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2015-12-20 15:49
By Kim Jae-kyoung

SINGAPORE — President Park Geun-hye recently said she has been spending sleepless nights due to worries about labor reform and other economic bills pending at the National Assembly.

Buried in sticky domestic issues, she may have little time to pay attention to what’s happening outside. However, she needs to do this  to prevent the image of Korea from deteriorating.

The image of Korea is an invisible but crucial element foreign companies consider before investing in the country. It also affects Korean companies’ operations overseas.

Unfortunately, Korea’s image has been deteriorating due to dents in the freedom of speech which is one of the most important values that gauge the quality of life.

What is of more concern is that not only foreign media but also ordinary people have the impression that the Park administration is trying to pressure foreign journalists writing articles critical of Park and her policies.

Below is a short conversation I had recently with a Singaporean businesswoman that embarrassed me.

First, we had casual discussion about Korea and Singapore. Since Singapore is ahead of Korea in many economic indicators, I asked questions regarding freedom of speech in which I believed Korea had an edge over Singapore.

“Most of the local media here in Singapore are directly or indirectly controlled by the government through shareholdings by Temasek Holdings, a state-owned investment arm.”

“Yes,” she agreed.

“I was told that editors here should sometimes consult with the government about some sensitive stories before they are printed. Is that correct?”

“Probably,” replied the woman who once worked for a newspaper outlet before.

“I also heard that a foreign correspondent who wrote a story critical of Singapore did not get a visa extension. Don’t you think that there is too much state control over the media?”

She immediately answered, “Look who’s talking. Your government even sued a foreign journalist!” She was talking about Tatsuya Kato, the former Seoul bureau chief for Japan’s Sankei Shimbun newspaper, who was acquitted Thursday of defaming Park in print.

She did not mention it directly but it is obvious that she thinks that Korea is no better than Singapore in freedom of speech.

The Korean government may call it an isolated incident; however, this may not be the case. A recent survey showed that Korea is backpedalling in the freedom of speech.

According to the 2015 World Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RWF), Korea ranked 60th out of 180 countries in the world, down three notches from 2014. It was the fourth consecutive year of decline. Singapore ranked 153rd in 2015.

There are two problems with management of the national image under the Park administration.

First, the government is little aware of how this image has been built outside Korea. Second, it has a lack of sophisticated communication skills with media, particularly foreign media.

People outside Korea do not have the context to understand issues in Korea, such as the litigation against the Sankei Shinbun journalist, the history textbook issue and protests against labor reform.

Sometimes it can be good to have a discussion and lively debate, but if it’s not in the right context, people may say, “Oh my god! What’s happening there?”

Recent attempts by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its consulate general in New York to lodge complaints against The Nation and The New York Times about the content of their stories critical of Park are good examples.

The government should be very careful about the national image — it is built based on what people see and hear, not what the government wants them to believe.

Truth is important but sometimes image tells more and affects people’s decisions. It takes a lot of money and time to build a good image but it can be lost in the blink of an eye.

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