Ex-officials in South Korea sentenced for blacklisting artists

Former Chief of Staff Kim Ki choon (left) and Former culture minister Cho Yoon Sun were sentenced to prison for blacklisting artists.
Former Chief of Staff Kim Ki choon (left) and Former culture minister Cho Yoon Sun were sentenced to prison for blacklisting artists. PHOTOS: EPA

SEOUL (NYTIMES) - Top aides to South Korea's ousted president, Park Geun Hye, were sentenced to prison on Thursday (July 27) for blacklisting thousands of cultural figures deemed unfriendly to her and excluding them from government-controlled support programmes.

Kim Ki Choon, once Park's chief of staff, received a three-year term for abuse of power and perjury. He was convicted of ordering presidential staff members and Culture Ministry officials to draw up the blacklist and of lying about it during parliamentary hearings.

Kim Jong Deok, a former culture minister, was sentenced to two years on similar charges. Three other former officials were each sentenced to 1.5 years in prison for their roles in preparing the list.

Another former culture minister, Cho Yoon Sun, was convicted of perjury for lying about the blacklist before the National Assembly, but the Seoul Central District Court suspended her prison term and released her from jail on Thursday.

"It's against the constitution to exclude artists from government support programmes according to the taste of political power," presiding judge Hwang Byeong Heon said in his ruling.

The blacklisting of artists was a key element in the corruption and abuse-of-power scandal that led to Park's impeachment in December and in the Constitutional Court ruling that officially removed her from office in March this year.

Park, who was also arrested in March, is being tried separately on a string of criminal charges, among them collecting bribes from major businesses including Samsung and conspiring with her aides to discriminate against artists considered hostile to her government.

Revelations about the blacklist have infuriated the public, fuelling widespread accusations that Park was taking South Korea back to the time when her father, the military dictator Park Chung Hee, ruled by gagging dissidents.

For months, protesters gathered in huge weekend rallies in the centre of the capital, Seoul, demanding Park's removal.

Judge Hwang said the discrimination against those on the blacklist was enforced "secretly, but persistently". He said the tactic had humiliated many Culture Ministry officials who were forced to implement it.

Park conspired with Kim Jong Deok, the former culture minister, the judge said, to pressure into retirement a senior ministry official who did not cooperate with her policy.

In January, a special prosecutor investigating Park's case arrested Kim Ki Choon, her former chief of staff, who has been the focus of public anger because of his background.

Kim Ki Choon, a prosecutor by training, served as a senior anti-communist investigator at the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, the government's main intelligence body in the 1970s, when it often framed dissidents with charges extracted through torture that they were communists or sympathetic towards North Korea.

Many of its victims were able to clear the charges only decades later, through retrials allowed under a democratised South Korea.

Kim Ki Choon went on to become a justice minister and three-term lawmaker under conservative governments. He returned to the centre of power with Park's election, serving as her powerful chief of staff from 2013 to 2015.

One of the first things he was accused of doing under her administration was blacklisting artists, writers and journalists deemed unfriendly to the government, reviving a practice from the country's dictatorial past.

During his trial, Kim Ki Choon denied any wrongdoing, insisting that he was trying to strike a balance in government support between progressive and conservative artists. He has a week to appeal Thursday's ruling.

Investigators have not disclosed the names on the blacklist. But according to a version of the list made public by lawmakers, the number of people on it had risen to nearly 10,000 by 2015, including many of the country's best-known film directors, novelists and poets.

Among them were Han Kang, a writer who was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2016, and Park Chan Wook, director of the 2003 film Oldboy.

The blacklisting was an ironic legacy for Park, who had vowed to make South Korea a "cultural power" by promoting the arts and other cultural products.

While blackballing some artists, Park's office ensured that pro-government civic groups received special favours, the special prosecutor said. It asked the Federation of Korean Industries, which lobbies on behalf of Samsung and other big businesses, to provide US$5.9 million (S$8 million) for those groups between 2014 and 2016, the prosecutor said.

Some of those groups, such as the right-wing Korea Parent Federation, used to hold noisy protests in central Seoul denouncing Park's critics as communists.