Learning from South Korean Spring

Psy, one of Korean media icon

This paper aims to describe the relationship between media and the political system in the Korean peninsula. This paper is based on the assumption that the media system has a close connection with several social aspects such as politics, economics, and ideology. In this respect, North Korea and South Korea are very interesting to analyzed to enrich the media studies.
There are several reasons why media studies in Korea are important to discuss. First, North and South Korea share a common culture, language, customs, and history, but later separated because of political reasons and ideology. The difference between the two countries is only at the level of political structure, while their citizens keep in touch and have a close brotherhood.
Second, differences in the political system influence the media system, especially the issues of ownership. On the one hand, North Korea keeps a closed-door policy, so that the media remains controlled by the state, while on the other hand, South Korea is embracing an open democratic system, opening the door for foreign investors. The result is that the media in South Korea is managed by a private media conglomerate, not the government.
Third, differences in the political system make South Korea more progressive than North Korea. It is influenced by the investment climate, and also a checks and balances system. This fact could be the reason why South Korean pop culture has spread to the rest of the world and become a global commodity.
This paper is based on the critical discourse analysis that was presented by Norman Fairclough (2003). To explain the media system in the two countries, there are three elements to be observed. First is the textual element. We will observe the extent to which the freedom of the media is controlled by the government. Second is context, which involves discursive practice concerning production and consumption aspects of media texts. We also discuss about the history of media as well as private ownership. Third is socio-cultural practice. We will discuss about how to influence the political system as well as the state ideology in the media system.

Media Text

There is not much information about the media landscape in North Korea. North Korea media is the most strictly controlled in the world. North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of the press and expression, but it is limited only to matters that flatter the state and its leader. The North Korean government strictly restricts information coming in and out of its territory. One example that may illustrate this control is the fact that the death of its leader Kim Jong Il is known international public only after two days post-death.
Article 53 of the North Korean Constitution protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but only if expressions are supportive of the government and the ruling party, the Workers' Party of Korea. As stated in the Constitution, the role of the press is to:"...serve the aims of strengthening the dictatorship of the proletariat, bolstering the political unity and ideological conformity of the people and rallying them behind the Party and the Great Leader in the cause of revolution.”
Not surprisingly, the media reports on North Korea are one-sided and exaggerated, playing "little or no role in gathering and disseminating vital information true to facts" and only providing propaganda for the regime. According to Yoon (2001) almost all news TV channels and radio news are propaganda. Its contents are mostly news about the leader Kim Jong-un as well as news about the badness of other countries, especially South Korea and the United States (U. S). Even some cartoon series for children also display negative propaganda about U. S..
The situation in South Korea is very different. Media in South Korea is dominated by entertainment aspects, including film, K-Pop music, dance, drama series, and also sitcoms. Media production is not only designed to meet the needs of Korean people in entertainment aspects, but also to be exported to some countries that makes Korea to become a trendsetter. Since early 2000, the Korean entertainment industry became a trendsetter in the world, especially in Southeast Asia. In fact, Korea is also expanding its entertainment industry to the U.S..


-       Historical Background

One of the interesting things to be discussed is how the two countries have the same historical context. Both of them were colonized by Japan, and then later split apart due to political factors and ideology option.
Though often attacked by its neighbors, Korea was independent until the late 19th Century. At that time, China sought to block growing Japanese influence on the Korean Peninsula and Russia was applying pressure for commercial gains there. The competition produced the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Japan emerged victorious from both wars and in 1910 annexed Korea as part of the growing Japanese empire. Japanese colonial administration was characterized by tight control from Tokyo and ruthless efforts to supplant Korean language and culture. Organized Korean resistance during the colonial era was generally unsuccessful, and Japan remained firmly in control of the Peninsula until the end of World War II in 1945.

The surrender of Japan in August 1945 led to the immediate division of Korea into two occupation zones, with the U.S. administering the southern half of the peninsula and the Soviet Union taking over the area to the north of the 38th parallel. This division was meant to be temporary until the U.S., U.K., Soviet Union, and China could arrange a trusteeship administration.
In December 1945, a conference convened in Moscow to discuss the future of Korea. A 5-year trusteeship was discussed, and a joint Soviet-American commission was established. The commission met intermittently in Seoul but deadlocked over the issue of establishing a national government. With no common political ideology between the north and the south, and reunification talk reached an impasse, and as a result the south created the Republic of Korea in August. One month later, the Soviets backed Kim Il-Sung and created the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Kim introduced a guiding philosophy of "juche" or self-reliance in North Korean life. In 1950, the North launched a massive surprise attack on the South. This invasion effectively stopped all progress toward reunification.
History of the North Korean media started since the establishment of the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on December 5, 1946. This institution is the state news agency of North Korea. The agency portrays the putative views of the Workers' Party of Korea and the North Korean government toward foreign consumption. KCNA is centrally located in the capital city of Pyongyang.
History of the media in South Korea began in 1948. In the reign of Lee Seung Man, newspapers began to be published. At that time, the government tightly controlled all media. Later in 1964, the government set up the radio and news agencies to promote government programs.

-       Production Process and The Ownership of Media

In North Korea, the media is managed and controlled by the state. KCNA is the only institution that supplies all the information required by the media. KCNA publishes the daily paper, Korean Central News (Chosn Chungyang T'ongsin), Photographic News (Sajin T'ongsin), and the Korean Central Yearbook (Chosn Chungyang Ynbo).
KCNA issues daily press releases in English, Russian, French, and Spanish; newscasts in these languages are beamed overseas. The Foreign Languages Press Group issues the monthly magazine Korea Today and the weekly newspaper the P'yongyang Times is published in English, Spanish, and French.
The media is strictly controlled by the government. As of mid-1993, there were eleven television stations, approximately two dozen AM stations, ten FM stations, eight domestic shortwave stations, and a powerful international shortwave station. The latter broadcast is in English, French, Spanish, German, and several Asian languages. Korean Central Broadcasting Station and P'yongyang Broadcasting Station (Radio P'yongyang) are the central radio stations; there are also several local stations and stations for overseas broadcasts.
A number of newspapers are published. Nodong simmun (Workers' Daily), the mouthpiece of the party Central Committee, claimed a circulation of approximately 1.5 million as of 1988. K lloja (The Worker), the theoretical mouthpiece of the party Central Committee, claimed a circulation of about 300,000 readers. Minju Chosn (Democratic Korea) is the government newspaper, and Nodong chngnyn (Working Youth) is the newspaper of the SWYL. There also are specialized newspapers for teachers, the army, and railway workers.
The South Korea media situation is different. Since 1980, when President Chun took over the authoritarian regime, the government started to intervene in media ownership. In 1980, the broadcasting companies were all merged into one and owned by the government. It also set up a new public institution to control advertising, Korean Broadcasting Advertisement Corporation (KOBACO). It was mandatory for KOBACO to manage and sell the entire broadcasting advertisement time to advertisers.
This shift of ownership was prompted by political motivations, yet, it provided economic influence. The media industry owned by the government was almost free of market influences as well as foreign impact. Foreign ownership was prohibited by law. Since the military regime collapsed and civilian government was established in the 1990s, the media industry has been accordingly transformed. 

A private broadcasting company was established in 1990 and a number of private local companies were also licensed. Along with political liberalization, new media have rapidly developed. The government has played a leading role in employing cable television, internet, DBS and digital television. These new media need enormous financial resources that only the private sector can afford. After a five-year-long debate in the National Assembly, a new Broadcasting Act was passed in 2000. Privatization and opening up the market are the main premises of the new law.
During earlier bureaucratic authoritarian regimes, foreign capital was not allowed to invest in the media industry. Now, however, the new government is welcoming foreign capital into any industry including the media.

Table 1
The Ownership of Media in South Korea



Government 100 %
MBC Fund 70%,
Chongsoo Fund 30%

Local Stations

City in each province

Private companies 30 %

Special Stations


Government 100%
Religious fund

Source: Data from Sunny Yoon, an Assistant Professor at Hanyang University, Seoul, Korea

Now, foreign capital is allowed to invest in the Korean media up to 33% of total stocks under the new Broadcasting Act. For the last two years, transnational media firms including News Corporation and Time Warner have begun to invest directly in Korean media companies. One of the biggest transnational media moguls, Rupert Murdock, introduced foreign capital into the Korean media industry in February 1998. News Corp, Murdoch’s company, bought 15% of Dacom Satellite Multimedia System (DSMS) stocks. Since Murdock has broken through the Korean media industry, transnational media firms vigorously knock the door. Presently, Time Warner is one of the biggest investors in Korean cable channels.
Table 2
Foreign Investment in Korean Media Industry

Korean Firms

Foreign Firms

(million US$)


C&M cable

Olympus Capital (US)


Mirae Cable
Scudder Kemper Investment (US)

On*Media (5 cable channels)
Time Warner (US)
Capital International (US)
Strategic Alliance
CJ entertainment (4 cable channels, film production)
Strategic Alliance
Joint venture
Next Media (cable)
Japanese fund
100(10billion Yen)
20 (15% of stocks)
Thrunet (ISP)
Cisco (US)
Digital One (Aus)
HeyAnita.com (US)
Microsoft (US)
Contents providing
Joint venture
Dream Line (ISP)
Microsoft (US)
Media Plus (production)
Morita Investment (Japan)
Sony LCI (US)
Source: Data from Sunny Yoon, an Assistant Professor at Hanyang University, Seoul, Korea

Conclusion: Socio Cultural Practice

The differences in media system are influenced by socio-political differences in each country's ideology. The North Korean system chose a communist as ideology, so the media policy is also based on this system that placed state as a central role. Through the communist system, foreign capital was rejected. On the other hand, South Korea chose the policy of capitalism, particularly since the 1990s.
In conclusion, we can draw the differences between media in North Korea and South Korea on the analogy of Hallin and Mancini (2004):

Table 3
The Differences between North Korea and South Korea Media System

North Korea

South Korea

State ownership

Development of mass press

Political parallelism


State interventions








Getting lower




Fairclough, N. (2003). Analysing discourse: Textual analysis for social research. London: Routledge.
Hallin, D. C., & Mancini, P. (2004). Comparing media systems: Three models of Media and Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Yoon, S. (2001). Democratization and the mass media: comparative perspectives from Europe and Asia. A paper that presented in  Bellagio, Italy, 9-13 April 2001.

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