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POSTED 1.9.2017

What I learned about journalism, storytelling… and people (including Kim Jong-un!) while working in the South Korean media

The year was 2008; I had just paid over €8,000 for a Master's in Journalism; it all started out well and then…Ireland’s economy crashed. I started working in a variety of freelance posts in both broadcasting and print. It was exciting at times, but mostly just exhausting, especially as I was working between Dublin and Sligo. Eventually I decided it was time to get away.

By Emilee Jennings

I moved to South Korea with the intention of staying three months, but as soon as I touched down in Incheon Airport something clicked. Seoul felt like a home away from home. In many ways, it was similar to Ireland, parts of the society made me think of Ireland 30 years ago, while other aspects represented Ireland in the future. Both countries experienced harsh colonisation and are split into North and South. On many levels I think the two countries are as similar as they are different.

I started off, as most foreigners do, teaching English to adorable kindergarten kids with high levels of English. It was quite a fun job, but I figured if I intended to stay long term I’d have to make a career switch.

After networking with locals and foreigners involved with the Korean media, one by one the stepping-stones began to appear.

After one year, I became the music and arts editor for Groove Korea, an English-language magazine. From there I moved to a national newspaper, The Korea Times, and then I worked as an international news reporter for TBS eFM, and finally as a host and writer for KBS WORLD Radio.

I moved back to Ireland recently. But during my five years in Korea, I uncovered many interesting facts that mostly stay hidden from the outside world.

Here’s a few of them:

You Don’t Scare Us!

When a missile is launched or North Korea announces that it will turn the South into “a sea of fire and a pile of ashes” no one in South Korea bats an eyelid. It’s being going on for so many years now that its not considered an actual threat. It does however cause occasional momentary chaos for the stock market, as foreign investors start selling off Korea stock amid worries about the DPRK’s erratic leader Kim Jong-un.

Two Years of Mandatory Military Duty!

Despite not fearing North Korea, there is an element of worry for South Koreans based on their geographical location. South Korea is surrounded by Japan, China, North Korea and Russia.  For this reason, all able-bodied South Korean men are forced to serve in the military for approximately two years. A man who refuses to serve can be heavily fined, or in extreme cases, imprisoned for up to 18 months. Exceptions include Olympic medalists.

Extreme Education Linked to Suicide

South Korea prides itself on its high level of education. The role of a parent, especially in big cities like Seoul, is to ensure their children get the best education. But ‘success’ does not come cheap. Competition is fierce and many young children feel intense pressure from devastatingly long study hours – some teenagers attend classes for up to 14 hours a day. The extreme pressure to succeed is too much for some young people to handle. According to 2014 data by Statistics Korea, suicide was the No. 1 cause of death among people aged 10 to 39.

Loose Reporting Can Land You in Prison

South Korea has a criminal defamation law defined as “damaging a person’s reputation by publicly displaying false facts.” Korean journalists choose their words carefully and tend to avoid making accusations about public figures until there is a mountain of evidence stacked against them. Even when reporting on murder cases, the suspect’s full name is never mentioned.

No-Anti-Racism Laws

Non-Koreans can be legally barred from clubs and bars and there is no legal way to fight back  – it seems unthinkable but there is no law forbidding racial discrimination in South Korea. Employees can also list their preference of skin colour in a job advertisement, for example it could say ‘whites only,’ or even ‘no blacks.’ There is also no law against discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, nationality, or sexual preference, religious or political views. At present, there are only laws against three types of discrimination —gender, disability and age.

Foreign Journalists work well together

At first, it’s incredibly difficult to break into the foreign media bubble in Korea. There’s the issue of visas and knowing who to talk to, but one good contact leads to another and next thing you know you’re right in the heart of it. Journalists working for English and other foreign language publications and broadcasters, whether local or international, tend to help each other find the right contacts for a story and even share job opportunities.