Under the Influence

Korea’s disinformation problem

Last September, Youkyung Lee, a Korean reporter working for Bloomberg’s Seoul office, published a story about Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, pegged to the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. It was an upbeat moment in inter-Korean relations: Moon and an entourage of politicians and business chiefs had just returned from Pyongyang, for the third North-South summit in a matter of months. Yet sanctions imposed by the UN constrained the two Koreas’ vision of economic exchange, Moon told his counterparts. Lee’s article gave a brief summary of the situation (word count: 666), in the evaluative style of news analysis. Its headline called Moon the “top spokesman” for Kim Jong-un.

The story was quickly scooped up, in partial translation, by The Chosun Ilbo, a conservative newspaper openly critical of Moon and his Democratic Party. Chosun emphasized how embarrassing it was for a “foreign” outlet—an American one, at that—to call Moon a “de facto” representative for the North and describe him as “singing [Kim Jong-un’s] praises.” News, fake and real, travels with incomparable speed in South Korea, a country whose density, small size, and superlative internet connection provide the ideal conditions for an echo chamber. “Top spokesman” became a convenient slur employed by members of the opposition Liberty Korea Party, and soon began to circulate in less established but equally influential online quarters, including in right-wing YouTube videos and on Ilbe, an extremist men’s-rights bulletin board that traffics in political lulz and misogynistic GIFs. South Korea is the world’s fastest-aging developed country, and its seniors are particularly susceptible to influence campaigns, owing to their isolation and preference for smartphone videos over hard-to-read print. Lee’s story became rhetorical fodder for the “Taegukgi brigade”—activists, mostly senior citizens, known to wear military costumes, chant authoritarian slogans, and wave the South Korean flag (for which the group is named), along with the Stars and Stripes and the Israeli flag, in central Seoul. 

Throughout the fall and winter, the “top spokesman” line continued to reverberate, though it was little more than an annoyance for Moon’s Democrats. South Korean liberals have long pursued a conciliatory “Sunshine Policy” with Pyongyang, and had been smeared before. But just after the Lunar New Year, Lee’s article made an unexpected, stentorian return.

On March 12, Na Kyung-won, the sharp-tongued floor leader of the Liberty Korea Party, rose to the dais of the National Assembly. Air pollution levels, which Koreans track religiously and blame on Chinese industry, had reached a throat-choking high; the youth unemployment rate in South Korea remained above 9 percent (aspirational by Spanish and Greek standards, but a source of Korean woe); less than two weeks earlier, the US–North Korea summit in Hanoi had ended without an agreement. Na started out by apologizing to the public for the terrible smog. The Democrats, she said, had “sold out to China” and “refused to take responsibility”; the country was “crashing down on itself” under the neglect of the ruling party. She became increasingly agitated and then, 14 minutes in, hurled what she knew would be a grenade: “The bottomless, endless defense and ventriloquism of North Korea is an embarrassment,” she said. “I can no longer tolerate having a president who warrants the shameful label of ‘top spokesman’ for Kim Jong-un.” 

The Democrats in the assembly (which is mostly male) jeered with an indignant theatricality that I typically associate with British Parliament. Some stood and gestured accusingly, others stomped toward the front, and several left the chamber altogether. Na was forced to pause her speech. 

The next day, the Democratic Party issued a statement condemning Na—as well as Bloomberg’s Lee, calling her article “borderline traitorous.” Lee “previously worked for a Korean news outlet,” the statement said, but had now “donned the cover of an American media organization” to “insult the country.” This singling out of a journalist, and questioning of her loyalty as an ethnic Korean, shocked the media world in Seoul. It also fueled extreme conservatives: on YouTube and Facebook, Moon’s opponents amplified their portrayal of him as an authoritarian leftist and commended Na for speaking the truth. 

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A few days later, the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club issued a press release in support of Lee, noting that she faced “serious threats to her personal safety” and calling the Democrats’ statement “journalistically chilling.” The Club added that it was crucial for politicians “on all sides to respect the right to freedom of expression,” given South Korea’s “long struggle to achieve full democracy.” The Asian American Journalists Association and its Seoul subchapter, to which Lee belongs, wrote in their own statement: “an important share of reporting by international media outlets is done not just by ‘foreign correspondents’ but by reporters from the country they are reporting on who are fluent in the country’s language and culture.” A press secretary for President Moon responded with a blandly written blurb: “The current Korean government has fully guaranteed the freedom of press.” Moon’s office later told me, by email, “If she is in fact being threatened, we would consider it very serious and take appropriate measures.” The Democratic Party eventually scrubbed Lee’s name from its statement. 

Moon’s supporters, millions of whom took part in protests to unseat his predecessor, tend to be loyal. Zealous fans continued to attack Lee on Twitter, calling her a Yankee and a “black-haired turncoat,” sometimes appending sexist turns of phrase. NoCut News, a left-leaning outlet, suggested that Lee, Chosun Ilbo, and the Liberty Korea Party operate as a “three-way cartel,” and blamed the diplomatic failure in Hanoi on biased “articles like the one published by Bloomberg.” But Lee’s piece was hardly unique in its provocative tone; the intensity of its political afterlife was unforeseeable. I spoke with a foreign correspondent based in Seoul, who said of Lee and her article, “She was maybe a month on the job. I wouldn’t imagine that the hook or angle came from her. I imagine some editor thought it up. In terms of why or what there is within Bloomberg’s editorial stance that leads to that, they do seem hawkish.” (Bloomberg denied my request for an interview with Lee or her supervisor in Seoul, saying only, “We stand by our reporting and our reporter.” According to a source close to the situation, an editor based in the US assigned the story to Lee and wrote the headline.) 

It’s true that, to the frustration of Korean liberals, American coverage of the peninsula tends to be reactionary, informed by a Cold War–era view of power relations. But supporters of President Moon, a former pro-democracy activist and human rights attorney, were not uniformly aligned against Lee. Lim Jawoon, a lawyer and labor advocate, wrote in the Korean edition of HuffPost that it was “racially discriminatory” for the Democratic Party to go after Lee as aggressively as it did. “For me, to be honest,” Lim added, “that was more shocking than what Na said in her speech.”

 

Korea’s Democrats treated Lee less as a journalist than as a troll—a “foreign” one at that. By responding this way to coverage, they have, ironically, undercut the Moon administration’s authority to regulate disinformation, which flies across Korea just as rapidly as real news, spreading harm. Last October, Lee Nak-yeon, the prime minister, joined an expanding roster of world leaders vowing to prosecute the creators of “purposefully malicious” disinformation and “fake news” that threatens national security. It was a well-intended but vague declaration of war, a test balloon for a disconcertingly broad policy. What sorts of reporting might be deemed a threat to governance? Would insults to officials be criminally prosecuted as articles that disseminate lies about women or ethnic minorities go unpunished? 

Civil rights groups in Korea and abroad expressed concern about freedom of speech—it was bad enough that the National Security Act, an anti-Communist holdover from 1948 used to censor dissidents, was still in place. The Liberty Korea Party cynically agreed, accusing the administration of stifling political discourse. Yet the public had not forgotten Liberty Korea’s long tradition of abusing the National Security Act, nor the fact that Park Geun-hye, the party’s candidate in the 2012 presidential election, had been carried into office with the help of 1.2 million propagandistic tweets produced by Korea’s version of the CIA. The Park administration aggressively censored and harassed reporters; after Moon succeeded her, South Korea’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index went from 70th place to 43rd. 

Though Prime Minister Lee’s pledge was ostensibly about defending truth, it was also unmistakably political. Lee had been the target of disinformation just a few weeks earlier: in late September, conservative bloggers and social-media users reported falsely that he had paid tribute to Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s Communist founder, while attending the funeral of Vietnamese president Trần Đại Quang. The fabrication was intended to paint Lee as disloyal.  

News, fake and real, travels with incomparable speed in South Korea, which has the ideal conditions for an echo chamber.

In his push for more aggressive regulation, Lee characterized fake news as a threat to Korean democracy and invoked other countries’ recent legislative efforts, in particular Germany’s, as precedent. But the new German criminal law requiring digital platforms to delete “illegal content,” such as hate speech, has suffered from imprecision and a penumbra of authoritarianism. A new, hastily passed Singaporean law prohibiting “online falsehoods and manipulation” that are “against the public interest” has been criticized for its vagueness and breadth, and for applying not only to news websites and social media but also to encrypted-messaging systems like WhatsApp. Statutes meant to stem fake news in electioneering have similarly been denounced in places as disparate as Brazil, Croatia, Italy, and France. The situation is dire in Egypt, which has used a law prohibiting the broadcast of “false news with the aim of spreading chaos” to imprison Mahmoud Hussein, a reporter with Al Jazeera. Moreover, as David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on free expression, notes in his new book, Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet, no regulatory program can work without the cooperation of Facebook (including WhatsApp), Google (including YouTube), and Twitter; the challenge is to protect individual rights without “paradoxically increasing corporate power—American corporate power—to be in charge of vast swaths of global public forums.”

For now, the fallout from Lee Nak-yeon’s policy announcement and Youkyung Lee’s article for Bloomberg seems to have deferred any changes to media oversight in South Korea. And that’s for the best, says Park Kyung-sin, a law professor at Korea University, in Seoul. Though it’s unclear what would come of Lee Nak-yeon’s promised reforms, Park opposes any increase in civil or criminal penalties, and tells me that the country’s existing mechanisms to control speech—a muscular analogue to the Federal Communications Commission, potent laws against defamation and invasion of privacy, and limits on coverage during elections—are already excessive. Last year, a man was prosecuted for creating pro-Moon bots that commented on news stories; the primary charge, to which Park objects, was interfering with the business of Naver, Korea’s leading search engine and homepage. To Park, that sort of intervention smacks of censorship, and could undermine the ability of journalists to do—and share—their work. 

According to Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, most attempts to regulate content are both ineffective and dangerous. “How do you combat disinformation? You should look at it from a behavioral standpoint, rather than focusing on content,” she says. “It’s not the one-off sharing of articles. It’s campaigns by state and nonstate actors.” Kaye agrees, calling on internet companies to employ democratic principles in patrolling the boundaries of speech, and on governments to hold these businesses accountable.

Consider South Korea’s most resilient genre of disinformation, the North Korean conspiracy theory, which is having a moment on the national stage. The latest episode draws on old material: in May of 1980, military forces lethally suppressed a pro-democracy commune in the southern city of Gwangju, acting under direct orders from Chun Doo-hwan, who controlled the government at the time, and with the knowledge of the United States. It took years for the story to rise past censors, but almost as soon as it did, the South Korean right wing, nostalgic for postwar authoritarianism, blamed the massacre on invading North Koreans. In 2017, Chun, who was pardoned for his crimes and lives in a magnificent home in Seoul, wrote a memoir discrediting the witnesses of the Gwangju massacre and asserting North Korean involvement. 

Chun is now on trial for defamation. His wife, Lee Soon-ja, makes media appearances in his defense. In a recent propaganda interview with News Town TV, a YouTube channel, she looks up from her script to ask her interlocutor, “Why are we being punished?” Chun’s allies in the Liberty Korea Party, meanwhile, have tried to legitimate the theory of North Korean involvement; between December 2018 and February 2019, Korea’s Communications Standards Commission received about 200 complaints of false information related to the Gwangju massacre. In early February, three Liberty Korea representatives in the National Assembly invited Jee Man-won, a former politician and Alex Jones–style YouTube fabulist, to give formal testimony about Gwangju, and parroted his claims that the 1980 democracy protesters were, and still are, Communist agents. Gwangju denialism is the ultimate in fake news, yet more than 55,000 people subscribe to Jee’s channel. (YouTube would not agree to an interview, but Tutu Nguyen, the company’s head of publicity for the Asia Pacific region, emailed a list of “background points,” including the fact that, since December 2018, in South Korea, YouTube has used “information panels, linking to third-party sources around widely accepted events,” in order “to better surface credible news sources.”) 

“The right wing has started to make very good use of the internet,” Korea University’s Park tells me. But fake news, he says, cannot be eradicated through government regulation, and limitations on coverage will inevitably hobble journalism and public discourse. “No matter how false the information,” he argues, “we have to be able to talk and debate in order for the truth to emerge, step by step.” 

 

The three National Assembly members who so brazenly engaged in Gwangju denialism have since faced repercussions. One was expelled from the Liberty Korea Party, another was suspended for three months, and the third received a reprimand. The party had come under international pressure to respond: Martha Huntley and Barbara Peterson, American missionaries who were present in Gwangju at the time of the massacre, implored the government to discipline or remove the legislators from office. “Our husbands took the photographs used in Chun’s trial,” Huntley and Peterson wrote in an open letter, referring to images of a helicopter firing at civilians and of casualties being brought to a local hospital. “Democracy must be based upon truth, and people need to trust their lawmakers.”

Still, the fact that Gwangju conspiracy theories have leaped from fringe chat rooms to parliament, and that the Democratic Party would react so intemperately to Na Kyung-won’s use of the Bloomberg article, shows that South Korean democracy is “very vulnerable,” says Kap Su Seol, a cotranslator of Gwangju Diary, a key first-person account of the events. “In terms of institutions, Moon and Moon’s party are weak,” he explains. “Na couldn’t have spoken this way two years ago, when there was a revolution to impeach Park Geun-hye. Now she can say anything freely. She has incorporated the Taegukgi brigade’s agenda.” 

The other day, I spent a few hours surfing right-wing Korean YouTube. There I found slick, well-produced takes on “North Korean spies” in Gwangju; anti-Chinese propaganda; and Islamophobic tirades against Yemeni refugees. I watched shaky footage of Taegukgi brigade rallies, at which elderly conservatives were joined by a striking number of angry young men. I felt myself enter a kind of temporal loop. It was on YouTube that many Koreans had been radicalized, and now they had returned, stars of their own making. 

An estimated 84 percent of Koreans obtain their news online; in a recent survey, 78 percent of respondents said that they had watched a Web video in the past week. Many of the clips I encountered were built not just of opinions, but lies. Alarmed, I wondered what I—or the government, or a social-media company—could do. YouTube offers nine categories as the basis for a complaint—from “captions issue” to “harmful dangerous acts.” There is no button for “deception.”

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E. Tammy Kim is a freelance reporter and essayist whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and many other publications. She coedited 2016’s Punk Ethnography.