How YouTube became a force in Korean politics

May 6, 2023, 9:00 AM

Supporters of South Korea's former president Park Geun-hye hold a rally demanding her release outsi...

Supporters of South Korea's former president Park Geun-hye hold a rally demanding her release outside the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul in April 2018. Photo credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

(CNN) — YouTube’s most watched daily live program in South Korea might surprise you. It is not about K-pop, it is not a K-drama, and has nothing to do with BlackPink.

It is a provocative current affairs talk show called “Gyeomson (Modesty) is Nothing,” fronted by an irreverent host, Kim Ou-joon, whose lack of deference to authority is making waves in a country where traditional media has a reputation for respectful coverage.

Kim’s style is reminiscent of a US late-night chat show host. Openly partisan, he says his aim is to counter-balance what he sees as a bias toward the conservative government with a liberal voice.

“Conservative media are actively making biased reports, and I think they can do that based on their political stance,” Kim told CNN. “The problem here is that they’re pretending to be fair, hiding behind the mask of fairness.”

Kim’s brash style stands out all the more given recently raised concerns by the US Department of State that South Korean officials are using defamation lawsuits to restrict freedom of expression.

It highlighted in a March human rights report the case of broadcaster MBC, which is being sued by the Foreign Affairs Ministry for a story in which it claimed the South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol had been caught on a hot mic making less-than complimentary remarks about US lawmakers.

The presidential office has criticized the State Department report for “a lack of accuracy,” claiming it had “simply collected and announced the claims of civic groups or media reports.”

But taking on the conservative administration doesn’t faze Kim, who has been sued for defamation on several occasions.

Kim’s critics meanwhile say his taste for controversy goes only one way, accusing him of paying less attention to reports involving the liberal Democratic Party.

Political influencers

Still, the show’s reputation for daring to go where others fear to tread has done wonders for its viewing figures. Every morning at 7:05 a.m., about 160,000 people tune in to hear Kim’s takes on the biggest issues of the day.

Industry observers say the program’s popularity — it has more than 1 million subscribers and can rake in donations of 90 million won ($70,000) a day — reflects a changing media landscape.

Increasingly, they say, current affairs programs are turning to YouTube to disseminate their content, drawn both by large audiences and the perception that the online arena grants greater space for freedom of expression.

“Modesty is Nothing,” for instance, is the reincarnation of a radio show called “News Factory” that was taken off air after a row with the government.

YouTube has a high penetration in South Korea. According to Statista, a market and consumer data statistics site, there were over 46 million YouTube users in South Korea as of January this year — more than 90% of the population (compared to over 70% in the United States).

Most traditional media outlets now run their own YouTube channels, as do an increasing number of smaller, independent companies, of all political persuasions — like the right-wing Tubeshin (1.46 million subscribers) and the left-wing Newstapa (over 1 million).

YouTube’s growing influence was demonstrated in the run-up to last year’s general election, when Yoon — then a candidate for the People Power Party — saw his popularity fall following a stumbling performance in a Christmas Day YouTube interview with 3ProTV.

Before the show he had been neck-and-neck with opponent Lee Jae-myung from the (then ruling) Democratic Party of Korea; soon after a Gallup survey showed him trailing by around 8% points.

The clout of both right and left-wing channels has also been shown in recent movements. Right-wing channels fueled rallies in support of the former President Park Geun-hye after she was impeached in 2017 over a corruption scandal; they also backed protests outside the retirement home of her liberal successor Moon Jae-in. Left-wing channels backed counter-rallies outside the current President Yoon’s home.

Last year the former leader of Yoon’s party hit out at what he said was the “evil influence” of YouTube channels.

Platform for free speech

YouTube channels are seen as offering a space for free speech that is all the more important given the concerns voiced by the US State Department.

Jung June-hee, a professor of media at Seoul’s Hanyang University, said most traditional outlets avoided criticizing the government — partly because of their own right-wing leanings but also because they feared being sued.

“After President Yoon Suk Yeol came to power, there have been many cases where the presidential office filed complaints to the media,” Jung said.

“The fear of being targeted, whether you’re on the same side or not, is significant,” Jung said.

Over time, the lack of critical coverage meant citizens had lost confidence in traditional media and turned to the internet instead, said Rhee June-woong, a professor in communication at Seoul National University.

“We can’t say that traditional newspapers and broadcast media have been completely abandoned, but more and more citizens are dissatisfied with them and are seeking information, interpretation, and expression in internet media,” Rhee said.

CNN asked the presidential office to comment on its recent defamation lawsuits, but it has not yet received a reply.

News Factory closed down

It’s a dynamic that’s not lost on Kim. His previous show, the publicly funded “News Factory” program, had for years been Seoul’s top-rated radio program (and made him one of the country’s highest paid presenters).

Debuting in 2016 on TBS in a two-hour slot Monday to Friday, its format was simple, featuring Kim’s comments on the topic of the day and a news roundup, followed by segments featuring newsmakers from politicians and professors to journalists, artists and scientists.

Its no-holds barred approach to news analysis and its live interviews broke the mold in South Korean media and made it a go-to show for politicos, said Jung June-hee, a media professor at Hanyang University.

“(Previously) politicians didn’t appear on radio shows, and morning radio shows … (mostly) used to summarize news from the night before and deliver information such as real-time traffic updates,” Jung said.

But its oppositional style angered conservatives, as did its coverage of the scandal surrounding former President Park. When a conservative administration returned to power in 2022 (following a stint by liberal Moon Jae-in, under whom the show enjoyed a heyday), its days were numbered.

Soon after, the conservative city council announced it planned to cut TBS’s budget in a move widely seen as reflecting its displeasure with “News Factory.”

While Seoul’s Mayor Oh Se-hoon denied the link, in February he criticized the show for being “one-sided,” and the network TBS for “crossing the line that public broadcasting cannot possibly cross.”

“In any country, people can never be patient when public broadcasting is biased and in favor of a particular political party,” Oh said.

Fall and rise

Kim took “News Factory” off air in December. The next month, he launched “Modesty is Nothing.”

The only real differences between the shows are the name and medium. The format is the same and even the studio is a replica, though it has now grown bigger — in line with Kim’s ambitions.

Within a week, it had surpassed a million subscribers. It has since consistently ranked top in terms of real-time daily viewership on YouTube in South Korea.

To Professor Jung, it’s a success that demonstrates “voices cannot be silenced.”

Kim, meanwhile, hopes to build a show with as much recognition as any on traditional media.

“I will create a type of press that has not yet existed on YouTube,” Kim said. “This is a declaration that I will show that canceling the show for a political reason was wrong.”

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How YouTube became a force in Korean politics