The Dong-a workers' struggle: Confronting the KCIA

Thanks to the brave struggle of less than 200 hundred workers at south Korea 's largest daily, the human rights movement broke free of the regime's tight grip on the media to reach a nationwide audience for the first time in years. What were the workers after? Was this a case of "workers' control" or simply another free speech movement? How and why were they defeated? The first of two parts.

Submitted by Spartacus on February 18, 2011

With the declaration of martial law in 1972, the Korean press, hardly free in the first place, began slipping further into submissive helplessness, by degrees becoming dictator Park Chung Hee's main propaganda instrument. Step by step the regime encroached on "free press prerogatives" until the occasional cartoon barb or subtly ironic headline remained the only weapons left. By the end of 1973 KCIA agents sat in a's "assistant editors," checking the galleys for the slightest deviation from state-ordained orthodoxy, the slightest lapse from "responsible journalism." Haggling between editor and "assistant" over a story's appearance or its precise wording would often hold up an edition for hours. As the repressive machinery went into high gear in late 1973 to become full-fledged fascist repression by March 1974, as Park picked off segments of the student, church and parliamentary opposition, and as the prisons filled up with political cases to where ordinary institutions of "justice" could no longer handle them all, the press was too preoccupied with the "threat from the north" to give these events its attention. Or, at most, it simply printed the government hand-outs nearly verbatim. To the hundreds of people in Park's prisons could now be added each of the major dailies, not least among them the Dong-a Ilbo.1

So long as the press stood between the opposition and the people, no movement had any hope of breaking out into the open. Such movements, if reported at all, were treated as something akin to a communist fifth column. And this in a climate where the fear - rational or not - of invasion or subversion by Kim II Sung's stalinist minions to the north is the paramount political factor. By playing on these fears, Park held the upper hand, but only so long as the press went along, so long as many of the "facts" handed out by the government went unchallenged. But an important fissure in the iron edifice of state-press collusion appeared on October 24, 1974, when some 180 Dong-a reporters and deputy editors issued their "Manifesto for the Realization of Freedom of Speech." As much a quarrel with management as it was a struggle with the regime (for the reporters viewed the two as very nearly inseparable), it called for the reinstatement of several fired fellowreporters, better working conditions, greater job security, removal of the KCIA from the editorial rooms, the right of reporters and editors to freely report political news unhampered by government restraints, and for management to print the Manifesto in that day's Dong-a. As management continued to negotiate, especially on the last demand, the reporters shut down the presses. Finally, at 10:50 that night, management capitulated entirely, the presses rolled again, and the last two of the four regular editions appeared a half-day late (an evening paper, the Dong-a usually hits the street shortly after noon.) From that day on it was a different paper. No longer did it belong to Park and his management proxies, but to the people. The workers were in command!

Controlling The Worksite, Dethroning The Emperor

But to view the Dong-a struggle as simply one of workers' control is to not only gloss over some of their original demands, but is also to miss its wider political implications. For the reporters themselves saw their struggle as inseparably linked to the larger movement to dethrone the emperor.

Dong-a's role in the larger movement, and its free-speech origins can best be understood if we retrace the development of the human rights struggle from October 1973. Another outburst of student organizing, campus petition campaigns and street demos led to a rash of clubbings, gassings, arrests and tortures at the underground interrogation cells at the KCIA's notorious - Namsan headquarters. Among student demands was the end to Park's pet Yushin Constitution, which banned most forms of dissent right down to informal gatherings of three or more people. By the last week of November, hardly a day passed that didn't see a demo2 To stem the tide, Park closed the schools in December, two months early, pleading a heating fuel shortage (the oil shock was then two months old).

With the students out of the way until the beginning of the next term in April, the scene of action then shifted to the elders. With public opinion unpacified by Park's December 3rd replacement of 10 of his 20 ministers and the ouster of the hated KCIA chief, Lee Hu Rak, a group of prominent opposition party, church, academic and intellectual leaders joined in calling for an end to the Yushin Constitution. On December 24, they began a petition drive to that end, and succeeded by the end of the year in getting half their stated goal of I million signatures.

Park did not wait to find out whether they would succeed in getting the other half-million. On January 8, 1974, he decreed the first of four Emergency Measures. EM-1 made criticism of the Yushin Constitution or calls for its abrogation a crime punishable by 15 years' imprisonment. Civil disobedience cases would be disposed of without warrant and tried in a special. "High Military Tribunal" closed to all but the defendant, his/her lawyer, one family member and press members accredited by the Defense Ministry. Even criticism of the EM itself could get one 15 years. The EM was met with defiance and the petition movement continued into the new year. Jailing of several dozen of the petition's initiators swiftly followed, along with outspoken church and intellectual leaders, until, within a few short weeks, several dozen of the country's most prominent civil libertarians were behind bars. The trials were swift, "justice" peremptory and sentences severe. With most of its leaders in prison, the petition movement quickly fizzled out.

The next crisis came in March with the students' return to the campuses. As early as January, one observer had written: "The start of the long winter recess and a cold spell saved South Korea from mass student demonstrations Given the lack of genuine reforms, the crucial test facing the G[sic]overnment win be what to do when the students return to the campuses next spring and threaten to take to the streets again. Without a new wave of [K]CIA counterattacks, it seems unlikely that sporadic rallies by student and other groups for more freedom and reforms will subside."3 By March rumors were rampant that the students had been putting their long vacation to good use and that flash-in-the-pan rampages were a thing of the past. This time they were organizing -and nationwide.

The NDYSF - Subversion from the North?

The rumors were BORN out. On April 1, universities in four big cities including Seoul attempted to hold large demonstrations, but within minutes were frustrated by government infiltrators who had turned up both the detailed plans and fliers signed "the National Democratic Youth and Student Federation." With the police ready and waiting, most of the "demos" never left campus, and between 40 and 50 students were arrested as part of the NDYSF plot. (Opinion is divided as to whether the NDYSF' actually existed or not. While student planning for something "big" with inter-university coordination in April was no secret, the fliers enjoyed such limited circulation that many believe they were govt fabrications.) Deprived of central leadership, the "student spring" nevertheless continued on April 2nd and 3rd, with sporadic outbursts on campuses throughout the country, still holding forth the promise of igniting general mass revolt. Park, mindful of history's lessons (his predecessor was toppled by just such a student-led uprising in 1961), didn't waste any time in clamping down, with the decree of yet another Emergency Measure, No. 4. Adopted on April 3rd, it banned the NDYSF and made participation in, affiliation with, encouragement of, or sympathy with this student organization a crime punishable by "death, life imprisonment or imprisonment for not less than five years."4 Even reporting NDYSF activities could cost a reporter his/her life. Habeas corpus, warrants and all such human rights guarantees - which had become nothing but legalistic windowdressing anyway - were blatantly discarded. The fascist regime decided to drop its mask, for this was a real emergency.

The round-up commenced. By the end of May a total of 1024 people, according to government reports, were "being detained for investigation." 54 NDYSF members were formally indicted for violating EM-4, and on May 27th began an all-out propaganda campaign. The indictment's details filled page after page of the domestic press, complete with elaborate KCIA-concocted NDYSF organizational charts. "The NDYSF attempted to set up a provisional coalition government with the purpose of communizing the whole political structure after toppling down the present political system by means of a bloody and violent revolution..." 5 Masterminded in north Korea, the "student uprising" was orchestrated by an underground network of communist cells, called the "People's Revolutionary Party. " 28 of the 54 were claimed to be PRP partisans acting on instructions from Kim Il Sung, thus providing the student-north link so desperately needed by Park to thoroughly discredit the student movement and to justify such draconian decrees as his latest EM. By mid-October, a total of 203 people, including 114 students, were tried and convicted under the Emergency Measures, with 8 getting death (all of them alleged PRP members).

Through all of this, the press simply acted as govt typesetter, issuing page after page of "facts" on the North-PRP-student connection and "analysis" showing the perils of playing into Pyongyang's hands. One example: "The postwar generation, lacking the bitter experience of Communist atrocities and oppression, has apparently caught the delusion of communism and become the prey to the tricks of impure elements."6

Park's 'PRP' plot exposed

But reports of atrocities and oppression closer to home began to make the rounds after the cases had already been "legally" disposed of. On October Ist an American missionary, George Ogle, became the first to issue a non-government opinion on the case by openly praying for the families of the PRP. As he was to tell it later,7 he was not originally interested in their alleged communism nor the question of their guilt/innocence; his position was simply that, communists or not, their souls demanded Christian prayers. But once called in for an overnight grilling by the KCIA, and warned that communist souls, hell-bound anyway, were not the province of Christian concern, Ogle grew more suspicious. From his interrogator, chief of the KCIA's 6th Bureau, he learned that the only hard evidence that the PRP were communists, "the only thing he had, was one man's 'crime' of listening to the North Korean radio and copying a speech of Kim 11 Sung." He met some of the PRP families, checked back newspapers, researched further. His findings were issued in November: the PRP defendants hadn't even known each other, they were uniformly from middle-class families, and they had been tortured into false confessions. "The so-called communist conspiracy announced by the CIA in April of 1974 is basically a fabrication of the CIA itself."

That the main contentions of Ogle's report should find their way into the New York Times (November 26) was bad enough. But Park probably felt himself safe so long as the domestic press was under his thumb. By sitting on the churches, he could contain the scandal domestically - and Ogle could always be deported (he was in December). Again, the domestic press held the key. Until the Dong-a workers' Manifesto of October 24, Park could head off each crisis without serious challenge.

Towards workers' control - the Dong-a organizes

The Manifesto did not happen as suddenly as appeared to management, the regime or to other outsiders. While all the above events had been taking place, the Dong-a reporters hadn't been sitting idle, but had been struggling on their own. Here, in the words of one of the organizers, is how that struggle developed:8

"The so-called Dong-a struggle actually dates from 1971.4.15 with our 'Declaration of Freedom of the Press.' It came out just before the last election, which, like all election campaign periods, presented an atmosphere of relative freedom. I stress the word 'relative' of course. After the election, the 'Declaration' became just a piece of paper. In October 7 1, Park decreed his 'Declaration of State of Emergency,' and the reporter who led the movement, named Shim Jae Taek, and the popular editorial writer, Chun Kwan Woo, and the managing editor, Lee Tong Wuk, were fired. After that, every time someone tried to push for freedom of the press, he failed because there was no organization. But from late '73 to early '74 we began movements to organize a union. We concluded by that time that if you wanted to struggle for a free press, from the very beginning your status as journalists had to be guaranteed. The labor union was the only way to achieve this, both legally and organizationally.

"On March 6, 1974 we formally filed for registration of our union with the Seoul City government. Under the law, a trade union is recognized as having been established commencing from the date of its application filing. But in our case, there were some sophisticated maneauvers, various stipulations were attached. Registration would not be enough, and govt permission would be needed. On March 8, the Dong-a fired the whole union leadership core, all of them reporters (the union was made up of reporters, producers, engineers and announcers). The non-fired reporters countered with a support committee whose demands were modest enough: reinstate our fellow-workers. We did not threaten to strike. 8 more were fired on March 11, and 17 reprimanded with indefinite suspension. A total of 36 were out by that time. By then it was obvious to us that the govt and the Dong-a management were working hand-in-glove. Seoul City govt sent its letter of permission to form a union in mid-March, but management replied that there was no longer anyone there to accept the registration. Clear collusion. This was an important lesson for us.

"After we returned to the paper, we took Seoul City to court. We had come to the paper with the understanding that mass firing was illegal, so we regarded ourselves, just as we do now, as not having been fired. Seoul City's view, which only accounts for the management side, is invalid. We filed suit on July 12 and it has now reached the High District Court.

"But anyway, the union has existed since March 6,1974. The Dong-a union is a branch of the 'National Publishers' Union,' the first newspaper employees' union to belong. Officially it still. does not exist, but even so we have strong support among the reporters, announcers, producers, technicians and engineers. All told, there're 230 people in the newsroom and radio station.

"October 24th was a holiday, United Nations Day. Ha! Many reporters did not have to go out for news-gathering, and stayed around the office. About 30 people were in on the planning of the Manifesto, and we kept it a secret among us. No leaks. So at 9:00 a.m. we congregated in the newsroom. Management was totally unprepared. There were three points, and management gave in to the last one at 10:50 that night. The Manifesto appeared in the 3rd and 4th editions that night, and the Ist and 2nd editions the next day.

"Even though it agree to all of our demands, management was still dragging its feet, fearing govt wrath. It regularly tried to cut stories about the opposition. The next big confrontation came after the November Ilth Myongdong Incident.9 On the morning of the 12th we held a general assembly in the newsroom and demanded detailed coverage of the mass, with photos. This was a very important event, for it was the first time that the Catholics had raised the issue of the PRP. Also the truth behind Professor Tche's 'suicide'.10 But management stonewalled, insisting on an absolute black-out. We struck. The presses didn't move and all four editions didn't appear that day. The next morning management surrendered.

From "subtlety" to "all-out war"

"The government didn't get into gear for some time. It was easy enough to get management to go along with agents in the newsroom, and reporting everything with a government slant, because management was of course more interested in getting out a paper than it was in printing the truth. But short of firing several hundred of us reporters, there was no way for the govt or its proxy, management, to agree to their priorities. It was either let us print what we wanted or don't print at all. I don't mean that the govt and management were one and the same thing. Of course the govt is interested in printing lies, while management's ambition is to print anything, just so long as it sells. It just wants to make money for the owners. And if - speaking from management's standpoint - the govt, with all its agents, police, army, etc., is intent on seeing you print lies, then print lies you will or it's the end of your business. Profits come before the truth or any other motive. But - the bosses also knew that recourse to state power could prove very meaningless in a situation like this. All the king's army and all the king's men could not put out their paper again. Only we could, so the bosses had to play along with us for awhile, buying time, while at the same time hoping that the govt would not blow its cool and completely destroy their paper. In the meantime, though, the Dong-a was printing more and more of the kind of stories guaranteed to send Park into a rage the PRP, KCIA spies at church meetings, prayers for prisoners, etc. We knew that the govt couldn't sit by while we printed these very damaging allegations day after day, and while circulation continued to climb. Something would have to be done....

"On December 16 the govt's strategy became clear. Cancellation of ad space began trickling in. Sure, the govt was behind it and everybody knew it, but how could you prove it? Ask the advertiser, and he'd simply say: 'We regret that due to forces beyond our control.,.' or something like that. Hardly anyone dared to come out and say what everybody already knew: fiscal strangulation instead of an overt police invasion was Park's 'subtle' tactic. This continued until, on the 25th,11 we got this big 'Christmas present'- all our major advertisers called in cancellations. Every last ad right down to the size of your little finger - all in one day. Park had thrown subtlety to the winds, this was all-out war I "

The reporters decided to slug it out. Sooner or later the paper would go bankrupt, but the issue of freedom of the press came before the life of the paper or even their own livelihood. In the last few days of '74, huge blank spaces appeared in place of ads, but in January the reporters introduced a new tactic. They began selling space to all comers at the price of a "contribution." First isolated one-liners, like "Hang in there, Dong-a!" and "Away with 'all tyrants"', then quotes, from Jesus to Thomas Paine, poems, biblical passages, etc., began filling the "Freedom of Speech Support Colomn" so quickly that within a month the column came to cover several pages. More than the liberated front page, it was probably this column that was responsible for the Dong-a's sudden circulation jump from 600,000 to 800,000.

The attempt to strangle the paper had backfired. Insubordination from a few uppity reporters was bad enough, but getting the public into the act was more than any respectable dictator worthy of the name would put up with. Not only could the opposition in Seoul reach the countryside, the countryside could now reach the opposition. Plain for everyone to see, both at home and abroad, ridicule and vilification of the dictator had become public spectacle.

The battle escalated further at the end of January when "Relatives of the Accused in the So-called NYDSF Case" took out a large ad protesting the innocence of their sops and brothers, proclaiming, in part: "Even those who break the law have a right not to be tortured, not to be detained for unduly long periods, not to be punished... but nonetheless those accused in connection with the NDYSF were forced to confess under cruel tortures and were detained without warrants."12 On February 15th, 168 of the 203 people imprisoned under the Emergency Measures were suddenly released.13 Their revelations made the Dong-a within days. Lurid tales of the torture of Na Byong Shik struck the public consciousness with his interview in the February 17th issue.

Public demand for the release of the PRP also mounted. Only a day after the Minister of Justice held a special news conference to announce that the govt's evidence of the PRP's part in a north-directed plot was not to be disputed, that they were proven communists, etc., on February 25th the Dong-a began a long serialization of Kim Chi Ha's prison memoirs, called "Penance." In it, Kim told of a prison yard conversation with Ha Chae Wan, one of the alleged PRP conspirators awaiting execution. Ha told Kim that the whole PRP business was a fabrication: "The govt dreamed it all up." "Then on what basis are they holding you?" "The interrogation. They kept at me until I confessed." Was the torture bad?" "Terrible, brutal. They ruptured my intestines... I couldn't stand it. They admitted they were trumping up the whole case.... ." Poet Kim was packed off to prison, this time on charges of violating the Anti-Communist Law. But that still left the struggling reporters of the Dong-a for Park to deal with.

(Most of the sources cited below can be found reprinted in The PRP-State Conspiracy-see reading list this issue, pp.42-43.)

  • 1Korea's oldest newspaper, the Dong-a has proud tradition of stubborn struggle against the Japanese colonial tyranny. Within five months of its founding in 1920, the Japanese governorgeneral served it an "indefinite suspension order" for reporting anti-Japanese Korean Independence Army exploits in Manchuria. Three more such incidents punctuated its turbulent history until it was closed down for good in August 1940. In its short 20-year life it established a record that even Park's heavy-fisted regime may find hard to match: indefinite suspensions (4 times), banning of distribution (63), confiscation of printed editions 1489) and censoring of galley copy (2423). Immediately following liberation from Japanese rule, "anarchy" prevailed and the left-wing movement, which had either been underground or abroad for so. many years, abruptly emerged from its decades-long hibernation. Dozens, if not hundreds, of party papers, propaganda tabloids, labor organizing newsletters, etc., appeared overnight. The newly resurrected Dong-a then became the only remaining hope of the American-backed propertied oligarchy and forces of reaction. So absolutely did it abandon whatever liberal pretenses it had to "objectivity" and "freedom of the press" that, through family alliances, it became the unofficial mouthpiece of the Korean Democratic Party preceding the outbreak of Civil War in 1950. Ever since, resting on its laurels, it has waged war on communism while extolling the virtues of private capital. (Dong-a Ilbo Ryak-sa [Short History of the Dong-a Ilbo], Seoul, n.d., pp. 12-27, 29-31, 38-44.)
  • 2See Korea Bulletin, Vol. 1 No.3 (April '74), for a detailed chronology of the October-November demos. On Oct 5th some 5000-10,000 students at Korea and Yonsei Universities clashed with police, and the govt placed a ban on media coverage. (Frank Gould, "The Student Spring," Far Eastern Economic Review, Dec 24, 1973.) Gould further reported: "Newsmen are also growing restless under the control of the KCIA censors. On November 30, the government called a meeting of newspaper publishers for 10 a.m., intending to order them to cease printing articles about demonstrations (after the first few demonstrations, which were 'reported' only in the form of blank columns in the Dong-a Ilbo on Oct 4 and Oct 5, brief reports were permitted.)"
  • 3Kim Sam-o, "An Ominous Thaw," FEER, Jan 7,1974.
  • 4William J. Butler, "Political Repression in South Korea," p.6.
  • 5'Defendants Maneuvered to Set Up Red Regime Under Common Front Tactics: Court Martial," Korea Herald, May 28, 1974, p.l.
  • 6"League Activists Vanguard in Fulfilling P'yang Goals," Korea Herald, May 28, 1974, p. 2.
  • 7This and the following are a brief summary of Ogle's mimeographed report, "'They're Under Sentence of Death," circulated in Seoul, November 1974. The full text is reprinted as Appendix 16 to Human Rights in South Korea: Implications for U.S. Policy, C'tee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Washington, 1974. (Quite a humdinger, as govt documents go.)
  • 8Interview with Dong-a reporter, late March 1975, about a week after the occupying strikers had been forcibly evicted from the bead office. (Obviously his/her identity must remain a secret, a few days later Park's 6th Emergency Measure made passing "rumors" like these to foreigners punishable by years in jail.)
  • 9In "the first nationwide mass held by Catholics on the issue of human rights," "about 2000 Catholics gathered at Myongdong Cathedral [the largest Roman Catholic church in south Korea] in a downtown [Seoul] area praying for 'those who suffer in cold prison cells for their acts aimed at justice and peace."' Mainichi Daily News, Osaka, Nov 13, 1974.
  • 10"One issue [of the November student demos] not mentioned publicly is the strange case of Professor Tche... of the Law Faculty at Seoul National University, a supporter of the student movement. In late 06ober it was announced that Prof. Tche had committed suicide at the KCIA prison after confessing to being a North Korean agent. .. Tche's wife was not allowed to see the body." (Gould, "The Student Spring") Gould also reported the students' belief that Tche had been tortured to death in a KCIA attempt "to put a damper on the demonstrations by uncovering another 'spy ring."'
  • 11Or on the 26th, as most accounts have it.
  • 12Dong-a Ilbo January 28, 1974. Full translation in PRP, pp.50-51.
  • 13The PRP defendants, as well as those NDYSF students said to be closely connected with them, were not included in the "general commutation" (not an amnesty, it was stressed). This "commutation," seen as a major capitulation by Park, could only have been prompted by intense and sustained pressure from someone, presumably in Washington-who else has so much "leverage" (troops, aid, grants, loans, trade deals, etc.)? While Ford, Kissinger et al publicly stonewalled on the issue of human rights vs "defense of a free ally" (emphasis added), it is conceivable that another Vietnam-in-the-making is beginning to penetrate the consciousness of the global big-game strategists. This seems even more plausible in that only Park's most powerf ul patrons might be expected to overcome what could only have been the strongest reluctance to free the prisoners precisely when a free Dong-a was ready and waiting to make their torture stories front-page reading.