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Rallying around the flag or crying wolf? Contentions over the Cheonan incident.

Following a tragic and mysterious sinking of a naval ship, a political crisis rocked South Korea (Republic of Korea; ROK). On March 26, 2010, the Cheonan began to sink just south of the border with North Korea on the west coast of the Korean peninsula. (1) Rescue efforts quickly began, but so did confusion as the situation progressed. The sinking did not leave enough time for many to evacuate. Out of 106 sailors on board, only fifty-eight were quickly rescued while forty-six remained missing. In the meantime, another ship in the area opened fire on an unidentified object heading north, believing that it was a North Korean ship. The ROK authorities later announced that the object was actually a big flock of birds. By late that evening, the Cheonan had completely sunk.

By early April the rescue mission was for the most part over, and the government switched its focus to finding and extricating the ship. On April 16, 2010, a Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group (JIG) comprising military and civilian experts released its preliminary report, which cautiously hinted that the sinking was the result of an external explosion, fueling suspicions about North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK). On April 17, the DPRK denied that it had attacked the ROK naval vessel, but the speculation in the South that the ship had been hit by a DPRK torpedo continued to grow without any clear alternative explanation. The JIG's final report, released May 20, concluded that a North Korean submarine had torpedoed the Cheonan.

Given the hostile and often violent relationship between North Korea and South Korea, the idea of the DPRK attacking the Cheonan was easy for many South Koreans to accept. As the initial reports of the sinking spread, many regarded the North with suspicion, although President Lee Myung-bak warned South Koreans not to jump to any conclusions. However, the caution quickly ebbed away, and the authorities began to pursue and advocate the North Korea theory while suppressing alternative theories, such as a crash with a submarine. As I show, the authorities used a range of mechanisms to promote the idea of North Korean aggression. This event was not isolated, for there is a long history of ROK authorities employing political propaganda and manipulation to exploit political crises, often blaming the DPRK--sometimes legitimately, sometimes not--in the name of national security. The masses usually succumb to the manipulation and often rally around the government's flag.

During the alleged "water attack" in 1986, for instance, the authorities claimed that the DPRK was building a huge dam just north of the border with the ROK with the intention of using it as a water bomb. Government officials claimed that if the DPRK broke the dam, the entire city of Seoul would be submerged and devastated. They proposed building a defensive dam to prevent a water flow from the North, and soon thereafter began a public campaign for the construction of a so-called Dam of Peace. The South Korean public was mobilized in mass rallies denouncing the North and was compelled to make financial contributions to the project. Eventually, the entire affair was exposed as a political stunt to disrupt the growing demand for democracy in the late 1980s (Ha 2008).

The case of the Cheonan is interesting for two reasons. First, the authorities' rally-round-the-flag efforts continued even after democracy had been established. Democratically elected leaders should not need political manipulation that relies on foreign threats, given their legitimacy and the potential danger of violent conflict. The very fact that such a rallying effort was made provides an opportunity to evaluate South Korean democracy. Second, the authorities' efforts to make the case were not as successful as they might have expected or wished. The public reacted very emotionally and did rally against North Korea. The major TV station, the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), called for donations for victims and family members and got an enthusiastic reception. More than 1,800 people showed up, and KBS collected 513 million won on the first day of the drive (Hyon 2010). Corporations such as Samsung and LG quickly followed suit (Lee 2010). By early May financial pledges reached 31 billion won (Kim 2010a). During the national mourning period (April 26-29, 2010) more than 300,000 citizens, including leaders of the government and military, visited thirty-nine sites and mourned the dead (Pak 2010). Some people took to the streets. Conservatives--largely veterans of the Vietnam War--rallied to accuse liberal organizations, including a leading nongovernmental organization (NGO), the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), of being unpatriotic and pro-DPRK (Hwang Ch'un-hwa 2010).

The problem for the government was that even though it waved the patriotic flag, the rally was not as solid and large as it had hoped. The same polls that showed popular suspicion of the DPRK over the sinking revealed relatively low levels of trust toward the ROK government as well. Suh and Nam (2012) point out,

   According to a poll on the credibility of the government's
   announcement explaining the Cheonan incident in 2010 when the
   sinking took place, only 32.4% of respondents answered either
   "fully trust" or "somewhat trust." On the other hand, 35.8%
   answered "do not trust at all" or "somewhat do not trust." It is
   noteworthy that the trend remained the same in 2011 (33.6% vs.

Public doubt toward the government surprisingly defied earlier expectations that the sinking would help the governing Grand National Party in the June provincial elections. The Grand National Party won only six of sixteen gubernatorial races--down from twelve--and lost traditional strongholds such as South Kyungsang province. This apparent defeat is reasonably linked to the unsuccessful propaganda generated after the sinking. Moreover, evidence suggests that the government's manipulation actually backfired during the election campaign. According to a poll, the majority of people (69.3 percent) believed that the government's apparently clumsy explanations of the Cheonan incident were politically motivated. Almost half of the supporters of the majority party (41.2 percent) as well an overwhelming majority of supporters of the opposition Democratic Party (90.3 percent) shared that suspicion (Gang 2010, 4).

Furthermore, the public paid less attention to the incident than the government and the Grand National Party might have hoped. Fewer than half the supporters of each party (40.1 percent for the Grand National Party and 48.2 percent for the Democratic Party, respectively) reported taking the incident into consideration when voting. In addition, according to Suh and Nam (2012), 70 percent of voters did not change their support for a candidate due to the incident, and those who did switched their support from the majority party to an opposition party (12.7 percent) rather than vice versa (2.4 percent). In other words, the Cheonan incident did not create the anticipated rally-round-the-flag effect--known as the North Wind in South Korea. The authorities failed to sell their version of what happened to the Cheonan, the public remained divided, and the Grand National Party failed to dominate the provincial elections.

What did the authorities do to rally the public round the flag? Why did their efforts result in only partial success? What does this case tell us about the rally theory? I attempt to answer these questions and address larger theoretical issues that they raise.

Examining the Rally Effect

Aggressive state policy against a foreign foe can affect a public divided over domestic issues by forcing them to put aside their differences until the national crisis is resolved. This rally-round-the-flag effect can be defined as "stirring individuals who were previously in opposition to draw together in support of their leaders against the external threat," thus displaying national unity of purpose (Chatagnier 2012, 633). While the rally idea might appeal to common sense, its theoretical significance within the framework of the diversionary theory of war should be recognized. Arguably, the rallying effect is actually part of a broad phenomenon in which domestic political difficulties result in a foreign policy crisis that revitalizes the legitimacy of incumbent leaders, even if only temporarily.

Many studies have found evidence confirming the widely shared notion that foreign crises create unity within a country. The positive relationship between a rallying event and support for incumbent leaders is well documented (Mueller 1973; Lee 1977; Kernell 1978; Ostrom and Simon 1985; Marra, Ostrom, and Simon 1990). One recent case that attracted much attention was US president George W. Bush's increased popularity after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. For example, by comparing different sets of determinants of presidential approval, such as the honeymoon effect, the economic situation, and foreign affairs, Eichenberg, Stoll, and Lebo (2006) find evidence confirming that President Bush benefited from the rally-round-the-flag effect. According to the study, the public rallied behind Bush after the 9/11 attack, the commencement of the Iraq War, and the fall of Baghdad, confirming the expected effects of a national security crisis. Other studies have found much the same (Voeten and Brewer 2006; Norpoth and Sidman 2007; Weisberg and Christenson 2007).

The rally effect varies depending on several factors. One is the public's perception of the leadership. Previous levels of public trust toward incumbent leaders have been found to be important. For example, the rallying effect is more likely to occur when the incumbent leader is already popular among constituents (Kernell 1978). Not only does public support increase the effect, it can also determine its magnitude. Chatagnier (2012) shows that the public's trust in government affects the actual size of public rallies. In other words, positive changes in presidential approval following a foreign crisis, such as war, depend on levels of precrisis political trust. According to this line of study, when the public already has a significant level of trust toward its government, it is more susceptible to the government's efforts to rally support for its foreign policy.

Another determining factor is the nature of the crisis. When tensions with a foreign rival are more serious or concern a sensitive issue, the rally effect is more likely to occur and the size of public support is also larger than usual. According to Gibler (2010, 519), territorial disputes are by far the most "salient threats" to national security, and they affect the political prospects of all political actors. Opposition leaders as well as incumbents will likely find it extremely difficult to continue their internal political disputes; instead, they will change course by supporting national unity (Vasquez 1995; Huth 1996). Similarly, the US public is found to be more supportive of the president during a foreign crisis, especially one that may involve the large-scale use of force (Kernell 1978; Ostrom and Simon 1985).

As we can see, that the rally effects will follow incumbent leaders' foreign policy maneuvering is not guaranteed. Even if the effects occur as hoped, they might be short-lived or even backfire, since a foreign policy adventure such as military conflict is more risky and more expensive than domestic confrontation. Therefore, as the burdens from the foreign crisis mount, the public's initial show of support toward the incumbent leader might falter, causing the rally effect to quickly ebb and eventually disappear altogether. As some studies have shown, war can unite a nation, but its cost can diminish morale. In particular, the fiscal burden of war may well dampen the public's support for leaders (Geys 2010), as can mounting casualties (Eichenberg, Stoll, and Lebo 2006; Karol and Miguel 2007). More information may add to these burdens. As time goes by, the public's understanding of a conflict becomes more sophisticated as more information becomes available. An informed public is increasingly difficult to manipulate, suppressing the rally-round-the-flag effect. As Baum and Groeling (2010, 443) report,

   Early in a conflict, elites (especially the president) have an
   informational advantage that renders public perceptions of
   "reality" very elastic. As events unfold and as the public gathers
   more information, this elasticity recedes, allowing alternative
   frames to challenge the administration's preferred frame. We
   predict that over time the marginal impact of elite rhetoric and
   reality will decrease, although a sustained change in events may
   eventually restore their influence.

These findings all point to the temporary nature of the rally effect. No matter how popular or exciting the foreign adventure might have been, the public inevitably loses its initial enthusiasm for it, and the rally effect diminishes. If so, the incumbent leaders have only a small window of political opportunity to use the public's goodwill. Assuming that leaders can reasonably understand the temporal nature of the rally effect, we can expect that they will use any possible means to sell their case as quickly and effectively as possible. In modern days, mass media is second to none when it comes to spreading political messages, and because the public typically gains its political understanding and knowledge through it (Newton 1999), successful political leaders will never give up their efforts to gain influence over, if not control, the mass media.

As one example, we may consider the Bush administration's coordination with the mass media on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq. (2) The administration successfully used the mass media as its main platform to persuade the public that Iraq was linked to the 9/11 attacks despite the absence of any concrete evidence. Bush succeeded only because the press largely succumbed to the administration's evaluation of the situation and desperately depended on information his administration disseminated (Cashman and Robinson 2007). It is a chilling reminder that even in a democracy the incumbent leader can sell arguments for war as long as the mass media is in his/her pocket. Bush's case is hardly unique. Analyzing the rally effects in the United States from 1933 to 1992, Baker and O'Neal concluded that "the size and appearance of a rally depends primarily on how the crisis is presented to the public in terms of media coverage, bipartisan support, and White House spin" (2001, 661). Therefore, we can expect that political manipulation will become difficult in the presence of independent mass media. Using a cross-sectional, time-series dataset for interstate dyads from 1950 to 1992, Choi and James validate the argument that "media openness has a strong dampening effect" on interstate conflicts (2007, 23).

Waving the Flag: The Cheonan Case

Blaming the North

Prior to the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010, Lee Myung-bak's government came under increasing pressure as certain of its political maneuverings began to backfire. The trial of former prime minister Han Myung-sook in the previous government seemed to develop against Lee as his government's charges against her began to falter (Hankyoreh 2010b). Lee's signature project, the development of four major river systems, became increasingly unpopular due to its extraordinary profligacy and projected devastating environmental impact. The revelation of the government's direct intervention in the press further shocked the country (Hankyoreh 2010a). And a leader of the Grand National Party allegedly tried to remove the head of a prominent Buddhist temple (Gyonghyang-shinmun 2010).

Lee's regime seemed more than willing to violate civil liberties and democratic principles to preserve the political high ground. However, the public's attention to all these scandals immediately disappeared once the Cheonan sank. The South Korean authorities quickly sought to mobilize public support for the victims and engineer a sense of national unity and patriotism. Many people suspected that North Korea must have attacked the ship, though the suspicion largely remained guarded. A government source pointed out the absence of any US intelligence regarding North Korean activity in the area at the time of the incident (Son 2010a), and no smell of explosives or visual signs of North Korean activity were reported (Son 2010b). As a result, the authorities initially treated North Korean involvement as only a very small possibility (Hankyoreh 2010c).

It did not take too long, however, before the discussion shifted, with the military leading the way. South Korean defense minister Kim Tae-young mentioned the presence of two North Korean submarines near the Cheonan from March 24 to 27 (Song and Gwon 2010), hinting that a North Korean torpedo might have sunk the ship (Son 2010c). This comment quickly changed the government's public stance, with the president emphasizing the need for a "firm response [toward] the guilty party" (Hwang Ch'un-hwa 2010) as if there were an attacker. He thus hastily foreclosed any possibility that the ship suffered an accident, such as an internal explosion or collision (Hwang Jun-ho 2010). Leaks by the state's investigation team followed, and its leader, Yoon Duk-yong, eventually suggested that an external explosion might have cut the vessel in two (Son 2010d). Although no clear and convincing evidence supported this claim, suspicion toward North Korea deepened.

To further fuel the brewing hostility and anger, Jung Byungkook, a leader of the Grand National Party, held a press conference on April 18 and directly identified North Korea as the attacker (An and Song 2010), making it all seem very official. Defense Minister Kim quickly repeated this claim (Sim and Kim 2010), as did Ryu Joong-ik, the Korean ambassador to China (Lee and Lee 2010). On April 29, tensions with North Korea escalated when Kim Sung-chan, the chief admiral of the navy, during the funeral for the forty-six victims promised swift retaliation against the attacker (Kwon 2010). Lee Myung-bak weighed in with increasingly hostile remarks toward North Korea (Hwang and Leeyu 2010).

The official account of the sinking began to spread with little convincing evidence. Four major mechanisms--the dependence of the press on government-provided information, the authorities' control over the press, repression, and the institutionalization of memories--are largely responsible.

Press Dependence on the Government, and the Power of Official Secrets

Following the sinking, the government largely shaped the national discussion and perception of the incident. By placing the blame on the North, the government made it increasingly difficult to dispute it or suggest any alternative explanation without being castigated as "communist." The state's tight leash on the mass media facilitated its position. Lee's government did not practice censorship as in the authoritarian past--embedding government agents in the press, sending written instructions on what the media should cover, or reviewing materials before they went to the public. But it utilized other tools to control public opinion, primarily the government's virtual monopoly on information about the incident. As the sinking was treated as a national security issue, the government carefully limited the public's access to information. For example, the Cheonan's sinking was captured in the military's security video, but the government refused to release it, arguing that the video could leak security-sensitive information, such as the location of the security post and its way of monitoring the sea border with North Korea. Other state-held information was kept secret, including transcripts of communications involving the navy, coast guard, and the ship, as well as records of the government's internal communication and documentation of the ship's maintenance.

Even legal action could not penetrate the wall of secrecy. The PSPD, the most respected liberal NGO in the ROK, formally registered its demand that the defense ministry declassify and share materials that it believed could shed full light on the incident (People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy 2010d). However, the government refused to relent. In June, the government, in the name of "military secrets," denied almost all of the PSPD's requests, showing that the government possessed an information monopoly. Like all monopolies, this one distorted the market and gave the government too much power to determine what the public would and would not see. The press did not have many alternative sources of information on the sinking and had to rely on a government that had political incentives not to be straightforward.

The press was desperate to get information about the causes of the sinking, the search and rescue mission, the status of the vessel under the water, extraction of the ship, the investigation, treatment of the surviving victims, and the government's reaction. The government was in charge of all these tasks as well as related information, and hence in a position to exploit the press's overdependence on the government. To demonstrate the media's dependency, I have created a data set that I call media source data. I coded the entire coverage of the sinking by the leading liberal newspaper, Hankyoreh, from March 27, 2010, the day of the sinking, to August 6, 2010, the last day of the fifteenth week since the sinking, when the reporting largely disappeared from that newspaper. Hankyoreh was selected because it was one of the few that questioned the government's accounts and remained as balanced as possible--hence a liberal proxy of the South Korean press. In other words, it is quite reasonable to assume that this newspaper would have tried to find as many alternative sources as possible. Thus, we can expect Hankyoreh's dependence on government sources to give us a conservative estimate on the general degree to which the press relied on the government.

A Newspaper Content Analysis

To measure press dependence, I used a simple content analysis technique: counting the words in the articles reporting on the incident. (3) If a paragraph cited any source--such as the president's office, the navy, or NGOs, for example--the words of the paragraph were counted and the source was recorded. Finally, to control for differences in article length, its proportion was measured. For example, if paragraph A cited

the navy and only the navy, then I would count the words in the paragraph. If the paragraph had 100 words in an article and that article had a total of 1,000 words, it was given a reliance score of 10 (100 over 1,000) for the article's dependence on the navy. If a paragraph used multiple sources or no sources at all, it was excluded to eliminate any subjective interpretation regarding the nature of the sources. The observations were aggregated into a seven-day period from Saturday to Friday for convenience purposes. The data thus allows us to empirically examine news coverage of the incident and compare how much the media cited governmental sources compared to nongovernmental sources. It should be noted that newspapers are a popular source for political science students, (4) and for the task of measuring press dependence on the government they seem to be especially appropriate and valid. (5)

Table 1 shows the weekly reliance score from government sources. The second column in the table shows the total word count in all the reports of the Cheonan incident. From week one to week fifteen, 6,293 words appear to be used to describe the sinking and its aftermath. In week one, the newspaper devoted almost all its space to the sinking--a total of 14,715 words--while by week three the figured had dropped to 5,448. The word counts have remained relatively low since then, indicating lower levels of interest than right after the event. In weeks seven and eight, however, we see a resurgence of interest (9,486 and 11,627 words, respectively), coinciding with growing controversies involving Park Sunwon, who challenged the government's accounts (week seven) and the release of the government's final report (week eight). But the space allocated to the sinking dwindled quickly, and in week fifteen only 1,110 words were used to discuss the incident.

The rest of Table 1 shows the reliance score by source. The sources are the military (including the ministry of defense), Blue House (which refers to the president and his staff), the JIG, the Grand National Party, the prosecutors and the police, and other government ministries. We can see that the military played a major role as the producer of information. For example, in weeks one and two, "military" was used (31.3 and 25.0, respectively) far more than any other source in the reports of Hankyoreh. It was the dominant source until week six (17.4, 14.9, 18.2, and 12.4, respectively). Finally in week seven, the JIG became the most used source (12.5), but the military remained important (4.8). If we compare the weekly means, the dominance of the military becomes even more obvious. On average, 6,293.3 words were used to report and discuss the incident and related events from week one to week fifteen. The average reliance score of the military is 12.4--by far the largest--followed by "other government agencies" (5.2), Blue House (3.4), the JIG (2.2), the Grand National Party (1.6), and the prosecutor/police (1.2).

Table 2 includes the weekly reliance score of nongovernmental sources that typically questioned and challenged the government's accounts to varying degrees. The sources include civilian experts such as security specialists, rescue volunteers, professors, researchers, and former administrators as well as opposition parties and NGOs. Hankyoreh cited civilian experts the most when it came to questioning the government's claims. On average, their reliance score remained at a modest 11.2, while opposition parties, the second most used nongovernmental source, scored only 2.3. It is also noticeable that NGOs failed to make much impact on the news (1.4 reliance score) despite the fact that a few NGOs--most famously the PSPD--were quite active.

Figure 1 compares the reliance score of all the government and nongovernment sources. For week one, the newspaper's reports relied heavily on the government's account: 35.5 points, while 6.4 points for the nongovernment sources. As shown in the figure, the gap becomes very small in week three (21.1 versus 14.5) but grows again in week four (38.4 versus 6.2). The dominance of government sources continued up to week eight, when nongovernment sources finally began to be cited more than those of the government (17.5 versus 24.9). This shift coincided with the publication of the state's final report. We could interpret this as a sign of the growing confidence among nongovernmental actors, who managed to gather information and study the sinking long enough to challenge the government's formal findings. However, notice that it took almost two months for the NGOs to voice doubts and offer alternative explanations, clearly demonstrating the predominance of governmental sources. Given the fact that Hankyoreh is the leading liberal newspaper, such domination of information is quite telling, for even in Hankyoreh's active pursuit of alternative explanations, its dependence on the government was apparent.

Hankyoreh's reports show that during the early stages of the Cheonan incident, the newspaper mostly reported what it was told by the authorities, since it had little independent access to the site of the sinking, records of the incident, or search and rescue personnel. When the government began to circulate its account of the sinking, the newspaper was given only the information that the authorities wanted to reveal to the press. The secretive nature of this incident allowed the authorities to guide the newspaper and press. The authorities may not have controlled the press through explicit censorship, but they certainly exercised their influence on the press through its manipulation of information to promote the idea that a North Korean torpedo sank the Cheonan. As a result, even when challenged, the authorities were much better positioned than the press and the public to defend their version of the incident.

The Authorities' Control over the Press

The authorities' influence on mass media was not temporary or ad hoc in nature. Rather, the Lee administration had invested much of its political capital to tame the press. Its attempts were successful, with the docile mass media acting as a reliable partner, not a watchdog, in promoting the government's theory of the Cheonan's sinking. The Lee administration's campaign to beat the press began to use and abuse governmental powers by using Korean Communications, the government's regulatory agency, to swiftly and relentlessly replace presidents of the major TV stations. It installed pro-regime figures in two of three major TV stations as well as the leading cable news stations: YTN, KBS, and MBC (Kim 2011). Labor unions and critics confronted these interventions and blamed the government for interfering with freedom of the press. The most controversial case was at KBS, where former president Jung Yun-joo was fired for no legitimate reason, as a court later declared (Song 2009). The tenure of Jung--who had been appointed by former president Roh Moohyun--was legally guaranteed, but the Lee administration went after him aggressively by arguing that he had caused a major financial loss to the company. Jung disputed the allegations and refused to step down. Eventually, however, he was dismissed from the position, and the police literally dragged him out of his office on August 8, 2008. Kim In-gyu, who served as a spokesperson for Lee's presidential campaign and was known to praise former authoritarian leaders, became the new leader of KBS (KBS Sae-no-jo 2012).

The labor unions opposed the new president's appointments, arguing that the new president of KBS would act as an extension of the Lee administration rather than serve the public's interest. Once in power, the new TV station presidents, including Kim Ingyu, harshly punished labor union leaders. YTN's six labor union leaders, including No Jongmyun, were fired, and thirty-three members were reprimanded in October 2008. In January 2009, KBS also fired three employees: Yang Seung-dong, Kim Hyunsuk, and Sung Jeho (Cho 2009). And in March, four YTN union leaders, including No Jong-myun, were arrested for organizing union strikes (Chong 2013). Only a few days later, MBC producer Lee Chun-guen was arrested (Chon 2009). MBC also fired two union leaders and punished forty-one union members for organizing a union strike in June 2010. In turn, government-friendly employees were hired to replace union members, particularly in mid-level manager positions that were largely responsible for the day-to-day news that would reach the public. (6)

Heeding the wishes and cues from above, these new managers indeed created hurdles for the producers and reporters who had previously enjoyed high levels of freedom in their reporting. Producers and reporters now had to struggle to pass these gatekeepers, who often rejected or watered down reports that were deemed too political or critical of the regime.

Not only the union members but also the programs themselves were targeted. During the liberal regimes of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, the press had enjoyed unchecked freedom. That era was the heyday of investigative programs, which became widely popular. For example, from 1999 to 2005, MBC's I-sen Mal-hal-soo Ita (Now We Can Discuss) aired episodes touching on politically sensitive issues, such as Japanese collaborators within the ROK government. These programs certainly made the political elites uncomfortable, and they did not hide their loathing of them. Now these programs were directly hit. Some were simply canceled for no good reason: YTN's Dol-bal Young-sang, KBS's Dan-bak Interview and Sisa 360, and MBC's W and Who Plus.

Surviving programs did not fare so well either. The new managers replaced producers and reporters who were deemed unruly, and investigative programs subsequently began to lose the audacity that once made them popular. According to an analysis of investigative programs of all three major TV stations in South Korea, coverage of the government became less and less frequent following the election of President Lee. For example, in the case of Ch'u-jok 60 pun (Investigation 60 Minutes), the government was the focus 18.2 percent of the time in the first year, but the figure dropped to 9.9 percent in the second year and 6.7 percent in the third year (Kim 2011). A similar pattern can be found in other programs such as PD Notebook as they became noticeably "soft" toward the authorities (Kim 2011, 23). The popular program Dol-bal Youngsang, on YTN, was famous for catching politicians off guard, showing their comments that were often too awkward or informal to be on air. However, their critical edge was dulled when the Lee administration appointed a new president for the company, who in turn replaced the producers of the program (Kim 2011). Its witty and comical coverage of powerful politicians was replaced with simple and mechanical coverage of what they said.

The Lee administration's efforts to consolidate its influence over the press paid off during the Cheonan crisis. The press largely accepted the government's explanation of the sinking and failed to ask hard questions. If it did, journalists were discouraged or even punished. In one episode of Ch'u-jok 60 pun, Kang Yoongi, the producer, aggressively sought evidence to support or dispute the government's explanation and even commissioned scientific tests to verify findings. The final report from these tests identified evidence that challenged the validity of the government's official report. Although the program was already scheduled, the staff confronted mounting pressure from managers, who questioned the episode's arguments. Only after intense protests from the staff was the episode allowed to air. (7)

In January 2011, however, the government's Korea Communications Commission reprimanded Kang and program reporter Shim Inbo with a warning (Chae 2011). According to the commission, the episode was biased and edited to create the misperception that the government's version of the incident might not be true. (8) This decision sent a clear signal to the press: do not challenge the official explanation. A similar warning came from the military as well. On May 11, 2010, naval headquarters sent formal requests to the Press Arbitration Commission demanding that eight newspapers correct the alleged errors in some of their reports (Kim 2010b). The contested reports had questioned the navy's accounts of what it did immediately following the sinking and criticized the navy's poor responses. The very fact that it made such a request against multiple newspapers at once was highly unusual. According to Choi Munsun, a lawmaker from an opposition party, the navy's intent was to manipulate the press and discourage it from questioning the government's official explanation (Kim 2010b).


In addition to their assault on the mass media, the authorities took their own initiatives as well. The report of the JIG did not provide any convincing evidence for its claims, leaving many doubts about the government's theory. Instead of addressing questions from citizens, the government turned to an aggressive public relations campaign that ridiculed and discredited its critics. For example, the Ministry of Defense created a website called The Cheonan Story. It uploaded cartoons, videos, maps, reports, and documents supporting the government's claims that the Cheonan was torpedoed by North Korea. (9) The ministry even published a cartoon featuring a news reporter with a mission to investigate the sinking (Kang 2010). In it, the reporter agrees with the government and denounces criticism by "people with no expertise." The cartoon went as far as to name "Prof. Lee" and "Prof. Suh" as persons who spread rumors without the necessary knowledge to dispute the government's investigation. Though the cartoon does not reveal first names, it is clearly referring to Professor Lee Seunghun of the University of Virginia and Suh Jae-Jung of Johns Hopkins University, who tested data from the incident and came to the conclusion that the government's claims were invalid (Lee and Suh 2010). The cartoon was clearly an unfair attempt by the government to defame them and invalidate their findings. The cartoon also used a standard line of accusation in South Korea: linking critics of the government to North Korea.

Another method of intimidation that the authorities used was to bring lawsuits against critics. One instance was when Park Sunwon of the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, demanded the release of further information on the sinking from the Ministry of Defense during a radio interview on April 22, 2010. Instead of responding, Minister of Defense Kim Tae-young sued Park for alleged defamation of the military through the spreading of false rumors (Hwang Jun-ho 2010). Congresswoman Lee Junghee was also targeted after delivering a speech on the floor of the National Assembly in which she accused the Defense Ministry of hiding videos showing the moment when the Cheonan split. She, too, was sued for defamation by the seven high-ranking officers she had accused in her speech of seeing the materials (An 2010). Another critic, Shin Sangwon, had participated in the government's investigation of the sinking and then disputed the government's findings. He suggested alternative explanations--including that a US submarine may have slammed the boat--while actively engaging the public through repeated interviews with the media and relentless public lectures (No 2010a). The navy's officers sued him for defamation in May 2010.

The authorities also employed thugs for intimidation. The PSPD, which has a consultative relationship with the United Nations, sent a letter on June 10, 2010, to the Security Council identifying eight troubling questions about the investigation and six problems with the investigation process (People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy 2010a). As soon as the mass media began to report on the letter, the organization was besieged by threats. High-level government officials--including the president, the prime minister, and the minister of foreign affairs and trade--condemned the PSPD, depicting it as hindering diplomatic efforts by the government (Kim 2014). The ruling party, the conservative media, and pro-government activists echoed and amplified the accusations, rousing conservative and anti-DPRK organizations, such as the Seoul Veterans' Association, to rally against the PSPD. These attacks soon grew out of control, with PSPD staff experiencing relentless verbal and physical attacks from protesters (Junbom Hwang 2010). On June 16, 2010, the prosecutor's office initiated an investigation of the PSPD on various charges, including violation of the infamous national security laws that give the state the power to prosecute anyone who is seen as "benefiting North Korea." (10)

Institutionalization of Memories

Memorial sites and structures in honor of the Cheonan were quickly built all over the country, cementing the narrative of nationalistic heroes being killed by "the enemy." The most prominent one might be the National Security Museum within the ROK navy's Second Fleet Base. The building was completed at the end of 2010 and cost $1 billion. Displays were installed beginning in March 2011 (Red1942 2014), and the museum finally opened to the public in June. The two-story building and its surrounding structures sit on a huge piece of land and are truly impressive. The museum, which I visited, is filled with sophisticated equipment such as a 3D theater, electronic simulation of the incident, and memorabilia belonging to the fallen sailors. The navy was confident that anyone who visited the site would recognize the validity of the government's report and thus accept it. While admitting that its initial responses were not effective or persuasive, the navy prepared a strategic plan regarding how to deal with the public and the mass media. Furthermore, the defense ministry operated a cyber reaction team to respond to civilians' questions, criticism, or any suspicion displayed online. (11)

This museum is one of many such examples of the state institutionalizing and streamlining the people's memory of the event. Others include a designated section for the victims within the Daejun National Cemetery, the Memorial Tower at Paek-ryung-do, statues of victims, and various memorial ceremonies. Together, they create a noticeable social atmosphere of patriotism and unity. Regardless of one's trust in the official accounts, the memorials make it difficult for one to be critical toward the government in a time of national crisis and grief. Thousands of people joined ceremonies and visited memorial sites, becoming part of the grieving nation. On the third day after the Cheonan incident, the number of mourners all over the country exceeded 150,000. In the case of the National Security Museum, the daily number of visitors ranged from 2,000 to 3,000, including many Korean and US soldiers as well as students, retirees, and international tourists. (12)

The authorities used both old and new political devices to make the case that the DPRK torpedoed the Cheonan. The resulting rally effect, however, remained somewhat constrained. Why could the government not convince the majority of ROK citizens? One major force was the presence of active NGOs. In the face of the government's information monopoly and access to other coercive forces, the resilience of civil society to challenge the state account of the event was surprising. For instance, while a sense of patriotism was engulfing the nation, the PSPD issued an official statement criticizing the secrecy of the Ministry of Defense and its unwillingness to share information with civil society (People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy 2010b). The PSPD pointed to procedural errors committed by the authorities, such as the government's inability to pinpoint the timing of the sinking (People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy 2010c). In various public discussions and hearings, the PSPD questioned the core of the government's explanation: the real possibility of an underwater bubble-jet explosion, North Korean torpedo attacks, the existence of Yono-class submarines in the DPRK, and their infiltration of South Korean waters. When PSPD's request for the disclosure of Cheonan-related information was submitted along with that of the Lawyers for Democratic Society, it was denied, leading them to file an administrative action to reverse the decision on behalf of 1,160 citizens (No 2010b). Lastly, as mentioned earlier, PSPD sent a letter to members of the UN Security Council in which they echoed their skepticism about the claim that the DPRK attacked the ship, bringing world attention to the possibility that the ROK government might be incorrect.

The development of NGOs in the political arena is closely related to the growth of the South Korean press. For NGOs to deliver their messages effectively to the public, the presence of a free and independent press is obviously crucial. After the establishment of democracy in 1987, the state provided a legal basis for a free press, one that thrived under the liberal regimes from 1998 to 2008. Journalists gained independence and built strong and competent institutions that helped sustain the press in the face of a relentless government-led media campaign. As discussed, Kang Yoon-gi of Ch'u-jok 60 pun struggled against his superiors in order to put his controversial program on the air. However, once the episode was broadcast, the reaction was sensational, and Kang became a popular subject for the media's interviews. The Pressian, a respected online news site, also played a significant role in raising questions about the government's conclusion by introducing numerous in-depth analyses by civilian scientists. The Pressian efforts to continually introduce a wide range of evidence-based views helped readers to see the unscientific nature of the state's account. It provided clear and comprehensible explanations on such abstruse issues as adsorbed materials and the nature of a torpedo explosion, so that even those without much scientific knowledge could understand and even raise questions to the government. In addition, Hangyore 21, a weekly magazine, and News Desk, a major TV news show produced by the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), broadcast a few reports critically challenging the regime's explanation.

The low popularity of President Lee was also a limiting factor. As the literature suggests, the rally-round-the-flag effect is strongest when the incumbent leader already enjoys strong public support. By the time of the Cheonan incident, however, Lee's presidency had already been rocked by his 2008 decision to lift the ban on US beef, and most of his signature programs since then were, at best, controversial. These initiatives included the development of four major rivers that many critics argued was unnecessary from the point of view of managing rivers and destructive from an environmental perspective. Furthermore, the president faced much criticism for his administration's measures to curb online freedom of speech and to push various business-friendly policies. As a result, the president began to suffer from low approval ratings by his second year in office, as shown in Table 3. It remained under 40 percent up to August 2009, and though the ratings began to climb shortly thereafter and reached a high of 54.3 percent in October, the public's mistrust of the Lee administration was largely sustained. With his low levels of support, Lee's efforts to rally the public at this critical juncture suffered.


The authorities used a wide range of political manipulations to coerce Korean society into swallowing their explanation that the DPRK had torpedoed the Cheonan. As seen in the polls and public reactions to the incident, these state-sanctioned efforts did result in some signs of the rally effect. People were expected to be united under the South Korean flag in denouncing Pyongyang's threat. The true depth of this unity, however, was limited, with suspicion and mistrust of the government enduring as South Koreans failed to rally round the flag of patriotism and anticommunism to the extent the authorities had hoped. Some may have gone as far as to believe that the authorities had deliberately lied, while others believed that the government was simply incompetent. Either way, they remained reluctant to be part of the patriotic rallies.

Several theoretical implications from this study should be noted. For one, the rally effect may have less to do with whether rallies occur, but rather with their size. The public rallies against the DPRK were large, but not as large or as long as the authorities wished. Creating a rally effect is difficult in a pluralistic and democratic society. Hence, my study suggests shifting attention to the size and depth of the rally effect instead of to its presence or absence. Second, the rally effect may have the unintended consequence of deepening social divisions. The authorities may be able to bring some moderates to its side using a foreign policy crisis, but the same crisis could also embolden an opposition that does not sing their patriotic tune. The Lee administration, to a certain extent, exposed its own ineptness to handle a national security crisis with the public. As a result, the grievances among its opponents deepened rather than lessened. This political blowback hurt the Grand National Party in the 2010 elections.

Third, I conclude that while political authorities may be tempted to use a foreign policy crisis to divert the public's attention away from domestic troubles, that is not so easy to accomplish. The very fact that they need to create a sense of urgency limits the prospects of the tactic's success. The political strength of civil society as well as multiple political and social factors that might have contributed to the regime's original political trouble could also hinder the leadership's efforts.


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(1.) The time line was reconstructed using the following: Kim and Lee (2010), Choi (2014), and Taehanmin'guk (2011).

(2.) See Moyers (2007); Gershkoff and Kushner (2005).

(3.) Similar methods are commonly used across disciplinary lines. For example, the fraction of negative words in firm-specific news stories is shown to foretell low firm earnings (Tetlock, Saar-Tsechansky, and Macskassy 2008).

(4.) For a discussion of using newspapers as data, see Earl, Martin, McCarthy, and Soule (2004) and Schrodt (2012).

(5.) On transforming quantitative data such as from newspapers into qualitative data, see Miles and Huberman 1994.

(6.) Interview of Lee Gang-tak (president of the Media Workers' Union), June 7, 2012.

(7.) Interview of Kang Yoon-gi (producer of Ch 'u-jok 60 pun), June 2012.

(8.) However, the decision was hotly contested in and out of the commission. While six members of the commission who were essentially appointed by the ruling party concurred with this finding, two members from the opposition party loudly protested it. The labor union of the media workers immediately denounced it as one of several similar decisions by the commission that punished news reporters critical of the government. Kang reacted by going to the court to challenge the decision by the commission, and the court, surprisingly, has not reached any decision during the last three years.

(9.) The website is

(10.) This situation prompted yet another letter to the United Nations by a human rights group demanding that the United Nations act to stop the South Korean government's retaliation campaign (Fernando 2010).

(11.) Discussion with a naval officer in the museum, May 2012.

(12.) Ibid.

Taehyun Nam is associate professor of political science and director of international studies at Salisbury University. His major research interests are protests and political development, and he is currently working in the areas of the democratic consolidation of South Korea and political ideologies. His articles have appeared in numerous journals, including the European Journal of Political and Research and PS: Political Science and Politics. For the Korean public, he has published two books and many editorial pieces in daily newspapers. He can be reached at txnam

Research for this article was made possible due to a financial contribution from Salisbury University, the Charles R. and Martha N. Fulton School of Liberal Arts of Salisbury University, and the Department of Political Science of Salisbury University. Thanks to Greg Cashman, Hiji Nam, and J. J. Suh for reviewing the drafts of the article and invaluable comments.

Table 1 Weekly Reliance Score from Government Sources

Week          Total Word   Military   Blue    JIG     Grand
                Count                 House          National

1               14,715       31.3      2.6     0.0     2.4
2               10,018       25.0      0.9     1.7     2.7
3                5,448       17.4      0.0     0.0     0.7
4                6,907       14.9     11.6     5.1     5.0
5                5,005       18.2      5.4     3.9     0.0
6                4,862       12.4      8.0     0.9     0.0
7                9,486        4.8      2.3    12.5     1.0
8               11,627        4.9      5.6     0.0     3.5
9                6,708        6.4      8.1     0.0     1.3
10               2,870       13.6      1.6     0.0     1.9
11               3,340        7.8      1.4     2.2     3.7
12               4,023        0.0      3.3     0.8     0.0
13               4,972        4.9      0.0     3.1     1.2
14               3,309        8.6      0.0     3.6     0.0
15               1,110       16.2      0.0     0.0     0.0
Weekly mean     6,293.3      12.4      3.4     2.2     1.6

Week          Prosecutor/     Other
                Police      Government

1                 0.0           2.2
2                 0.5           4.8
3                 0.0           3.0
4                 0.0           1.8
5                 0.0           4.2
6                 0.0           3.8
7                 0.3           7.3
8                 0.0           3.5
9                 0.7           9.7
10                0.0           8.6
11                1.6           6.6
12                0.0          10.7
13                0.0           6.2
14                0.0           5.1
15               15.1           0.0
Weekly mean       1.2           5.2

Table 2 Weekly Reliance Score by Nongovernmental Sources

Week          Civilian   Opposition   NGOs   Other
              Exports     Parties

1                5.1        0.9       0.0     0.4
2                8.2        5.5       1.5     4.0
3               10.2        3.3       0.0     1.0
4                2.8        0.4       1.7     1.3
5                0.0        0.0       0.0     3.6
6                9.8        0.6       0.0     0.0
7                6.2        5.7       1.6     5.0
8               13.8        5.3       2.2     3.6
9                6.8        3.1       1.3     0.0
10               4.9        0.9       7.9     2.1
11              18.0        2.9       4.3     0.0
12              39.8        0.0       0.0     0.0
13              20.1        2.3       1.0     0.0
14               4.0        0.0       0.0     0.0
15              17.8        3.2       0.0     0.0
Weekly mean     11.2        2.3       1.4     1.4

Table 3 Presidential Approving Rating, 2009 (percentage)

Jan.   Feb.    March   April   May    June   July

39.4   36.7    38.8    39.3    37.9   37.7   36.4

Aug.   Sept.   Oct.    Nov.    Dec.

40.5   46.1    54.3    40.8     45

Source: Presidential Approval, Research and Research,
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Author:Nam, Taehyun
Publication:Asian Perspective
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Apr 1, 2015
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