Former South Korean Culture Minister Charged and Artists Sue President
By HG Masters
The scandal over the blacklist created by top aides to South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye has widened even further, while the Constitutional Court deliberates Park’s impeachment. On February 7, the former culture minister Cho Yoon-sun was charged with abuse of power and coercion for maintaining a list of more than 9,000 artists and cultural figures who were deemed critical of the president, in order to deny or limit their access to state-funding, private funding and to put them under surveillance.
Kim Ki-Choon, a powerful former chief of staff for Park, was also charged with the same crimes. He is believed to have drawn up the original list. Park herself is named as an accomplice, though she has denied knowing about the list. Two additional aides were also charged. Both Cho and Kim were arrested in January, and Park was impeached in December by the National Assembly after revelations that her friend Choi Soon-sil extorted millions of dollars from leading companies and intervened in government affairs.
On Thursday February 9, more than 460 artists who were on the list due to their political views have sued President Park and her former top presidential aides. They are demanding compensation of KRW 1 million (USD 870) apiece, along with individual damages. Lawyers for the plaintiffs also announced plans to sue Park’s aides for illegally gathering their personal information.
The cultural blacklist, a 2015 version of which was published by the Hankook Ilbo newspaper in October 2016, had been long suspected, after acclaimed cultural figures were denied state sponsorship for projects. It includes many artists who had earlier criticized Park’s father, the military dictator Park Chung-Hee, who led South Korea from 1961 until 1979. Among the names were prominent figures like film directors Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk, Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Han Kang, painter Hong Sung-dam and poet Ko Un—who told a national broadcaster, “It’s an honor to be on the list” and that it showed “how disgusting the government is.” More than 6,000 artists who publicly supported the opposition candidate Moon Jae-in during the 2012 national election comprised the majority of the list.
Many more new names were added in 2014 after the Sewol ferry disaster off Korea’s south coast that killed 304, including hundreds of schoolchildren. President Park was mysteriously absent for seven hours during and after the accident, leading to fervent speculation about her whereabouts. When cultural figures produced works about the government’s inept response to the tragedy, Park’s government pushed back by censoring its critics. The Gwangju Art Museum was forced to remove Hong Sung-dam’s satirical painting from a 2014 exhibition. While culture minister, Cho Yoon-sun ordered all tickets to the documentary Diving Bell, about the divers who removed bodies from the sunken ship, to be purchased in bulk, effectively preventing the public from seeing the film. The Busan International Film Festival, the country’s biggest and the most prominent in Asia, had its budget slashed in half after screening the film. As investigations continue, more revelations about the Park administration's efforts to curtail public criticism are likely to emerge.
HG Masters is editor-at-large of ArtAsiaPacific.
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