South Korea's President Moon Jae-in, front, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker arrive at the EU-Korea summit at the European Council in Brussels on October 19. Photo: AFP
South Korea's President Moon Jae-in, front, is seen with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the EU-Korea summit in Brussels last October. Photo: AFP

The opening segment on the October 22 daily, 6 p.m. broadcast of PenNews is titled “The Catastrophe of the Moon Government’s Diplomatic Shilling for Kim Jong-Un.” It begins with footage of South Korean President Moon Jae-in ruefully strolling along a riverfront harbor in Copenhagen, looking out over the water while appearing deep in contemplation.

A reporter then narrates a summation of Moon’s recent trip to Europe, depicting it as a failure and describing Moon as having done a dictator’s bidding. On the week-long trip, Moon visited several countries, including France, the Vatican and Denmark, and promoted a softer line toward North Korea.

According to the reporter, while in Europe, the liberal Moon encountered resistance from governments, France in particular, that refused to back the lifting of sanctions until North Korea takes credible steps toward denuclearization and improves its human rights record.

Nowadays, South Korean viewers are not likely to find such snarky criticism of their president and his peace push with North Korea in mainstream broadcasting.

Goodbye TV, hello smartphone

As is commonly the practice when a new government takes power, South Korea’s main television channels, KBS and MBC, got new, government-appointed CEOs after Moon took power in 2017, leading to right-wing complaints that their voices have been suppressed and that South Korea’s broadcast media has rallied behind the administration.

PenNews has all the conventional features of the evening news: dramatic, string-heavy intro music, a straight-backed anchor holding forth from behind a desk, amid claims to uphold ideals including “Freedom” and “Truth.” But it is distinct from South Korea’s legacy media: PenNews is part of cadre of right-wing YouTubers that are out to remind the country that Kim Jong-Un is still a dictator who hasn’t relinquished a single nuke.

Right-wing figures that previously could expect to find space in mainstream outlets have migrated to YouTube, a do-it-yourself platform where they have found eyeballs among South Korean viewers who increasingly use smartphones instead of televisions to get their news.

An investigation by the Hankyoreh, a left-wing newspaper, found that in the past year, the total number of subscribers to the top 20 right-wing YouTubers has more than doubled, going from 835,100 to 2 million. MediaWatch found that there are more than 40 right-wing channels with 10,000 or more subscribers. PenNews has more than 276,000 subscribers to its channel, making it the most-viewed of the new breed of conservative YouTube broadcasters, followed closely by the ideologically similar Shinui Hansoo with 250,000 subscribers and Hwang Jang-soo’s News Briefing with 240,000.

North Korean sensitivities vs  South Korean rights

With another inter-Korean summit in the works for December, some figures on the left – and in government – are calling on them to pipe down before they spoil the party. Pyongyang is notoriously sensitive to media criticism, and the most recent Seoul-Pyongyang summit agreement includes a clause on refraining from “slander” – suggesting North Korea could get miffed with the YouTubers and cease cooperating.

The South Korean left, of which Moon is a life-long member, has for decades argued that criticism of the North is counterproductive, that it is more prudent to avoid irritating Pyongyang, thereby creating a cordial atmosphere for dialogue. After establishing trust and a framework for regular talks and cooperation, the thinking goes, South Korea and the outside world could then push toward objectives like North Korea’s denuclearization and improvement of its human rights conditions.

There is concern that the Moon government could suppress free speech, based on an inter-Korean agreements clause that both sides pledge to refrain from “slander” of the other.

Before the Winter Olympics in South Korea early this year, the Blue House issued a call to the conservative opposition, asking them to refrain from criticism of North Korea. And this month, a North Korea-born reporter for the right-wing Chosun Ilbo newspaper was refused access to cover inter-Korean talks on the border.

In denying the defector-reporter access to the talks, the Blue House citied unspecified “special circumstances.” The International Press Institute condemned that exclusion, issuing a statement that accused the government of “attempting to override editorial freedom in a bid to control the narrative around the talks.”

If Kim’s widely anticipated trip to Seoul in December – which would be a historic first by a North Korean leader to the South’s capital – goes ahead, Moon will be under pressure from his camp to ensure a respectful reception.

This may create a pretext for “regulating” conservative Youtubers – something the Moon-loyal media have been agitating for with increasing stridence, influential North Korea expert Brian Myers has written, adding that of late, “criticism of conservative Youtubers has taken on ominous shrillness.”

Myers argues that the YouTubers cannot be dismissed as crackpots, and that their mushrooming online appeal is the outcome of them having been squeezed out of the mainstream. “The most popular commentators were, until very recently, respected contributors to TV panel discussions and the op-ed pages of the Donga or Joongang,” Myers wrote, referring to two of the top-three right-of-center newspapers in South Korea. “They are not extremists.”

As Moon’s vulnerabilities widen, right wing finds a voice

During massive street protests of 2016 against now-jailed conservative President Park Geun-hye, the traditional right wing media bowed to public opinion, deserted Park and joined her attackers in the pro-impeachment movement. The YouTubers would appear to be the re-igniting embers of South Korea’s conservative movement.

The Park scandal crystallized voters’ impressions of the right as cronyist and out of touch. Moon handily won a snap election for the presidency in May 2017, and conservative parties suffered a drubbing in local elections in June, even losing seats in traditional right-wing strongholds.

But cracks are beginning to appear in Moon’s armor. While the president focuses on North Korea, the right is taking issue with his controversial “income-led growth” paradigm of economic management.

“The opposition is likely to continue to attack the Moon administration’s track record on the economy, and the poor job creation numbers in 2018 so far have created a convenient opportunity for it to do so,” said Chua Han Teng, Head of Asia Country Risk for Fitch Solutions.

The administration is politically vulnerable as Moon’s ruling Democratic Party does not have a majority in parliament, meaning that toward the end of this year, the opposition could be emboldened to stonewall the 2019 budget proposal, Chua added.

Moon’s approval ratings still sit at a healthy 62 per cent, which is nevertheless a decline from the 70 per cent Moon enjoyed in the spring after his first summit with Kim. Pollsters attribute the relatively strong approval to Moon’s skillful maneuvering on the international stage, and his moves to improve ties with North Korea while not damaging South Korea’s alliance with the United States.

He scores lower when it comes to management of domestic issues, in particular his inability to make significant progress in job creation – a key campaign pledge – or to rein in runaway real estate prices in the capital.

This suggests that if North Korean reconciliation stalls, Moon could be in trouble. “Certainly if the news cycle on North Korea dies down, the public may give more scrutiny to domestic political and economic issues,” said Andrew Yeo, an associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Increasing radicalization vs free speech

The weekly magazine of the left-wing Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper described the resurgent right-wing YouTube phenomenon with dark foreboding, writing: “YouTube is a new world for the conservative right, who are gathering there because of their dissatisfaction with the existing media. It is difficult for the government to regulate them, and there are concerns about fake news.”

Some left-wing allegations that right-wing YouTubers are peddling fake news appear to have substance.

The Hankyoreh investigation of 100 right-wing YouTube channels found multiple instances of the channels circulating unverified reports on topics including Roh Hoe-chan (a left-wing politician who committed suicide earlier this year), alleged North Korean involvement in the 1980 uprising in Gwangju, in which some 200 pro-democracy demonstrators were gunned down by South Korean paratroopers, and claims that the impeachment of Park was ordered by North Korea.

Studies have shown YouTube has a radicalizing effect on viewers, as its algorithm presents users with content similar to what they have just viewed, potentially taking them down rabbit holes of increasingly extreme content. The proliferation of YouTubers could therefore be a sign that while down, South Korea’s right-wing is not out – and could reemerge more radical than before.

How – or whether – Seoul can suppress this voice without crippling free speech is open to question.