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JAMCO Online International Symposium

16th JAMCO Online International Symposium

January to March, 2007

Images of Foreign Countries Projected on Television of China, Korea, and Japan

Discussion 2: Korean TV Programming and Japan-ROK Relations

Susumu Kohari
Associate Professor, Faculty of International Relations, University of Shizuoka


The report by Professor Lee Yeon titled “The Image of Foreign Countries in Korean Television Programs ” (hereinafter called the “Lee Report”) presented the objective, methodology and content of his research with precise logic, and was rich with stimulating ideas. Particularly with regard to the analysis of cases in the Republic of Korea’s relations with Japan, the United States, China, India and Vietnam, the report should be lauded for its objective detachment from ethnic sentiments and specific political perspectives. Furthermore, the research was conducted from January 2004 to June 2006 — corresponding roughly to the date of inauguration of President Roh Moo-Hyun for his second year in office — which is highly beneficial in examining the foreign policy and relations of his administration from its startup onward, as well as TV coverage during the same period.

Because this debater specializes in ROK research, news and drama programs broadcast on South Korea’s three top TV stations (KBS, MBC and SBS) are being monitored virtually every day from Japan through satellite broadcasts and the Internet for research purposes. Here, comments on the Lee Report will be made by pointing out a number of problems pertaining to the debater’s perception of Korean TV programming and the Korean perception of other countries, based on what had been pointed out in said report. It must also be noted that, as specialist in Japan-Korea relations, many elements regarding relations between the two countries will be pointed out in the following passages.

Why the small number of programs showing foreign countries in a positive light

The Lee Report shows that programs related to Japan, the US and China accounts for more than 50% of all Korean TV programs that contribute to perception of foreign countries. In addition, the percentage of TV programs for these three countries that present them in positive light falls short of 50 percent. In view of the history and international political situation surrounding the Korean peninsula, the reason for the large number of TV programs on these three countries should be plainly obvious. What this debater would like to examine is the reason for the low percentage of programs contributing to favorable national images.

Firstly, the mass media theories of “agenda-setting” and “spiral of silence” can be applied quite easily to TV programming (especially news programming) in South Korea.

TV and other mass media are able to make powerful claims on “agenda-setting” on grounds that the issues in question are “vital issues for the immediate future.” Since the inauguration of the Roh administration, friction with these three countries has grown significant. For example, recent Korean television programs related to Japan, the US and China, as reported in the Lee Report, have reports on crimes by US soldiers stationed in Korea, Japan’s protest of territorial rights over Takeshima/Dokdo, topics related to the “Northeastern Process” historical research project as their agenda in promoting the images of “arrogant US behavior,” “Japanese penchant for aggression” and “China twisting history.” The repercussions of such media coverage in the perception of other countries are very likely to be serious.

Furthermore, the “spiral of silence,” (in which opinion regarded to be the dominant force is picked by the mass media and grows into a majority force, while any other opinion in turn loses influence and becomes increasingly silent) also applies to TV programming regarding foreign countries. On the Takeshima/Dokdo issue, Japanese TV and newspapers do not employ terms that openly claim “Takeshima” as Japanese territory. The overwhelming number of reports refer to the island as “Takeshima (Korean name: Dokdo) over which both Japan and South Korea claimed territorial rights.” Comments and opinions presented by experts appearing in the media reflect differing perspectives (i.e., people who believe it is Japanese territory and those who believe it is Korean). In Korean TV and newspapers, however, reports begin with the subjective claim that “Dokdo is both historically and internationally Korean territory without a doubt” and reference “Japan’s delusionary claim over Dokdo,” with virtually no suggestion that both nations claim territorial rights over the island or mention of its Japanese name Takeshima. What was the result of such coverage? When the territorial issues over the island surfaced in spring 2005, we obviously did not expect to hear Koreans saying that “Dokdo is Japanese territory.” Still, the minority voice among Korean citizens that “the Dokdo issue does not exclusively comprise relations with Japan and, in view of the importance of bilateral relations, there are far more important issues to be addressed between the two countries and [that] a hardline policy against Japan over this issue is not wise” disappeared from the media.

Secondly, another factor is that the possibility of the impact of public opinion on mass media being stronger than the influence of mass media on public opinion is very often ignored, as demonstrated in Korean programming about foreign countries. In other words, what is at work is the theory of mass communication that “[mass media] fulfills its function deliberately, systematically and delicately handling the content to match with the dominant opinion of the receiving side” (Bernard Berelson, “Communication and Public Opinion,” “Mass Communication: General Research on Mass Media ,” ed., W. Schramm, transl. Gakushuin University Sociology Laboratory, Tokyo Sougensha, 1968, p. 268).

Let us look into the case of Korean programming on Japan. Then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited South Korea on October 15, 2001. The purpose of the visit had been to restore bilateral relations strained by the issues over history textbooks, Yasukuni Shrine visits and fishery disputes. The meeting took place in face of strong Japanese demand and subsequent agreement by the Koreans in face of drastic changes in international politics, including the 9/11 terrorism in the US during the same year. After touring Seoul’s Seodaemun Prison History Hall that had been the symbol of Japanese colonial rule, Prime Minister Koizumi openly declared that he “toured the exhibits with sincere regret and apology for the serious damage and pain inflicted on the Korean people under Japan’s colonial occupation.” However, TV news in Korea on that day did not mention this statement but rather placed deliberate emphasis on his statement that he looked forward to “mutual regret [by Japan and South Korea] and cooperation to avoid following the same path of pain and suffering once again,” highlighting “regret on both sides.” This was done to create “conformity with the dominant opinion of the receiving side (i.e., assertation of the image that “Japan does not repent its past sins”).

In fact, “conformity with the dominant opinion of the receiving side” is employed not only in Korean coverage of Japan but also in Japan’s media reports on North Korea, especially in TV variety shows.” For instance, at the World University Games in Daegu held in August 2003, information on the female cheerleading group from North Korea who came to the event was reported in detail from the standpoint of “army of beautiful women entering South Korea for espionage activities.” Although it is a fact that the group of women came to Daegu as part of North Korea’s effort to manipulate Korean public opinion, it matched with the image among many Japanese of North Korea being “the country where everything is target of deceptive maneuvering.” Furthermore, these TV stations had produced such TV programs voluntarily but at the same time issued comments contrary to their basic motive in reporting, claiming that “North Korea is strange, with attention focused on the group of beauties, when the main event should have been sports.” I suspect that there may be similar coverage done by Korean TV stations for the United States and China as well.

The third is that Korean TV is a media targeted exclusively on the Korean population, with the Korean language as the medium of communication. (The Japanese TV media likewise communicates solely to the Japanese with the use of the Japanese language.) In other words, the language used on TV is the language used exclusively in the country, limiting the effectiveness of the media to within the national boundaries. Since programs are created on the assumption that they are seen and read by the native population alone, little attention is paid to confirming evidence regarding the target country, and the focus is frequently centered on narrow-minded nationalism.

All the more because of this, it is likely to prompt the media to pay little heed to substantiating evidences when “reporting information, since there is little chance of information being denied as false” and fanning nationalist fervor excessively. There may also be cases in which news reporters that lack in-depth knowledge of other countries present reports as dictated by their information sources and allow them to be broadcast without confirmation.

One example is the Japanese history textbook issue that is mentioned time and again in the Lee Report. Many Korean media reports are suspect regarding how deeply they have read the history textbooks in Japan before claiming that history is being “distorted.” Regarding the Fusosha textbook that is the target of criticism, this debater finds information related to colonial occupation certainly inadequate compared to other history textbooks but believes that discretion is necessary in concluding that history is being “distorted.” The reality is that many Korean TV stations facilely mentioned that “distortion in Japanese history textbooks is outrageous” without making any attempt to verify whether “colonial rule is being idealized and distorted.” Furthermore, it must be noted that the Japanese system for government approval of school textbooks is unlike that of South Korea, where only one history textbook is approved. This debater has yet to see Korean TV giving viewers a clear explanation of the Japanese school textbook approval system.

On the other hand, coverage of South Korea with little attention to confirmation of facts can also be seen in Japan as well. An example is a news program aired in August 2003 by a Tokyo-based private TV station which was a special feature on the suicide by Chairman Chung Mong-hun of Hyundai Asan Corporation which had been promoting inter-Korean economic cooperation projects. In the news special, the news reporter mentioned that “suicides are rare in South Korea.” However, the annual number of suicides in ROK (published by the Korean Police Agency) at that time was 11,794 in the year 2000, 12,277 in 2001 and 13,055 in 2002. When compared with Japan which has a population roughly 3 times larger (31,042 suicides in 2002, according to the Police Agency), the number is actually larger than in Japan. Program production based on the incorrect assumption that “suicides are few in South Korea” raises questions, and the possibility of concluding that “the death of the chairman in society where suicides are rare is strange” raises concerns regarding its huge impact on viewers. This type of coverage is an example of Japanese reporting on South Korea with inadequate corroboration of facts.

Exposure to Pop Culture & Japan-Korea Relations

In the Lee Report, Koreans reportedly have different images for “Japan,” “the Japanese” and “Japanese-made [goods].” Despite a negative historical perception toward Japan, the Koreans associate “the Japanese” with courtesy, diligence and kindness and “Japanese-made” with high quality.

An ambivalence is seen in the Korean perception of Japan. This is confirmed in a variety of research studies. During a period roughly corresponding to that covered in the Lee Report, this debater has conducted a survey of Korean perception of other countries in cooperation with Satoshi Watanabe, Professor, Social Psychology, University of Shizuoka, and Kenichi Ishii, Professor, Media Theory, Tsukuba University, covering 803 citizens of Seoul, aged 18-60, in September 2004, based on telephone interviews, with assistance of a Korean public opinion research organization (Susumu Kohari, “Korean Perception of Other Countries,” “State of Civic Awareness in South Korea” ed. Masao Okonogi, Keio University Press, 2005, pp. 47-76). In this survey, 53.6% expressed “favorable perception” toward Japan, which was relatively lower among the major countries (55.5% for the US and 68.8% for China). On the other hand, 80.7% believed that Japanese-made household appliances are “reliable” compared to those made in South Korea (vis-à-vis 53% for US-made products and 4.1% for Chinese-made products). This fact shows an extremely high level of trust toward Japanese products.

The aforementioned figure of 53.6% for people who had favorable perception toward Japan may fall short of comparable percentages for the US and China but is not exactly small and actually surpasses the halfway point. It must be noted also that political and diplomatic relations between the two countries deteriorated rapidly beginning in February of 2005 and the survey was conducted in September 2004. In addition, it fell at a peak in popularity of Bae Yong-jun, known in Japan as “Yon-sama” with the Korean drama series “Winter Sonata” (produced by KBS) earning high ratings on NHK from April until late August in the same year. “Hallyu (Korea boom)” sweeping the Japanese archipelago was being reported extensively by the Korean media. This is believed to have led to the favorable perception toward Japan.

The Lee Report states that bilateral relations deteriorated since the inauguration of the Koizumi administration in 2001, to the point that top-level meetings could no longer be held, which is not exactly accurate. Although it is true that top-level meetings based on alternating visits stopped after June 2005 due to the Takeshima/Dokdo and Yasukuni Shrine disputes, shuttle diplomacy between the two countries actually started in 2004 between Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi and Korean President Roh. Relations began to freeze rapidly in spring of 2005. Although relations had stalled in summer of 2001 over Japanese history textbooks, the success of the 2002 World Cup hosted jointly by the two countries, the start of Hallyu in Japan in 2003, the “Winter Sonata” boom and “Yon-sama” popularity in 2004 raised positive perception of South Korea to an all-time high in Japan. The percentage of Japanese who felt “familiarity toward South Korea” in the Public Opinion Survey on External Relations by the Cabinet Office ( has been 50.3% in 2001, 54.2% in 2002, 55% in 2003, 56.7%in 2004, 51.1% in 2005 and 48.5% in 2006.

The Lee Report mentioned neither the World Cup nor the Hallyu phenomenon in its study of Korean TV programming about Japan. This debater believes that Korean coverage in these area had been positive. According to records kept by this debater, KBS TV reported in “News 9” aired on June 23, 2002, during the World Cup tournament, that “Japan is happy that South Korea moved into the quarterfinals, and the Japanese are cheering the Koreans, saying that they want the Koreans to take on the match on their behalf as well,” according to the words of its news anchor. Its Tokyo correspondent reported on how the Japanese are cheering for the Korean team very positively and on a large scale. Also, Korean TV stations reported on how “3500 fans rushed to Narita Airport, an all-time high since the airport opened in 1978” to see the arrival of Bae Yong-jun on November 25, 2004, as well as on the following day.

Fundamentally speaking, the impact of exposure to popular culture across political borders is huge on the formation of images of other countries. The research studies conducted by this debater corroborates the fact that people who are exposed to the popular culture of another country gained stronger sense of familiarity and interest toward the country. In the survey conducted on Seoul citizens in 2004 that had been mentioned earlier, the classification of people who had favorable perception of Japan into those with experience watching Japanese TV drama (36.7% saying they have seen such dramas and 66.3% without such experience) produces the fact that the percentage among those with viewing experience was 60.3%, 10 percentage points higher than those who perceived Japan favorably but have no viewing experience (49.7%).

Although Japanese popular culture has been gradually introduced in South Korea since 1998, Japanese TV drama is being restricted to satellite and cable channels, and such programs, as well as Japanese variety shows, have yet to gain exposure to the Korean public at large. When Japanese drama programming begins on broadcast TV stations, the number of people with “viewing experience” is expected to increase significantly. This is expected to improve Japan’s image dramatically among viewers, as well as in the percentage of TV programming on Korea with positive perception of Japan.

Lastly, the Lee Report proposes the inception of a “Korea-Japan broadcasting culture research committee.” This debater fully supports this proposal since such a committee would be highly beneficial to the improvement of perception of each other through broadcasting and for the development of bilateral relations in general. In view of the huge impact of broadcasting on public perception of other countries, inaccurate reporting and information on other countries can be considered a “crime.” It may render nil the diligent efforts by people on both sides working hard to improve relations between Japan and South Korea. Notwithstanding the fact that perception of other countries created by TV and perception of viewers based on TV are not exactly the same, the committee should consider studying erroneous reporting, deliberate program broadcasts and formation of perception of other countries.

At the same time, this debater proposes the establishment of a culture and educational TV channel managed jointly by the public broadcasting services of the two countries as a venue for both sides to demonstrate their strength in terms of broadcasting content to citizens in the two countries. Germany and France, which have a history of hostility and warfare, have a TV channel named ARTE, jointly managed by their public broadcasting organizations. It was established in 1991 under a treaty concluded between Germany’s state governments and the government of France in 1990 and is currently broadcasting films, documentaries and debate programs from the two countries to their viewing audiences. This debater suggests adopting this scheme. It must be noted that the Presidential Committee on Northeast Cooperation Initiative of South Korea is currently planning formation of a co-sponsored TV channel by Japan, South Korea and China. However, this debater believes that startup by Japan and South Korea, two countries that share similarities in social structure, will facilitate the process at a quicker pace. END

Susumu Kohari

Associate Professor, Faculty of International Relations, University of Shizuoka

Kohari Susumu is Associate Professor at the Faculty of International Relations, University of Shizuoka. He was a staff member of the Japan National Tourist Organization at the Tokyo headquarters from 1986-91 and at the Seoul Office from 1991-95. In 1995-97 he was a Special Assistant at the Embassy of Japan in Korea. Professor Kohari was educated at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies from 1981-86, at the Graduate School of Public Policy, Sogang University from 1993-95, and also in the Doctoral Program at the Graduate School of Public Administration, Seoul National University from 1996-97. His publications include "What Are Koreans Thinking?" (Shinchosha, 2004), Korea and Koreans (Heibonsha,1999), "Reading to Korean Society in the End of the 20th Century" (ToyoKeizai, 1998), and "Watching Korea" (Jiji Press, 1995).

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