Censorship Humor/Satire Korean Law

Samsung Tries to Sue Its Way to Mohammunity

Recently, a friend approached me about the idea of writing a column for a South Korean newspaper. I declined on the basis that I’m already overtaxed by the burden of writing this blog, but perhaps I should have added “the defense of personal jurisdiction” as another reason:

In his Christmas Day 2009 column for the Korea Times, Michael Breen decided to lampoon such national newsmakers as President Lee Myung-bak and the pop idol Rain.

Headlined “What People Got for Christmas,” the English-language column also poked fun at global technology giant Samsung Electronics, referring to past bribery scandals as well as perceptions that its leaders are arrogant. [….]

Breen’s column ran as local media reported that President Lee would soon pardon Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee on a 2008 conviction for tax evasion. Chairman Lee, 68, had already received a federal pardon in the 1990s on a conviction for bribing two former presidents while he was with the firm.

On Dec. 29, the day of Lee’s pardon, Samsung sued the freelance columnist, the newspaper and its top editor for $1 million, claiming damage to its reputation and potential earnings. After the Korea Times ran clarifications, the newspaper and its editor were dropped from the suit.

And people wonder why corporate corruption is so common in South Korea. I guess it just goes to show that you never know what you’re not reading:

“In South Korea, it’s considered taboo to criticize the chaebols,” said Kim Ky-won, professor of economics at Korea National Open University. “They hold very close to absolute power.”

Most critical stories run in smaller media less dependent on ads from big companies. Major media reports are mostly limited to breaking news of prosecutions of chaebol leaders but seldom probe deeper, critics say.

“Samsung has financial power over the press. They’re their own sanctuary where no one can intervene or criticize them,” said Kim Keon-ho, an official at the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice.

With special guest appearance by Brendon Carr:

“In South Korea, injury to one’s reputation is the key element, not the truth,” he said. “The fact that a statement is true is not an absolute defense. Satire is not a defense. That’s different from the American definition. America is a free speech society, whereas Korea is not. It has historically been a ‘sit down and shut up’ society.”

Punishment here is tougher if the statement is not true. “But you’re punished in all cases for revealing things that injure someone’s reputation,” Carr said. “If you say, ‘Look out for Jim. He’s a crook. He swindled me,’ that’s a crime in South Korea. And people use it. Defamation may be the No. 1 criminal complaint here.”

Suddenly, Robert Koehler’s hypervigilance about libel suits doesn’t seem so hypervigilant. I wonder if a South Korean judge or lawyer (or Samsung) can now sue Mr. Carr. I wonder where this stops. I especially wonder if any of the many South Korean plaintiffs I’ve criticized or ridiculed would try to assert personal jurisdiction over a U.S.-based blog whose only footprint in Korea is the fact of not being blocked there. Yet.

I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Breen’s writing, even if I often disagree with his views. I find it tasteless of Samsung to persecute him for satirizing press reports that it paid bribes to prosecutors. I find it especially tasteless that my profession is being misused to censor public criticism and suppress freedom of speech notwithstanding the truth of the matter asserted. As a small gesture of solidarity with Mr. Breen, whom I’ve never met, here are some links to other people’s reports on what the scandal is all about, just in case you didn’t really know, either.

* Former Samsung lawyer “Kim Yong-chul claimed that Samsung has a large network of government officials, politicians, journalists and academics in its pay,” a network that doesn’t include one presidential aide who photographed and then refused a W5 million “holiday gift.”

* This NYT blog post notes that Mr. Kim even managed to get Catholic priests to act as his mouthpieces. That’s some trick.

* Someone alleged that Samsung had also paid off Roh Moo Hyun.

If you ask me, the suppression of legitimate criticism is a greater scandal than any of this. Admittedly, I wasn’t a major consumer of Samsung products before this, but I sure as hell won’t be one now.


  1. Some wise observations, barrister Stanton.

    As I wrote here, while it’s possible Mr Breen might not necessarily have seen Samsung’s reaction coming, it’s a bit odd that the expert on Korea whose book so many people read (so they themselves can figure out Korea) is playing dumb about how to get himself out of this situation. He’s not in Britain, he’s in Korea, and when he walks out on the pitch, he’s going to face Korea’s rules.

    And Samsung is shooting themselves in the foot by making a Federal case out of this. Like book-banning, it only serves to pique interest in the topic at hand.


  2. Ah, but that’s not the original original source. 😉

    I presume Michael Breen’s original “satirical spoof” from December is no longer on the KT website. It would seem to me that any blogger who is in Korea or goes there a lot may want to avoid reprinting that piece or providing a link to it elsewhere, lest they fall afoul of Samsung’s hot-and-juicy lawyers. I’m not sure whether providing such a link would make one complicit in the act, if it did turn out to be libel.

    One wonders if reporter John Glionna, simply by writing about it, is also engaging in reputation-injuring acts that could constitute libel. If, that is, the idea that in South Korea even true statements can be libel if they damage another’s reputation is itself true.


  3. I don’t agree with Samsung’s actions, nor Korean defamation laws in general, but I have to wonder whether as a solicitor and barrister myself, the lambasting of these laws is coming from a rather Ameri-centric point of view and missing a little bit of the contextual point.

    First, like it or not, Korean culture (and Asian culture as a whole) revolves around face. Korean defamation laws are in part a reflection of these cultural values, ie. the whole concept of chaemyon that many in Korea still hold very dearly. In fact, I would even go out on a limb and say that the more successful American (and Western) interactions with either Korean government has been one where chaemyon has been put in consideration. For instance, even with the North Koreans, giving them an exit where they can go back to their own people and say “ì²´ë©´ 지켰다” (at least per my own past convos with some of the US folks that have negotiated with the North Koreans) is a lot more effective and easier route than giving them no “face out.”

    Second, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press in general, may be a universal concept, but the scope of these freedoms are not universally agreed upon. America’s freedom of speech laws are one of the most open in the world, but this is not true of many other countries, and I would argue this is from a historical and cultural context. For instance, Germany has its anti-Nazi laws, and Korea has its National Security Law. America has Proposition 8 in California, while Canada is much more open to same-sex marriage. An individual may think that all these laws are unjust, but they all sprout from the historical and cultural contexts of the respective countries, a factor that cannot be dismissed so easily.



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