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Yoon aide under fire for remarks over press freedom, Gwangju Uprising

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : March 15, 2024 - 15:46

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South Korea's presidential office (Getty Images) South Korea's presidential office (Getty Images)

President Yoon Suk Yeol's senior secretary Hwang Sang-moo has come under fire for controversial remarks about the freedom of the press and the spirit of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising.

An association representing journalists from South Korean television network MBC on Friday demanded Hwang, the senior presidential secretary for civil society, apologize publicly and immediately step down. It described Hwang's stance on journalism as "shocking." Rep. Ko Min-jung of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea also demanded the presidential office sack Hwang on Friday.

According to an MBC news report Thursday, reporters' private conversation with Hwang earlier in the day indicated that he viewed that journalists criticizing the Yoon administration could face physical retaliation and that the 1980 Gwangju Uprising may have been instigated by "external force," in an apparent reference to North Korea.

Hwang reportedly brought up the case of a journalist attacked in August 1988 after he had been critical of the military, when Army officer-turned-President Roh Tae-woo was in office. The victim, Oh Hong-keun, the city desk editor of JoongAng Economy, was severely beaten and stabbed just after he left home. The assailants were found to be following the orders of the then-commander of an Army intelligence unit.

Hwang is reported to have turned his attention specifically to an MBC reporter before referencing the journalist attack, saying, "Listen carefully, MBC." The senior secretary was himself a reporter and news presenter for Korea Broadcasting System before he took his current position in November.

When the reporter pressed Hwang as to his intentions, the secretary responded that it was a joke and asked the reporters there to keep the conversation between themselves.

MBC has run critical reports concerning the conservative Yoon administration during Yoon's two years of term.

Litigation is ongoing over a notorious "hot mic" incident in September 2022 during Yoon's visit to the United States, as the government filed a complaint against MBC to correct a report that showed the president using vulgar language concerning US President Joe Biden and the US Congress when privately chatting with former Foreign Minister Park Jin. Soon after, the administration in November 2022 banned MBC reporters from joining the press corps covering Yoon's visits to foreign countries.

More recently, MBC has run a series of reports concerning Lee Jong-sup, the recently appointed ambassador to Australia, who had been banned from leaving the country while under investigation.

Controversy has lingered on Lee -- even after the government lifted the ban to permit his departure from Seoul -- given that he was a key suspect for alleged interference in a probe into the death of a Marine during a military rescue operation in July 2023.

Thursday's report by MBC also showed that Hwang expressed doubts that the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 had been a pure grassroots movement seeking democratization.

Hwang reportedly said that among the protesters were "trained" soldiers, allowing them to be constantly at the ready despite a series of crackdowns. He added that although no evidence proves it, there are suspicions that an external force might have masterminded the protest.

What Hwang referred to was a brutal massacre carried out by the military against those protesting the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan, who came to power after successive coups in December 1979 and May 1980 and would months later cement his position as president.

Yoon's office did not immediately comment on the matter.

Soon after the report, the ruling People Power Party on Thursday night revoked its decision to allow Do Tae-woo, a conservative lawyer who has also been under siege for controversial remarks about the Gwangju Uprising, to represent the party for a Daegu constituency in the April general election.

Meanwhile, Lee Jun-seok, the former leader of the ruling party who is now chairman of the minor opposition New Reform Party, commented on social media, "Is the presidential office viewing journalists as ones who deserve stabbing if they refuse to be tamed by the Yoon regime?"