South Korean Media's Anti-Semitism Problem
Image Credit: Flickr/ Ian Muttoo

South Korean Media's Anti-Semitism Problem


U.S. hedge fund Elliott Management’s bid to block the merger of two affiliates of business giant Samsung was always going to generate plenty of contentious media coverage in South Korea. Samsung Group, after all, accounts for roughly 20 percent of the country’s economy; any shakeup in its organization, or foreign move to prevent it, would be a big deal.

Less easy to predict may have been the deluge of coverage about the hedge fund’s Jewish connections. Leaning heavily on anti-Semitic tropes that would meet nods of approval on Stormfront, several media outlets honed in on the Jewish background of CEO Paul Singer, who on Friday ultimately lost his bid to convince shareholders to reject the merger.

Speaking to prominent weekly magazine Sisa Journal this week, Park Jae-seon, a former ambassador to Morocco and a current member of the preparation committee for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics, warned of the outsized influence of Jews in global finance.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

“The scary thing about Jews is they are grabbing the currency markets and financial investment companies,” he said.

Park, described as the “country’s top expert on Jews,” continued: “Their network is tight knit beyond one’s imagination.”

Mainstream outlets Money Today and YTN joined the fray with similar stereotype-laden reports. But the most egregious offender was Mediapen, which rallied against the supposed Jewish conspiracy to hurt South Korea over the course of several articles.

In one piece, which was quietly deleted after negative international attention, columnist Kim Ji-ho launched an invective at proxy-advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services, which also opposed the merger of Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries.

“ISS will be supportive of Elliott’s claims because ISS, like Elliott, is founded upon Jewish money,” he said. “Elliott’s CEO is Paul Singer, a Jew. ISS is an affiliate of MSCI, which is owned by Jewish major shareholders… ISS’s opposition to the merger can be interpreted along the lines of Jewish alliance. Jewish money has long been known to be ruthless and merciless.”

While Samsung distanced itself from the coverage after the intervention of the Anti-Defamation League, and some local media noted negative attention in the international press, there has been no observable pushback against the comments. Nor is there any indication that local concerns have asked any of the journalists or commentators involved to account for their remarks.

“Apart from a large number of enlightened Koreans who ‘get it’ but are never heard from, there is generally no reaction against racial discrimination unless foreigners get involved and this can be seen as harming the ‘Korean cause’ internationally,” said Ben Wagner, a 15-year former resident of South Korea and attorney who campaigns on discrimination issues.

Wagner explained the free use of racial stereotypes goes hand in hand with the common belief among Koreans that the nation is based on race.

He added that such attitudes are exemplified by the anti-Semitic, and once extremely popular, educational cartoons of Rhie Won-bok.

“Rhie provides Social Darwinian education for Korean kids to go out and compete in the world,” said Wagner. “Knowledge of Jews is especially important for Koreans trying to succeed there, since Rhie says that they pose the final barrier. But read Rhie carefully and you see he writes about them with a weird sense of envy, as if they are the toughest minjok (race) on the block to beat.”

The cartoons attracted an international backlash in 2007 that culminated in a rebuke from the U.S. government.

South Korea’s media has an inglorious history of unapologetically stoking racial prejudice with few consequences. In 2012, national broadcaster MBC aired a documentary depicting foreign men as HIV-infected, sexual predators that target Korean women. The broadcast tarred even consensual relationships as deviant through leading narration and ominous music.

Following a backlash from foreign residents, the broadcaster remained utterly unapologetic.

“I watched the show several times and you’ve probably noticed we said ‘some’ foreigners make trouble,” the program’s director Kim Ji-wan told the Korea JoongAng Daily newspaper at the time.

“But why are all these foreigners making a fuss over it? Maybe because they have a guilty conscience.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief