My mom reads celebrity news every day on Naver, Korea’s biggest search engine. One Thursday night, as I was working on my homework, my mom, who had been on her phone for the past few minutes, read out a comment on an article she’d been reading. “Three new celebrity scandals surfaced today. I guess they’re trying to hide the fact that the government just let the Yemenis stay in our country,” the comment read.
I hadn’t heard about any updates on the Yemeni asylum seekers in Jeju Island until she told me. I did a quick Google search, and sure enough, articles from Time Magazine and the Washington Post popped up.
Of the over 500 Yemeni asylum seekers who landed in Jeju earlier this year, fleeing what the UN calls “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, only 339 were allowed to stay in Korea on one-year humanitarian visas. 34 were denied the right to stay, and 85 applicants are still under review. All were denied refugee status.
It took me a while for me to scroll through the results and find any article by a Korean newspaper. I opened up the Korea Herald and searched for “Jeju.” There was one article about the decision on the legal status of the Yemeni asylum seekers from the day before. One dry article about one of the most divisive and controversial issues in Korea today. It was in stark contrast with the biting criticisms by New York Times and its likes; there was no mention of responses from the Korean public, the war in Yemen, the limits that the humanitarian visas placed on the Yemenis’ ability to find work or access healthcare, and the government’s much warmer welcome to North Korean refugees. The Korea Herald uploaded three articles on October 17 and 18 about President Moon’s meeting with the Italian president.
Korea’s entertainment industry is fraught with sensational (and sometimes baseless) scandals all year round, but the third week of October was an unusually hectic one; the names of a TV producer and an actress suddenly popped up on Naver’s trending searches list, sparking waves of rumors about a possible affair between the two, a member of the popular boy band BIGBANG was caught hugging an actress on a date, and a recently married actor’s was rumored to have an affair with a singer who already has a boyfriend.
The cynical netizen that my mom found isn’t the only one to raise the alarm about the possibility of cover-up by the Korean mass media. Such concerns about government influence on the media is not new; these suspicions were confirmed when “Choigate,” a corruption scandal involving former President Park Geun-hye and her secret confidante Choi Soon-sil, revealed Park’s blacklist of media and entertainment figures. This list of over 9,000 people included Korean filmmakers, actors, writers, and artists who had either spoken critically of Park or expressed support for rival political parties. The list effectively excluded those listed from state-funded programs.
I’m not too big on conspiracy theories myself, but the possible relationship between celebrity scandals and controversial political scandals or news is worth a closer look. Research by a Korean student at NYU Abu Dhabi revealed that there is, in fact, “more celebrity news on days where there are political scandals,” and it’s not hard to find examples of this happening.
On March 21, 2013, the same day that comedian Kim Yong-man was summoned on charges of illegal sports gambling, the then vice minister of the Ministry of Justice was implicated in a sex scandal. On November 13, 2013, when the minister was cleared of rape charges, a list of celebrities being questioned for illegal gambling was revealed. When former President Lee Myung-bak was accused of corruption? A relationship between Lee Min-ho and Suzy, two A-list celebrities, was brought to light with an exclusive report by Dispatch, a Korean news agency infamous for infringing on celebrities’ right to privacy for the sake of creating sensational rumors.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that many Koreans are doubtful about the reliability of the media industry; according to a Statista survey conducted late last year, only 52% of Koreans trust traditional and online-only media. Despite this skepticism, news consumption rates in Korea still remain relatively high. 71% of Koreans get their news through television at least once a week, and the weekly rates are even higher at 86% for news consumption online; 70% of Koreans get their news from web-portal sites such as Naver or Daum at least once a week.
We’ll never know for sure whether Korean news agencies strategically release celebrity news around the same time that political scandals are revealed, but harboring a healthy skepticism of what could be a modern version of a “circus” set up to distract the citizenry seems appropriate in the Information Age, especially because so many Koreans now get their news online.
– Kristin Kim ‘20
Featured Image: Chosun Ilbo