Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.08.25

Dear Seoul, You Are Not Beijing

JBpress on August 22, 2014

A Sankei Shimbun bureau chief received an official summons over an article he wrote about the leader of the country where he is posted. Is he stationed in Beijing where there is no rule of law? No, he is in Seoul and wrote a column introducing already printed stories on President Park Geun-hye.

Tatsuya Kato, the incumbent Seoul bureau chief of Japan's conservative daily Sankei Shimbun, reportedly appeared on August 18 at the Seoul Central District Prosecutor's Office after being summoned over the alleged "defamation" of the Korean President.

The silent majority of Japanese were not surprised that a conservative Korean civic organization filed a defamation suit against the Sankei's Seoul bureau on August 9; this is by no means extraordinary or unusual by South Korean standards.

What did surprise them was that the office of the South Korean president has expressed its intention to charge Kato with libel in civil and criminal suits and that the local prosecutor's office responded to the suit with concrete legal measures.

Many in Tokyo were flabbergasted that the prosecutor's office actually summoned a foreign journalist who, citing stories or questions published by local Korean media, wrote an article on August 3 about the whereabouts of President Park during the April 16 Sewol ferry tragedy.

Kato's article was primarily based on parliamentary testimony by a top Korean presidential aide, a column in the Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper, and other related stories and information about President Park's rumored "secret meeting."

This is not the first time a Japanese bureau chief has been questioned. In 1993 the then-bureau chief of Fuji Television was arrested for obtaining classified military intelligence from a South Korean naval intelligence officer. This time, however, no classified information was involved.

The Sankei, while accepting the investigation, stated that, "It is puzzling that the article has been seen as a problem." The conservatives in Japan are furious and even the liberals, who tend to be more pro-Korean and anti-Japanese government, echo the Sankei's statement.

A legendary Tokyo-based liberal commentator expressed concern, saying, "It is unbelievable to see a foreign journalist investigated for writing an article which quoted stories or rumors which have been already printed in the local media."

He added that "If South Korea claims that she is a republic of liberal democracy and the rule of law, such politically discriminatory treatment of foreign journalists would only undermine the image of Seoul in the international community."

The silent majority of Japanese, many of whom still believe that there should and could be a rapprochement between Tokyo and Seoul, were once again reminded of cases of irrational anti-Japanese behavior by the South Korean government.

They are also puzzled because they had thought that South Korea was different from North Korea or China and that Seoul shares universal values with them, including freedom of the press and the rule of law, and their impartial application to Koreans and foreigners alike.

The South Korean government reportedly requested that the Sankei withdraw Kato's article but the Sankei declined. The principle of non-discrimination, however, requires Seoul to also request that the Chosun Ilbo delete the original story which Kato quoted. To do otherwise would not be just.

The recent investigation of Kato raises serious doubts over whether the South Korean government would honor the aforementioned basic universal values including freedom of speech and the principle of non-discrimination.

Nonetheless, the silent majority of Japanese are calm enough. They know that this did not happen because the South Korean government is becoming illiberal or undemocratic but that this was simply caused by the Park administration's growing weaker and more vulnerable to public criticism.

The silent majority of Japanese would likely not overreact, even if, say, a New York Times Tokyo bureau chief wrote an online column, something similar to Kato's, about a Japanese Prime Minister. They would be critical of and opposed to any discriminatory legal intervention by the Prime Minister's office.

This is the essence of democracy. Given the past history of pre-democratic South Korea, the silent majority of South Koreans must be fully aware of the danger of such interventions. Many in Tokyo hope that a more rational approach will prevail in Seoul.

If it doesn't and domestic political pressures compromise universal values in South Korea by forcing the government to take extraordinary measures, it is ominous, if not yet disastrous, for the future of South Korea's relations with Japan as well as with the rest of the world.