Struggles for Modernization, Liberation, and
Democratization in the History of the Modern Korean Press
Professor, Department of Communication and Information,
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
1. Modernization and Resistance against Foreign Invasion
1) Government-Published Hansong Sunbo
In Western European countries, newspapers were initiated for relatively simple and
modest motives: the communication of information to subscribers and the pursuit of
financial reward on the part of publishers. They took a gradual line of development over
a long period. However, Korean newspapers were introduced with a clear objective and
ideal in mind: the modernization of the nation and the enlightenment of the people.
They were one of the organizations that played key roles in modern Korean history. In
fact, they played a double role: they introduced foreign culture and civilization to the
public and they resisted the foreign invasion.
The earliest Korean newspapers were published in the late nineteenth century, when the
Choson Kingdom began to establish formal diplomatic relations with several Western
powers and sign treaties with them. The Hermit Kingdom signed a modern diplomatic
treaty with Japan in 1876, and various treaties were signed with the United States
(1882), Great Britain (1883), Germany (1883), Russia (1884) and France (1886). It was
only natural for the Korean people to become aware of the necessity to strengthen a
nation they suddenly found to be backward.
The government and the modernizing faction of the ruling elite decided that the most
efficient way to educate people was through newspapers. It was with this in mind that
the first Korean newspaper, the Hansong Sunbo was published in October 1883 by the
newly formed government publication agency Bakmunguk, a government organization.
The newspaper was published in classical Chinese, which was used in official
documents and served as the traditional written language for the members of the ruling
elite, who were invariably well versed in Chinese classics.
Hansong was the official name of the Korean capital at that time, now known as Seoul,
„sun‟ (pronounced SOON) means a 10-day period, a basic unit of life cycle under the
lunar calendar system, and „bo‟ meant news reports. The title's meaning, therefore, was,
„A newspaper published in Seoul every ten days.‟ The newspaper offered a great
stimulus for the modernization of Korean society and drew the attention of officials and
intellectuals to the outside world. Most of the stories were on politics, history,
geography, science, and culture of various nations in the world, the bulk of which were
copied or translated from Chinese and Japanese newspapers.
Bakmunguk started the “Hansong Jubo (Hansong Weekly)” on January 25, 1886. The
new weekly showed improvement over its predecessor in some respects.
Firstly, the 10-day cycle, traditionally used in Far Eastern nations, was replaced by a
seven-day cycle. This deviation from tradition corresponds to conformity to Western
Secondly, the weekly cycle enabled a more prompt reporting. Its function and influence
as a carrier of news were strengthened, enabling a more active flow of information.
Thirdly, stories in vernacular Korean characters were also run. The Weekly‟s stories
could be classified into three categories: (1) those in Chinese ideograms only, (2) those
in both Chinese and Korean characters, (3) those in Korean characters only. The use of
Korean characters, or Hangul, was aimed at the popularization of the newspaper. The
use of Hangul in an official gazette was a historical decision, which implied a great
change in policies.
Hangul, created by King Sejong and his scholars in 1443, is an alphabet system which
can be assembled to reflect the basic syllabic structure of the Korean language and is
very easy to learn. However, it was regarded by most male members of the ruling elite
only as convenient and accurate phonetic symbols, not as a decent vehicle to
communicate and record elevated thoughts, although there were many honorable
exceptions in the history of Korean literature. It was mainly women and people from
the lower classes who used Hangul in everyday usage.
Fourthly, the government extended the newspaper staff at Bakmunguk. The government
officials on the newspaper staff were the first Korean journalists. The extended pool of
journalists created a more fertile ground for the further development of the Korean press.
Fifthly, the Weekly ran advertisements. The first newspaper advertisement, featuring the
products of German merchant Edward Meyer & Co., appeared in the fourth issue of the
Weekly, published on February 22, 1886. The 22nd issue carried an advertisement for
Japanese merchandise, including dye and dyed wool.
The Hansong Sunbo and its successor Hansong Weekly discussed various topics,
including world affairs, institutions, culture and the histories of foreign countries. Their
aim was to educate and illuminate the people, in order to make the nation more wealthy
and powerful. Many of the stories were on science, geography and astronomy.
2) The First Non-government Newspaper: The Toknip Shinmun
The age of private, non-governmental newspapers began on April 7, 1896, when Seo
Jae-pil (he used the name Philip Jaisohn when he lived in exile in the United States)
launched the Toknip Shinmun (whose English version was The Independent). The
newspaper had an epoch-making significance in the history of the Korean press, as it
was initiated by a private citizen and run on subscription fees and income from
advertisements, not on government funds as was the case with the preceding two
Around the time the Toknip Shinmun was launched, Japan was promoting a more
aggressive policy toward Korea. In 1894, Japan defeated China, which traditionally had
exercised a great deal of influence on the Korean Peninsula, and the tension was
mounting between Japan and Russia as the latter had an intention to make inroads into
the Korean Peninsula. The two countries‟ competition for dominance over the peninsula
led to the Russo-Japanese War (1904). The small Hermit Kingdom, Choson, faced a
critical crossroads: it was under pressure from various foreign powers vying for
domination and the materially superior weapons and modernized institutions of western
civilization. The crisis was going to decide the fate of Korea as a sovereign nation and
its continued independence and development.
Seo‟s Toknip Shinmun was therefore launched at a critical time in Korean history. He
was not a simple journalist, but a thinker and practical revolutionary who tried to drive
the pre-modern Korea into modern times. Some Korean scholars of Korean press
history liken him to the French enlightenment philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778). He
was a prescient intellectual who promoted a reform movement in the middle of the
national crisis caused by fierce contests of foreign forces around the peninsula.
Prior to the launch of the Toknip Shinmun, Seo studied medicine, obtained an M.D.
degree, and worked as a physician in the United States, where he had been living since
December 1884, when he fled from his country after a short-lived coup by a reformist
faction failed. He returned to Korea when a change in the domestic political situation
took a turn more cordial to his amnesty.
Seo‟s insights on the modernization of the country, combined with his energy for the
newspaper, were supported by government subsidies. The newspaper was published in
two editions, Korean and English. The government subsidized part of the fund needed
for the launch, furnished the office building used by the paper, discounted postal costs
and offered facilities for the newspaper‟s journalists.
However, Russia and the reactionary camp in the government plotted Seo‟s extradition
when the newspaper ran stories that disclosed Koreas worsening situation under the
influence of foreign powers and the corruption of high-ranking public officials. Seo
returned to the United States in May 1898, and the newspaper closed down Dec. 4,
The Toknip Shinmun made the importance of newspapers known to the general public.
Its editorial policies, as manifested in its disclosures of scandals involving government
officials and its publication of various stories aimed at enlightening the general public,
were handed down from generation to generation, substantiating the tradition that still
persists to the present day: the patriotic “enlightenment” press introduced in the last
decade of the 19th century and the first of the 20th was able to adapt itself to ever
changing circumstances, from the anti-imperialist struggle under the Japanese
occupation from 1910 to 1945, to the anti-authoritarian, pro-democratic press after the
liberation in August 1945.
Many privately published newspapers appeared in 1898, possibly encouraged by the
success of the Toknip Shinmun. Some Japanese in Seoul began to publish the Hansong
Shinbo (Hansong News). „Hansong‟ was the official name of Seoul at that time, as
written in Chinese characters and pronounced in the Korean style. Christian
missionaries from Western countries also printed weekly newspapers in the print shops
they set up in Korea, as the shops were dedicated to missionary purposes. The English-
language magazine Korean Repository was launched in January 1892. Other notable
newspapers or magazines included the Chinyukhoe Hoebo (Bulletin of the Chinyukhoe),
published in Tokyo first in February 1896 by Korean students studying in Japan, and the
Daejyoshyon Doknip Hyophoebo (The Bulletin of the Society for the Independence of
the Great Korea), published from November 1896 by the Toknip (Independence)
3) Appearances of Daily Newspapers
The year 1898 may be taken as a demarcation date in the history of the Korean press.
That year saw what is considered the formation of “the press” as a distinctive social,
political, and professional group.
There were many professional, semi-professional or amateur “journalists” active at that
time at many newspapers, including the Maeil Shinmun (The Everyday Newspaper),
published by students of Paejae Hakdang, the Dyeguk Shinmun (The Empire
Newspaper) and the Hwangsong Shinmun (The Imperial Capital Newspaper), two of
the most important nationalist newspapers, as well as the Toknip Shinmun, the Hansong
Shinbo and various newspapers and magazines published by Christian missionaries.
One of the most notable events of that year was the formation of the first Korean
organization of journalists, “The Friendship Society of Newspaper Companies”,
dedicated to enhancing mutual friendship between journalists and discussing the
freedom of the press and the management of news companies.
The rapid growth of the privately published newspaper may be ascribed to two facts.
The first is the social situation: the modernizing, Westernizing trend was irrevocable,
and the reformist movement was actively debated in the Toknip Society and the various
rallies and public discussions it hosted. The desire for information was aroused, and the
publication of newspapers was regarded as a tool of social reforms. Secondly, the elite
stratum of Korean society became confident that a newspaper could stand alone as a
profitable enterprise, as the Toknip Shinmun showed.
The use of only the Korean alphabet in the Toknip Shinmun was one of the distinct
features its imitators followed. All missionary and Christian papers, like The Christian
Advocate (launched Feb. 2, 1897) and The Christian News (launched April 1, 1897),
used vernacular Korean only and refrained from writing in classical Chinese. Other
newspapers, including the Hyopshyonghoe Hoebo (Bulletin of the Hyopsonghoe, Jan. 1,
1898), the Maeil Shinmun (April 9, 1898), the Kyongsong Shinmun (March 2, 1898),
the Dyeguk Shinmun (August 10, 1989) followed suit in establishing the “Korean only”
custom. However, some continued to use classical Chinese, as was the case with the
Hwangsong Shinmun (Sep. 5, 1898) and the Shisa Chongbo (Jan. 22, 1899).
The Hyopshyonghoe Hoebo-Maeil Shinmun played an important role in the early
history of the modern Korean press, although it published for only a little over a year.
Hyopshyonghoe Hoebo, which means “the Bulletin of the Hyopsonghoe,” was published
by the “Hyopsonghoe” student council of the Paejae Hakddang (Paejae School). The
school was founded and run by the American Methodist missionary, Henry Gerhard
Appenzeller. The newspaper was launched on January 1, 1898 as a weekly, but when it
drew a favorable reaction from the public, Paejae students suspended its weekly
publication and launched a daily newspaper from April 9, 1898, changing its title to the
Since the Toknip Shinmun was published only three times a week at that time, the Maeil
Shinmun had the distinction of being the first Korean daily. It provided a fresh impact
on Korean society and quickly grew conscious of the necessity for modernization,
acting as a “triggering device” for the budding Korean press. The newspaper was
unfortunately short-lived and it printed what became its last issue on April 4, 1899. The
newspaper‟s life was cut short for a number of factors: it was initiated by inexperienced
young students without external assistance or subsidies, and Korean society was not
ready for a financially self-sufficient daily. Also, changes in the political scene rendered
many of the newspaper‟s patrons unable to offer further support.
2. The Japanese Invasion and the Anti-imperialist Movement by the Press
1) Korean-language newspapers published outside of Korea
Japan established an indisputable dominance over the Korean Peninsula when it
emerged as the victor after brief exchange of fire in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904.
The Japanese themselves began to publish many newspapers in Korea from this period
and began to exert direct influence on newspapers published by Koreans, striking a
deadly blow to the freedom of the press.
The newspapers published by the Japanese in Korea became the mouthpieces of
Japanese imperialists, and they justified the increasing Japanese influence and
aggression on the Korean Peninsula by spreading propaganda about the Japanese
victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War.
Japan set up the Office of the Resident-General in Korea to intervene in internal matters
involving Korea. It published several newspapers, including the Japanese-language
Keijo Daily and the English-language Seoul Press for propaganda purposes, hoping to
impress the public in Korea and lead the international opinion favorable to Japan.
The Korean-owned newspapers at that time were divided into two distinct lines: those
that were pro-Japanese and those that were nationalist and anti-Japanese. The former
sympathized with the Japanese advances and influences in Korea, or even supported
Japanese aggression, while the latter demanded restoration of the full sovereignty of
From this period, Koreans living in the United States and Russia began to publish
newspapers of their own. The first such newspaper was the Shinjyo Shinmun, (first
issued on March 27, 1904) published in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the Kongnip Shinbo
followed suit in San Francisco (November 14, 1905). The latter changed its title to the
Shinhan Minbo (New Korea), from its February 10, 1909 issue and continued to run
along anti-Japanese lines during the Japanese occupation of Korea.
In Shanghai, China, the Toknip Shinmun, a revival of the defunct newspaper in title only,
was launched on August 21, 1919, in the wake of the March 1919 movement against the
Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Its president, Lee Kwang-su, was a
novelist, and it maintained a close relationship with the Provisional Government in
exile until it ceased publication in 1925.
The influx of Korean immigrants into Vladivostok, Russia, began in the 1870s, but the
publication of Korean newspapers there came later than in the United States. The Haejo
Shinmun was launched on February 26, 1908, and newspapers continued to be
published by Koreans there, sometimes under different names, such as the Daedong
Gongbo, the Daeyangbo, Gwonop Shinmun, the Hanin Shinbo, the Chonggu Shinbo and
the Daehaninjonggyobo. From 1938 and onwards, Korean-language newspapers like
the Songong (the Vanguard) and the Lenin Gichi (the Banner of Lenin) began to be
published in Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan. One of the Korean-language
newspapers still published in Russia, the Koryo Daily, can trace its roots to the Haejo
Shinmun in 1908.
In Manchuria, various Korean-language newspapers were published after the epoch-
making March 1919 Independence Movement. Although the publication of Korean-
language newspapers in Manchuria followed similar precedents in the Americas and
Russia, they exceeded the American and Russian forerunners in their size of circulations.
Manchuria‟s proximity to the Korean Peninsula, the already large and still growing size
of the Korean populace, and the establishment of Japanese dominance over the region
after the Manchurian Incident of 1931 -- all of these made possible the regular,
continued publication of a Korean language daily in Manchuria, which was unique
outside of the Korean Peninsula. Many Korean journalists who used to be active on the
Korean Peninsula went over to this region to engage themselves in journalistic activities.
2) Press Campaigns for Sovereignty, Liberation and Independence
The early Korean newspapers criticized the economic and financial invasion by Japan,
Russia and surrounding Western powers, the takeover of business interests in Korea
through diplomatic tricks and coercion and military aggression through undisguised
The newspapers were not content in resisting the foreign invasion just in their pages,
however, and launched a public campaign to inspire the spirit of sovereign
independence. Two of the largest of them were the “Pay Back the National Debt”
campaign of 1907 and 1908 and the “Literacy” and “V. Narod” (meaning “into the
people” in Russian) campaigns of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Another big campaign
initiated by the press was the “Find the Separated Family Members” campaign in the
1980s, by the state-run Korean Broadcasting System (KBS).
The “Pay Back the National Debt” campaign was a massive nationalist movement
begun on the initiative of the Korean press. When Korea was suffering from a severe
debt burden roughly equal to the annual budget of the Korean government as a result
the economic invasion of Japan, the newspapers launched a campaign to pay back the
government debt to Japan. The spread of the campaign to all parts of the nation was
made possible by the absolute support and aid of the newspapers. Although eventually
unsuccessful, the national movement inspired by this campaign united the Korean
people and stirred Koreans to patriotic actions, strengthening the nationalist camp. This
was the first time the Korean press played a direct role in such a large-scale movement,
and this campaign was the forerunner of many similar campaigns by the press.
The “literacy campaign”, from 1929 to 1936, was a large enterprise conducted by the
Chosun Ilbo and the Dong-A Ilbo. The two Korean newspapers distributed teaching
materials on Korean characters (Hangul), hoping to improve the literacy of the rural
populace and enlighten illiterate farmers. Student volunteers offered to teach the
farmers free of charge, hoping to elevate the nationalist spirit among them.
The press rendered remarkable service in resisting the foreign invasion and aggression.
On the other hand, some sectors in the Korean press made the error of justifying the
Japanese aggression by characterizing it as nothing more than a sign of changing times.
Some even assisted in the economic invasion of Japan and the Western powers. After
liberation in 1945, their philosophy had the adverse effect of indiscriminately accepting
Western norms and transplanting Western standards.
Newspaper advertisements before and after the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910
helped foreign products undermine the domestic market, dismantling the traditional
domestic economy. The press shouted for the restoration of the sovereignty of Korea on
one page and promoted the sales of foreign products on another.
However, Korean journalists before the 1910 colonization tried to inspire patriotism and
the “Korean spirit”. Since foreign culture first began to enter the nation, traditional
value systems began to become unraveled. The press tried to enlighten the upper classes
and the general public to preserve and enhance Korean tradition and identity.
3. The Oppression of the Press by the Japanese Government-General in Korea
1) Judicial and Administrative Measures
Japan began to rule the Korean Peninsula as a colony from August 29, 1910 with the
promulgation of the treaty of Japans annexation of Korea. Korea‟s former official name,
Daehan Chekuk (the Empire of Korea), was abolished and the Government-General
was installed to administer Japanese rule over the Korean Peninsula.
The Government-General‟s policies toward the Korean press were based on two
methods. The first was the harsher of the two, and oppression and control were used.
The latter was a form of indirect control through propaganda and appeasement. This
carrot-and-stick policy was an old trick from the end of the nineteenth century, when
Japan began to try to establish a dominant influence over Korea.
The first harsh measure taken by Japan was the most radical—constraining Koreans
from publishing newspapers. The second step involved the regulation of existing
Korean newspapers. In the 1910s, the Japanese imperialists did not allow any Korean to
publish a newspaper. In 1920, one year after the March 1919 Movement, Japan allowed
a small number of privately published Korean newspapers. By the middle of the decade
it had approved just three—the Dong-A Ilbo, the Chosun Ilbo and the Shidae Ilbo— but
the principles of the aforementioned first step were kept intact, as no more were allowed.
The permitted Korean newspapers were also subject to “page regulations” and outright
The appeasement policy was a combination of various tactics. The Government-General
tried to weaken the anti-Japanese trend by publicizing imperialist polices in official
gazettes. As was mentioned earlier, the Government-General published three gazettes
that it would use as its mouthpieces, the Korean-language Maeil Shinbo, the Japanese-
language Keijo Daily and the English-language Seoul Press.
The outbreak of the March 1919 Movement influenced the Government-General to
announce a policy change dubbed “culture politics”, which included the approval of
three newspapers published by Koreans. The Japanese imperialists were trying to
disguise their rule as something more munificent by allowing a few Korean newspapers
to be published in a limited manner. The rapid spread of underground newspapers,
printed all over the nation in secrecy, played a role in the Government-General‟s
decision, because those unsanctioned newspapers were demanding the liberation and
independence of Korea and denouncing the exploitation and oppression committed by
It was in this vein that the three Korean dailies, the Chosun Ilbo, the Dong-A Ilbo, and
the Shisa Shinmun, were founded. The last, which took a pro-Japanese stance, ceased
publication a year later. In 1924, the Shidae Ilbo, came into existence, subsequently
changing its name to the Joong-oe Ilbo, the Joongang Ilbo and finally to the Choson
Joongang Ilbo. The first two are currently the most important newspapers in modern-
day Korea. Though they were closed down by the Government General in 1940, they
resumed publication after liberation in 1945.
The direct oppression of the press by the Government General involved both
prearranged and “ex post facto” steps. The former involved monitoring and censorship,
and the latter included judicial punishments and administrative measures. The
“administrative measures” consisted of preventing the distribution the newspaper or
striking out articles. These steps were often followed by “judicial measures”, meaning
that the Japanese authorities took legal steps against journalists connected to the
'problematic' writing. Punishments included the imposition of fines or incarceration.
The Japanese colonial government agency in charge of newspapers, magazines and
other published material was the Publications Department of the Police Affairs Division
of the Government-General. The Department had a standing Censorship Subsection,
which classified the problematic material into four classes: those subject to notice,
caution, warning and suppression. The first three involved modification of articles,
while the stories belonging to the last category were subject to complete deletion. All
stories about the liberation or independence movement, and those which were deemed
“blasphemous to the august dignity of the Japanese Imperial Family” were subject to
such suppression. Stories denying the legitimacy of Japanese rule or those related to
“dangerous thoughts” such as socialism or anarchism were also strictly prohibited.
The Korean press suffered a great deal under Japanese rule. Korean journalists were
routinely thrown into jail or heavily fined, and the regular publication of newspapers
became difficult when faced with censorship, seizure or forced suspension of
publication. In the 20 years and 5 months from 1920 to 1940, the Dong-A Ilbo and the
Chosun Ilbo had their publications suspended four times each, and they were both
eventually shut down in August 1940. In addition, the Joong-oe Ilbo and the Choson
Joongang Ilbo were each suspended once, and the Gae-byok ('Creation,' 'Dawn,' or
'Convulsion'), the most prominent monthly in the 1920s, was forced to suspend
publication once. Deletion and seizure of individual stories and issues were too frequent
to merit discussion here.
2) Struggle for Freedom of Press by Journalist Groups
Korean journalists tried to resist the oppression and defend the freedom of the press by
forming associations or organizations. The first association of journalists in Korea was
formed in the late nineteenth century, when the Toknip Shinmun was being published.
Two years after the Toknip Shunmun was inaugurated, the Maeil Shinmun, the
Hwangsong Shinmun and the Dyeguk Shinmun came into existence, and the co-
existence of many newspapers led to the formation of the “Friendship Society of
Newspaper Companies”, dedicated to enhancing mutual friendship between journalists
and improvements in the freedom of the press and the management of news companies.
The Society, the first journalist group in Korea, formed at the dawn of Korean
journalism, was cosmopolitan in composition as well as in spirit. The group was joined
not only by newspapers published by Koreans, but also by those founded and run by
Japanese or Westerners. The Society had a regular meeting on the second Saturday of
each month at the office of whichever newspaper hosting the month's meeting. General
conventions were also slated to be held twice a year.
The main issues the group focused on were the problems related to the freedom of the
press, the management of newspapers and the enhancement of friendship between
publications. In January 1899, the group discussed the first press-related bill being
prepared by the government for legislation. The group collected and studied the press-
related laws in Japan and various Western countries and advised the government to
consult them in drafting the law.
The organization, consisting of journalists from Korea, Japan and the U.S., showed the
overall direction of the journalist groups that were to be formed afterwards. Journalistic
organizations (as distinct from the corporations) became the center of Korean
journalists‟ solidarity, as can be seen in the cases of “Mumyonghoe” in the Japanese
colonial period and the specialized professional groups that were formed after the 1945
The common patterns which emerge consistently in different groups in different periods
include (1) safeguarding and extending the freedom of the press, (2) cooperation for the
growth of media corporations, (3) defending the professional interests of journalists, (4)
upgrading the quality of journalists and professional standards, (5) interchanges with
the foreign press.
The oppression of the press by the Government-General was harsh in 1920, when the
Dong-A Ilbo and Chosun Ilbo were launched. It was for this reason that Mumyonghoe,
the most prominent journalist organization of the Japanese colonial era, was formed on
November 27, 1921. The articles of the association indicated “the extension of the
freedom of the press, and the protection of the members‟ interests" as its objectives. The
only qualification for membership was that one be Korean journalist, and such
inclusiveness enabled publishers, editors and reporters to unite under the same ideals
and objectives. The association‟s objectives included the promotion of culture, the
expansion of the freedom of the press, the proper guidance of public opinion, the
vindication of the honor and rights of the members and friendship between members.
It was on November 19, 1924 that the city desk reporters formed the Steel Pen Club.
From its inception, membership in the club was restricted to journalists at the city desks
of various newspapers. It was one of the two most influential groups of Korean
journalists, along with the all-embracing Mumyonghoe.
Mumyonghoe played a central role in the preparation committee of the “Association for
Remedying the Famine in Korea”, held at 6:00 p.m., on September 2, 1925 in the
YMCA Hall. It arranged for newspapers to report on the pitiable conditions in all parts
of the nation caused by severe droughts, and the funds for operating the preparation
committee were financed by Mumyonghoe. From then on, the group‟s activities were
not confined to purely journalistic fields, and it participated in a variety of social issues
to play a leading role in forming public opinion.
When the June 1926 Student Movement, a recapitulation of the March 1919
Independence Movement, began, Mumyonghoe convened an extraordinary session of
its executive committee on July 8 at the YMCA Hall to publish a declaration to
“impeach the Education authorities and the administrators in Korea”. The groups most
memorable reporting was its coverage of the “Wiwon incident”, in which six Korean
homes were burned down and 28 Koreans were massacred by Japanese police officers
in the border town of Wiwon-gun, North Pyongan Province. Mumyonghoe sent a
special correspondent to cover the incident, which led to revelations of the Japanese
atrocities in the Dong-A Ilbo and the Chosun Ilbo.
Mumyonghoe and the Steel Pen Club jointly hosted the All-Korean Journalist
Convention in 1925 and struggled against the oppression of the Korean press by
Japanese imperialists, but their activities shriveled after the mid-1920s. The Japanese
imperialists ordered the Dong-A Ilbo and the Chosun Ilbo to close down on August 10,
1940, one year before Japan suddenly and deliberately attacked Pearl Harbor to start the
4. Struggle for Democracy after Liberation
1) The Press under the Division of the Peninsula
The only Korean-language daily at the time of the Japanese surrender to the Allies on
August 15, 1945 was the Maeil Shinbo, the official gazette of the Japanese imperialists.
It barely remained alive during World War II, publishing on a single sheet of a two-page
tabloid paper, because paper and ink, like almost all other commodities, were scarce.
However, there was a sudden deluge of newspapers after Liberation, and the combined
number of members of two organizations, the Newspapermen Association of Korea and
the Newspapermen Society of Korea, stood at 971. The sudden appearances of fresh
newspapers was partly due to the disappearance of the previous ban on the publication
of newspapers by Koreans, but many of the newspapers were created with a specific
aim in mind, namely to assist the political aims of a particular political faction or group.
Consequently, most of these newspapers had only small circulations.
The government of the Republic of Korea, launched on the southern half of the Korean
Peninsula on August 15, 1948, took a tough stance against communists and North
Korea. It was affected by the acute political confrontation between the North and the
South. In South Korea, where a liberal democratic political system was avowedly
pursued, there was a flood of fresh newspapers, which was incompatible with the socio-
economic situation of the country at the time. On the other hand, in North Korea, the
many newspapers there were systematically transformed into organizing apparatus of
the state authority. The Rodong Shinmun and the Minju Choson (Democratic Korea),
the official gazettes of the Workers‟ Party and the North Korean government, occupied
the highest and most prestigious positions in the system—above the regional papers
published by party or state apparatuses in the Provinces and bulletins of the local youth
leagues and trade unions.
From then on, the North Korean media played the role of a propagandist for party lines
and policies, in conformity with an ideology that provided a very sharp contrast with
that of South Korea. The two Koreas were building up mutually antagonistic press
systems under contrasting political systems.
In the 1950s, from the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, which ended in 1953, to the
historical upheaval created by the April 1960 Student Revolution, the relationship
between the press and the government in South Korea was characterized by continuous
confrontation and antagonism. The press criticized the government by pointing to the
various misdeeds of government officials, drawing the anger of those in power. The
power and the press were entangled in ever-increasing enmity.
Although the main thrust of the April 1960 Student Revolution came from university
students, it was the press that triggered the revolutionary sentiment and moved the
students to action. The cumulative effect of repeated attacks by the press and the
opposition parties toppled the Syngman Rhee regime. Syngman Rhee and his Liberal
Party oppressed the press in various ways, as manifested most dramatically in their use
of unabashed terrorism against the Taegu Maeil in 1955 and the closure of the
Kyunghyang Shinmun in 1959.
The former incident ended in a complete victory for the regional newspaper over the
ruling party‟s violence. The many atrocities and misdeeds of various right-wing groups,
who paraded their wrongdoings as “anti-communist patriotism” under the protection of
those in power, were uncovered by a courageous journalist. It was a great victory for the
defense of the freedom of the press. The forced shutdown of the Kyunghyang Shinmun
was the strongest incident of press oppression committed by Rhee, but it also drew the
strongest struggle from the press, leading to the demise of the Rhee regime.
2) Formation of Professional Organizations and Newspaper Studies Departments
In the late 1950s, professional organizations of journalists were formed to enhance
South Korean journalists' awareness of responsibility and quality in reporting. It is also
noteworthy that media-related studies departments began to appear in four-year
universities as independent departments.
The first department of newspaper studies in a four-year university was at Hongik
University, in March 1954. Similar departments were established at Chungang (1957),
Ewha Woman‟s (1960), Hanyang (1963), Korea, Kyunghee (1965), Sungkyunkwan
(1967) and Sogang (1968) Universities.
In 1968, the Professional Graduate School of Newspaper Studies was finally created at
Seoul National University (SNU), which was dissolved in 1975 to reorganize itself to
embrace undergraduate divisions. It is currently the Department of Communications in
the university‟s College of Social Sciences.
There are now similar departments in many Korean universities under various names
such as Newspaper Studies, Mass Communications and Communication, including 12
located in Seoul and 23 in other areas. Eight colleges have departments whose
professors train their students in advertisement and public relations, and two offer
academic programs in their Departments of Publications. This brings the number of
media-related departments up to 45. Eight universities in Seoul and two in other areas
have professional graduate schools of media studies. Media studies in Korea have
expanded dramatically and their popularity is growing.
The Kwanhun Club was formed by a few young journalists on January 11, 1957, and it
has been engaged in various activities since then. On April 7 of the same year, the
Korean Newspaper Editors Association was established by senior newsmen above the
rank of assistant editor. The Association began a variety of events such as “Newspaper
Day” and “Newspaper Week,” in an attempt to systematically raise the prestige of the
profession. The Korean Newspapers Association was formed on June 27, and the
Association of Korean News Agencies was formed on July 11 of that year.
August 17, 1964 saw the formation of the Journalists Association of Korea (JAK),
which established the triangular separation of the journalist group into publishers,
editors and reporters.
South Korean media workers tried to join the International Press Institute (IPI) from
about 1956 but were turned down because the IPI deemed that South Korea lacked a
free press. The IPI acted as a strong pressure group for improving and protecting the
freedom of the press in Korea at that time, because Syngman Rhee and his Liberal Party
were trying to shackle speech and writing in Korea in a bid to make their dictatorship
The ninth IPI Congress, held in Tokyo, Japan from March 24, 1960, refused to accept
Korea for the same reason, as it came just before the April 1960 Student Revolution that
toppled the government and drove Rhee into exile in Hawaii. Korea was finally
admitted to the IPI after the Revolution.
The Kwanhun Club joined the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) as an
Associate Member on May 8, 1964, in its seventh Congress in France. This was the first
time an official relation was established between the IFJ and an organization of Korean
However, the Kwanhun Club could not become a Full Member because it could not be
classified as a trade union of journalists. It is a strange coincidence that the Club-which
no longer has an affiliation with the international organization-- became an IFJ
Associate in the same year as the future Korean member of the IFJ, the JAK, was
3) JAK Joins IFJ
The JAK sent a delegation to the IFJ Congress in Berlin to become a Full Member of
the IFJ on May 2, 1966. Although not a labor union in legal terms, the JAK emphasized
that its most important objective was to protect the interests of its members. JAK
president Kim Young-su was elected as one of the five vice-presidents representing the
region, and Kim Jin-hyeon was elected as a member of the executive committee. The
JAK has showed an active participation in IFJ activities, sending delegates to every one
of the IFJ‟s triennial Congresses.
Also, the Korea Federation of Press Unions (KFPU), founded on November 26, 1988,
sent a delegation to an IFJ meeting held in London on May 30th of the following year.
Since then, KFPU has sent delegations to many IFJ meetings as well as hosting IFJ-
affiliated meetings in Seoul. A Full Member of the IFJ since its inception, KFPU is an
active member of the IFJ along with JAK.
Many statutory organizations and institutions were founded on the basis of the 1981
Basic Law of the Press, including the Korean Broadcasting Commission, the Press
Arbitration Commission, and the Korean Press Institute, the last of which was
established to improve the capabilities and quality of Korean journalists. They were
later coalesced with other organizations to form the Korea Press Foundation.
The Korean Federation of Press Unions is a federation of enterprise-level labor unions
which aims to reform the press and publication sector and improve the working
conditions of press-publication workers. Its objectives are the protection of the freedom
of the press and the realization of a democratic press, improving the political, economic,
social status of press-publication workers and the establishment of a democratic society
through labor solidarity. The KFPU now has 58 enterprise-level and 17,000 individual
Since June 1987, when the military dictatorship of Gen. Chun Doo-hwan was forced to
accept the people‟s demand for a presidential election by popular vote, the formation of
labor unions by journalists has been possible. In 1974, under the military dictatorship of
Gen. Park Chung-hee, journalists at the Dong-A Ilbo and the Hankook Ilbo were
thwarted in their attempts to form labor unions, and until 1987, the formation of press
unions was a taboo subject. The press union movement in South Korea faced a turning
point with the establishment of the Hankook Ilbo union on October 29, 1987, which was
subsequently recognized as legitimate. There are now labor unions in all of the major
The greatest changes in the Korean press in the two decades from 1961 to 1980 were
brought about by forced mergers and closures of news corporations carried out by
military dictatorships of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan on three occasions.
Such coercive measures, differing in name each time, were all imposed on a multiple
number of selected news corporations at the same time, compelling them to close down.
In each case, the coercion was timed with the coming or renewal of a military regime.
During those two decades, it was nearly impossible to found or register a fresh
newspaper or wire service. The registration of a news corporation was a coveted
franchise that was treated almost as a property right, like business interests and
concessions. Closures of newspapers, magazines or wire services due purely to financial
difficulties occurred only rarely, if ever. One of the significant aspects of this was that
all of the forced closures or mergers were caused by strong outside influences which
conformed to the government‟s policy toward the press.
The disappearance or discontinuance of many advertisements on the pages of the Dong-
A Ilbo, for instance, was the result of a conspiracy plotted by those in power during the
latter and even more tyrannical phase of Gen. Park Chung-hee‟s dictatorship, with a
view to curb the journalists‟ movement to defend the freedom of the press and strangle
it to death.
Park, who had served as a Japanese army officer before the national liberation in August
1945, came to power in May 1961 through a military coup that toppled the
democratically elected government which succeeded Rhee Syngman a year before.
After revising the constitution in 1969 to allow himself the previously forbidden third
term, Park finally established himself as an undisputed ruler in October 1972 by
proclaiming an unconstitutional “extraordinary measure” that suspended the effects of
the constitution and disbanded the National Assembly. Park‟s position in the South
Korean political system after this second, praetorian coup is similar in many ways to
that of Napoleon Bonaparte as the French Republic‟s First Consul for Life between
1802 and 1804, just before he was formally proclaimed hereditary emperor of France.
The Dong-A Ilbo faced a financial crisis as a result of Park‟s oppressive measures
against the freedom of the press and dismissed many of the journalists who were critical
of the despotic rule of Park, using the financial crisis as the excuse. The dismissed
reporters took legal actions against their former company, and they formed the “The
Dong-A Struggle Committee for Defending the Freedom of the Press,” engaging
themselves in a long, painful struggle outside the company. Many domestic and foreign
observers denounced, protested and resisted Park‟s despotic rule.
The incident was aimed at suppressing the series of struggles by young journalists to
defend the freedom of speech, which had been staged in the same year. Many
advertisements were suddenly cancelled or discontinued from the pages of the
newspaper in December 1974, with the situation continuing for seven months.
The newspaper suffered great financial losses until July 16, 1975, when the measures
ended. However, the greatest loss the Dong-A Ilbo suffered was in the human resources
of the dismissed journalists, and in the irrevocable feud with them.
5. Historical Character of the Korean Press
The historical character of the Korean press can be characterized as follows.
Firstly, the press was the marshaling area of competent luminaries, and it produced
many men of distinguished talent. From the end of the Choson Kingdom era in the late
19th century, through the Japanese colonial period to the present day, many leaders and
distinguished figures of modern Korean history came from the ranks of the press.
Patriots, scholars, liberation fighters and literary figures participated in the press
directly or indirectly. They kept the Korean people informed on the domestic and
overseas situations and introduced Western culture, civilization and thoughts. Most of
the leading journalists in the colonial period distinguished themselves in the literary
world or in the educational arena.
Secondly, the press was the central organ of modernization and resistance against
Japan‟s colonial rule. The Choson Kingdom, which lagged behind neighboring Japan
and China in opening the nation, made the newspaper the central organ of
modernization. Newspapers enlightened the people and introduced foreign culture and
civilization to them. They later became the rallying point of the nationalist camp that
resisted the Japanese invasion. In the last years of the Choson Kingdom, when the
fortune of the nation was endangered and its people suffered under the disgrace of
Japanese colonial rule, the newspaper carried out the function of educating and
enlightening the people.
Thirdly, the press unfolded cultural movements to defend and protect the national
identity. Such campaigns and enterprises included the literacy campaign, the campaign
to preserve sites connected to the accomplishments of Admiral Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598),
who played a decisive role in defeating the invading Japanese in the late 16th century,
and various other campaigns to protect the regional cultural heritage of counties and
provinces. The newspaper played the role of writing and researching Korean history and
popularizing and distributing Korean literature.
The Korean press made great leaps in terms of both quantity and quality in the process
of the struggle for freedom. From the end of the 19th century to 1945, when Korea was
liberated from 36 years of Japanese rule, the struggle was focused against the foreign
invasion. From liberation on, the struggle was mainly for freedom of speech. Although
Korean journalists have reached a level of professional competence comparable to their
colleagues in most advanced nations, their efforts to realize the true function of the
press will continue in the future.