Editorial: In the mud of “Choi Soon-sil gate” – how western media report the South Korean scandal

By Stephanie LI

Nov.28, 2016, Hong Kong



South Korea is famous for its high-quality soap opera production, bringing billions of fans to tears or laughter across eastern Asia. Park Geun-hye, president the country, has been starring in her own political “drama” for the past few weeks. But what she and her female confidante brought to the public, has been nothing but an enormous disappointment and embarrassment [1].


This political scandal, coined by Korean media as the “Choi Soon-sil gate”, has been picking up by western media since late October [2]. The early coverages on The New York Times, CNN, BBC and The Guardian tended to be a synthesis of what Korean media had discovered and reported.


Take The Guardian’s story as an example [3], it provides a comprehensive account of sources, including the free fall of Park’s poll rates and continuous protests, the disappointments from both opposition party and even her own party, Park’s televised apology, Choi’s interview and statements through her lawyer, and observers from inside and outside of the country speculating about her political future.


However, most of these details are taken from local media coverages, thus they are labelled as “accusation” or “allegation”. And it is followed by more details in digging up the history of Park’s father, a controversial figure that ruled the country after a military coup, and even some potentially scandalous speculation about Park’s relationship with her close aide (who is also Choi’s ex-husband).


Moreover, several colorful words describing the sensational nature of the “Choi gate” have been used throughout the coverage – “Rasputin-like”, “shaman”, “religious cult”, “a terrifying theocracy”, which have successfully achieved an dramatic effect to not only inform the readers, but also to entertain them.


One interesting detail comes towards the end of the article: The Guardian interviewed “a senior adviser and Korea chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington”, which perhaps was added for the sake of giving an all-rounded views from a scholar in the U.S. Another curious detail is that the article mentions Choi flying back to South Korea from Heathrow Airport in London, which seems absolutely trivial but probably a classic news practice to bring a little bit sense of connection to home.


The New York Times and CNN’s coverages start from the angle of the leak of confidential documents, then followed by more details about Choi’s accusations and Park’s political crisis [4][5]. And The Guardian and BBC [6] took a more neutral angle as a bystander since the priority news value for their British audience is prominence and unusualness.


The reason that they see it from two different angles is probably because there is an intriguing correlations about the South Korean political fallout and Hillary Clinton, the president-hopeful, in America. It is incredibly coincident that both these two strong female politicians are facing accusation of classified information leaks, and even more uncannily, they both involve a female confidante and evidence found on a computer. One the other hand, British people, knee-deep in their own Brexit struggle, are more likely to prefer being a bystander and sit back to see what’s next on the show.


Last but not least, it’s worth mentioning that the scandal snowballed in South Korea media has undoubtedly attracted big attention in the North. Rodong Sinmun, among the very few North Korean media which have an English version, used strong language to condemn the “crime” Park has allegedly committed. By describing her a “traitor” who has “committed indelible crimes before the south Koreans and all other compatriots”, Park is standing on the “confrontation with the fellow countrymen in the north, sycophancy and acts of treachery” [7]. North Korea’s propaganda agenda took the opportunity to glorify their leader by demonizing the enemy as a “fascist ruler” who falls under the spell of a religious cult [7]. Amid the economic sanctions due to continual nuclear tests, North Korea’s leadership is probably going to make full use of Park’s crisis to justify Kim Jong-un’s growing military ambition.


In a nutshell, it appears to be a distinction in what to focus on the same case by American media and their British counterparts. British media, like BBC and The Guardian, tend to report it as a huge political scandal that might throw the president out of office. American media, on the other hand, are more concerned with confidential document leaking to civilian who does not hold any office, as the case bears a similarity with Clinton’s “mail-gate” crisis. North Korean media took advantage of the opportunity to make it an ideological propaganda to attack the South’s president by framing the news as a conflict.


[1] The Korean Herald: Public fury grows over ‘Choi Soon-sil gate’


[2] Wikipedia: 2016 South Korean political scandal


[3] The Guardian: ‘Rasputin-like’ friend of South Korean president returns amid protests


[4] The New York Times: A Presidential Friendship Has Many South Koreans Crying Foul


[5] CNN News: South Korea: Park’s shadowy confidante returns to answer questions


[6] BBC News: Park Geun-hye and the friendship behind S Korea’s presidential crisis


[7] Rodong Sinmun: S. Korean People Reject Park Geun Hye’s Assertion about “Constitutional Revision” and “Apology to People”







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s