This may be another vapid, Michael-Moore-ish conspiracy theory. But since my research interest is the power dynamics between politics and the mass media, I have to share this with you.


Let me introduce Hong Seok-hyun; this rather obscure figure is in fact one of the most influential men in South Korea. Hong is a media mogul owning JoongAng Ilbo, one of the major South Korean daily newspapers, and Joongang Media Network, the biggest shareholder of the Joongang Tongyang Broadcasting Company (JTBC).

The media mogul is also connected to South Korea’s largest chaebol Samsung: he is the brother-in-law of Lee Kun-hee and the maternal uncle of Lee Jae-yong. However, it is hard to say Hong and the Lee family have been very close; Lee Kun-hee has estranged Hong from the management of his corporations since 1994. The actual reason Lee and Hong separated is not known to the public. However, one possible hypothesis is Lee was not interested in Hong’s political ambition. Hong has roamed the corridor to political power since 1983 when he took up the post of an aide to the Blue House Chief of Staff.  The watershed was probably in 2005 when Hong joined the then leading party Uri Party founded by President Roh Moo-hyun who was censorious about Samsung and other chaebols. In contrast, despite being one of the most powerful clans in South Korean society, the Lee family has stayed away from politics; Lee remains a businessman as his father and the founder of Samsung Lee Byung-chul did, and his heir Lee Jae-yong will very likely do so.

Interestingly, despite all the influence and funds he has, Hong has not run for election of office; he has taken up all the posts by nominations only. Perhaps he is wary of his lack of a public appeal. Another factor related to Hong’s evasion of elections is his rather opportunistic political career: he approached any party as long as it was the leading party, alienating him from the support base of the party. Yet, Hong’s political inclination seems clearly left-leaning. In the article he contributed to the Huffington Post, he clearly expresses his support for the controversial Kaesong Industrial Complex, a pinnacle of the so-called Sunshine Policy, initiated by Kim Dae-jung, a left-wing nationalist, in 1998 focusing on reconciliation and cooperation with North Korea. One of the key Sunshine initiatives was the opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a symbolic of the detente and a cornerstone of the future North-South economic cooperation. Although the succeeding presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak saw it as a window to Pyongyang, President Park Geun-hye accused the industrial complex of financing Kim Jong-un’s prohibitive nuclear weapons development and finally shut it down in Feb, 2016. Therefore, by publicly supporting the Kaesong Industrial Complex, Hong has revealed his anti-Park stance.

I personally do not think Hong was influenced by Rhee Young-hee, godfather of the South Korea Left. Given the history of the Hong family, we can safely assume that Park is Hong’s sworn enemy. The story goes far back to 1961 when Park Chung-hee, father of Park Geun-hye, brought down Hong Jin-ki, father of Hong Seok-hyun, from the culmination of his political career. Hong Jin-ki was a one of Syngman Rhee’s handpicked officials who served as the Ministry of Justice from 1958 to 1960. He was one of the high-ranking officials who proposed Rhee an full-scale armed crackdown on a national anti-Rhee protest, known as the April 19 Revolution in 1960. Fortunately for Hong Sr., another henchman Gwak Young-joo ordered the shooting – Gwak was hung and Hong went quit next year. Following Rhee’s resignation on April 26, 1960, the Second Republic was established. But its powerless government could not stabilize the precarious situation and Hong Sr. went unpunished. On May 16, 1961, however, the military junta led by Major General Park Chung-hee ended the Second Republic and assumed power. The junta opened the Revolutionary Court to punish the corrupted officials of the previous governments; Hong Sr. was one of the most wanted individuals because of the allegations that he had ordered the shooting. Hong Jin-ki was eventually released on a special amnesty, but his ambition was shattered: he could never return to politics. Hong Sr. started a new career as a journalist and a businessman, as a president of JoongAng Ilbo until his death in 1986. Hong Seok-hyun is his eldest son. On the other hand, Park Chung-hee ruled South Korea until his death in 1979 and still receives the utmost respect from rightists. His eldest daughter Park Geun-hye became a prominent right-wing politician.

Since when Hong Seok-hyun has decided to avenge his father’s downfall on Park Geun-hye? I guess it was 2013 when Hong headhunted Sohn Suk-hee as a director of JTBC Newsroom. Sohn is another politically motivated broadcaster who knows how to use his influence. In 2016, Sohn began to report the Choi Soon-sil scandal to ignite the mass protests demanding the impeachment of President Park and the apprehension of Lee Jae-yong. JoongAng Ilbo and JTBC continued to play a vital role in spreading anti-Park and anti-Samsung news. Media Today, one of the most radical left-wing media, appreciated the “improvement” of JoongAng Ilbo.

As soon as Park was impeached on March 10, 2017, Hong hinted his possible run for presidency. However, in April, Hong stopped talking about his run and turned down a coalition against the leading presidential hopeful Moon Jae-in. Hong also admitted that Moon asked for his endorsement and proposed an important post in his administration. Moon Jae-in has won the 19th presidential election on May 9, 2017, and appointed Hong as his special presidential advisers for unification, foreign affairs and national security on May 21. However, Hong reigned from the post on June 19. Hong’s resignation indicates that the power struggle within Moon’s inner circle must be intense. It is questionable whether Moon’s radical loyalists will accept Hong who is too powerful, too ambitious, and too opportunistic.