains elusive. As for the Korea-Japan summit, Prime Minister Kishida held a post-summit briefing for Japanese press, but Yoon did not do likewise.
Journalists of democratic countries who travel with their president’s official entourage naturally expect briefings by the president or his staff. Yoon rejected this norm during his latest trip. Instead, he picked two reporters “who have personal relations with him” for an hourlong “private chat” in his cabin midair.
A greater shock came during Yoon’s first daily meeting with reporters after returning from the trip. Asked why he had banned the MBC crew from boarding the presidential plane, Yoon replied that it was “inevitable to protect the Constitution.”
He said, “They threatened national security by attempting to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States through fake news reported with malicious intentions.” An MBC reporter asked what was “malicious” about his organization’s reporting. Yoon walked off without an answer.
A presidential public relations official subsequently criticized the reporter for “a lack of courtesy.” And Yoon punched back even harder; he suspended his near-daily informal press briefings three days later, after the presidential office set up a wall in the lobby area where Yoon met reporters on his way to work.
The informal question-and-answer sessions had been touted as a signature fixture of the Yoon administration. He claimed that the Q&A opportunity was his primary reason to relocate the presidential office, as he wanted to shed the “imperial presidency” and enhance communication with the public. But the sessions had increasingly ended abruptly with Yoon avoiding uncomfortable questions and angrily scolding reporters.
Reporters are paid to ask questions, not be friends. Yes, oftentimes the questions are unsettling. And yes, reporters often appear to be too abrupt and intrusive. But anyone seeking public office should not be so naive as to think they will be excluded. It is pitiable that Yoon, already fighting on many fronts, is estranged from the press.
A confrontational stance will only stiffen the press corps more. A better understanding of the boundaries would benefit Yoon and the nation.
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.