Thursday, June 26, 2014

No News Is...

무소식이 희소식이다.

They say no news is good news, but when media censorship is involved, no news is actually cause for concern. My co-teachers have often told me, with hints of indignation, that there is a lot more social and political unrest in their country than most people are aware of. They mention vigils and protests that are being held in Seoul -- that have been taking place, in fact, for months upon months -- for various causes, but the newspapers never report on these stories. Of course, from my perspective, it's clear that one reason I am not too aware of the goings-on in South Korea is that I'm not tuned into the news, and my Korean skills are not up to the task of understanding more than the photo captions of the daily papers in the teachers' lounge. But since my co-teachers are convinced that the political powers that be are messing with media output, whatever I do happen to read, I look at with a more critical eye than usual.

So, I was surprised yesterday when a student asked me at the beginning of class, "Teacher, have you heard the news? A soldier killed some other soldiers in Gangwon-do." This absolutely shocked me. Instead of beginning the lesson, I went to the computer, and my class followed along as I did some Google searches to find out what had happened.

Here's an article from the Wall Street Journal that explains: last Saturday, an ROK soldier, a second-class officer, threw a grenade at and opened fire on his comrades. He then ran away from the scene, and a two-day manhunt ensued. Finally, the soldier was cornered on Monday. He attempted to commit suicide but failed, and was then captured. All of this happened in the northern province called Gangwon-do, which borders North Korea. Lots of soldiers are stationed near the DMZ, and the environment is isolated and stressful.

My students all knew the story, but I was completely shocked. I thought that if something as crazy as a multiple homicide in the ROK army had occurred, then it would be all over the news. Have I just been completely oblivious for the past few days?

After class, I visited my go-to Korean news website, koreannewsfeeds.com. This handy resource collects top stories in translation from the main national newspapers as well as posts from popular blogs related to South Korea. As I scrolled through the feed, I found very few articles that mentioned this incident. This article from the Korea Herald details the events that unfolded on Saturday, as does this one from Yonhap News. This one from JoongAng Daily probes into the soldier's troubled psychological condition.

While basic information about the incident was widely reported, I found myself wondering, "Is that all?" I expected a bigger national response. It's not like this is an everyday story. My suspicion is that the incident is being downplayed as much as possible. When shootings happen in the US -- and they do so with desperate and depressing regularity -- the media has a field day. News travels fast on social media, and everyone begins to weigh in. Not just on the basic information, either: soon, back stories are excavated, insignificant details are examined, and conspiracy theories are established. One tragic event stretches into a week of media frenzy (and usually ends there). But the response to this shooting spree, which left five young men dead, has been quite muted, as far as I can tell.

It's nothing like the media response to April's Sewol ferry disaster. I'm curious about why... Does it have to do with the fact that the ROK military was involved? One of the few more peculiar snippets to come out of last weekend's story was the discovery that after the perpetrator had been apprehended and was being transported to a hospital for treatment, the military used a decoy of the soldier to divert media attention. A random soldier with his body covered was loaded into an ambulance as the reporters looked on, while the real soldier was rushed to the hospital from a different location. When people realized that they had been deceived, the response was swift and angry. The Korea Herald reports: "the military's handling of the incident has damaged public trust", which had "already been eroded by the bungled efforts to capture the sergeant."

The story makes me laugh, but it's interesting to me because I don't know which side to take. I can sympathize with the military not wanting the media frenzy for the sake of doing their job efficiently, but it also seems like they've had a hand in a part of the media cover-up of this whole ordeal. I certainly wouldn't want every newspaper reporting on how it took too long after the initial shooting to issue a security warning or questioning why one man on foot evaded capture for nearly two days. Hence, the deception. On the other hand, the cynic in me maintains that it's naive to think the media will ever cooperate with anything other than itself. Anything for a good story, even if it means spreading general panic.

Anyway, it's strange, but it seems like this extremely unusual news story is already on its way out. Tomorrow, South Korea will play Belgium in the World Cup, and articles about this event, which has not even happened yet, are already headlining. Also, the political circus surrounding the Park administration's preposterous failure to appoint a new Prime Minister is drumming up clicks. The old PM resigned because of the Sewol fiasco, but then the two subsequent nominees for his replacement were discovered to be crooked and crazy, respectively, so the old PM is not being temporarily reinstated. Here's an overview from the Hankyoreh.

Speaking of Sewol, the adolescent survivors of the ferry sinking, who were on a school field trip, resumed classes today. This was the headliner for this morning's paper (here's one story from the Korea Herald). Photos of parents crying as they embraced the students walking up to the school gates were so, so sad. This story continues to wrench my heart.

One more body was retrieved from the wreckage earlier this week, that of a female student of the school. That makes 172 survivors, 293 now confirmed dead. There are 11 still missing. No news...

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