Not Even Kim Jong-un Can Stop KBS, MBC Strikes

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On the day North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sep. 3, two of South Korea’s biggest public broadcasters didn’t have enough reporters to thoroughly cover the breaking story. Many of them were on strike.

“We beseech the employees and the labor unions leading the strike to remind yourselves of your duty as public broadcasters and the backbone of the national broadcasting service,” KBS, one of the broadcasters, wrote to its employees after the North Korean test.

“Please come back to your positions for the sake of the Korean people.”

This memo was publicized by the KBS Union, which retorted with this huff: “A national emergency? Stop making a fuss! Is the company using North Korean nukes to shake up the union strike?”

Needless to say, not even Kim Jong-un could make the journalists come back to work.

MBC directors, including president Ko Dae-young, clash with protesters on their way to work. (Source: MBC Union)

Oct. 22 marked the 50th day since thousands of journalists from KBS and MBC officially went on strike, demanding the resignation of their respective presidents, Ko Dae-young and Kim Jang-kyeom.

What’s going on?

According to the International Federation of Journalists, over 3,800 journalists from the two broadcasters have been involved in the strikes since early September, not long after the nuclear test.

The strikes aren’t one-time outbursts of frustration. They’re the result of years of internal resentment toward the broadcasters’ political bias, self-censorship and what the journalists perceive as unfair appointments of unqualified presidents by the ruling administrations at the time — namely, those of two successive conservative presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.

Typically, the majority of MBC and KBS directors are appointed by the ruling administration, and a few others by the opposition party.

For more context on the journalists’ struggles against their own public broadcasters, read “Journalism Without Journalists: Political Interference Cripples Public Broadcasting.”

Remember the candlelight demonstrations that started last October, which called for then-president Park Geun-hye to step down? The crowd often booed MBC and KBS reporters on the scene; some MBC reporters were even called “MBC retards” because of perceived failures to cover major issues including the Sewol ferry sinking and the Choi Soon-sil scandal. Long before these current strikes, the reputation of South Korea’s most prominent public broadcasters were deteriorating.

KBS reporters, seen here at company headquarters in Seoul, are demanding that their president resign. (Source: KBS Union)

Currently, the National Union of Media Workers — both the MBC and KBS branches — demand that their respective presidents resign. Both presidents were appointed by Park Geun-hye, and are seen by opponents as political tools to turn public broadcasters into government mouthpieces.

To disinterested observers just flicking through the channels, the strikes aren’t always visible on television. KBS and MBC are filling the holes in programming with reruns, and some popular shows that went on strike are coming back. Of course, if you’re a fan of Infinite Challenge, a popular entertainment show on MBC, you’re probably aware that something is wrong (the show has been replaced with “special programs” for seven Saturdays straight).

As of yet, the presidents from the Park Geun-hye era are still holding onto their crowns. But their defense may be disintegrating: Two MBC directors and one KBS director, all appointed during Park’s presidency, have resigned.

 

Cover image: “Again, KBS. Back to the people!” Journalists strike in September. (Source: KBS Union, reprinted with permission)

Haeryun Kang is a freelance journalist based in Seoul and contributing editor at Korea Exposé.