Ban limits S. Korean reporter
September 9, 2008
SEOUL — A South Korean filmmaker says her government forced her to leave Iraq last month, where she was embedded with the U.S. military while filming a television documentary about the war.
Kim Young-me is now banned from leaving South Korea and could become one of the first South Koreans to go to jail under a year-old law banning its citizens from traveling to Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
Kim, 38, said the government’s decision was politically motivated: Few news reports about Iraq are filed in Korean, and the government doesn’t want people to think South Korean troops are in danger and push to withdraw them out of Iraq.
"They don’t want journalists working in Iraq," she said.
About 650 South Korean troops are stationed in Iraq to work on humanitarian aid projects. None of those troops are involved in combat, according to the Ministry of National Defense.
South Korea passed the law last summer after the Taliban kidnapped 21 South Korean missionaries working in Afghanistan and killed two before releasing the rest. Violators face up to a year in prison or a three million won fine (about $2,700) if they visit the countries without permission.
Several South Korean journalists have been given exemptions to the law and allowed to report from those countries, said Kim Kyung-han of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Under the law, a handful of groups, including humanitarian aid workers, some government employees, and South Koreans who usually live in those countries, can ask for exemptions.
"If she had followed the regulations, we could have given her permission to go like other reporters," he said.
But Kim said the government limits reporters to covering feel-good stories about the troops. She was also afraid it would take too long to get permission to go to Iraq from her government.
"I wanted my own independent and exclusive stories, not controlled or obstructed by the government," she said. "I think going to Iraq as a journalist only under the permission of the government is wrong."
Embedded with U.S.Kim said she has been to Iraq at least eight times since 2002 and has reported from other war zones including Afghanistan and Somalia, where pirates have hijacked South Korean ships.
She went to the United States in February, applied with the Pentagon to be an embedded reporter with the U.S. military and got permission to go this year from May to October. She was embedded with troops in Baqouba, then Baghdad and Iskandriyah.
Kim was with the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Diyala province in July when the United States launched an offensive to drive out al-Qaida cells. Soon after she arrived, a South Korean communications officer in Tikrit noticed her name on a document and reported it to the South Korean embassy in Baghdad.
Within days, the U.S. military told her she had to leave.
After returning to South Korea, she was ordered to a Seoul police station on Aug. 20 for questioning. There, the police asked how she got to Iraq, what pictures she took and what stories she reported, she said.
A Yangcheon police station officer said no charges have been filed against Kim, but said her case could be sent later this month to a prosecutor to decide whether to press charges.
Kim said she decided not to speak with the media about her case until now because she was afraid the government might try to prevent her documentary from airing. The hour-long documentary, "The U.S. Soldiers’ Iraq," is scheduled to air Wednesday and Thursday on KBS, the country’s public broadcast station.
Not afraid of jailSince Kim was ordered home, several journalism organizations have come to her defense. The New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists issued a news release last month saying it was "greatly concerned" about Kim’s case and urged South Korea not to prosecute her.
"These travel restrictions on journalists are onerous," Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia coordinator, said in the release. "The government must balance its concern between security and the right of journalists to pursue a story wherever it takes them."
Yang Sung-dong, head of the Korean Producers and Directors Association, said he understands that South Korea passed the law to protect people, but it needs to be revised so reporters can travel freely.
"Any press, regardless of their nationality, should be able to go on location and report on domestic and world issues," said Yang, who asked the U.S. military in July to let Kim stay in Iraq.
Kim, who married at 24 and soon became a mother, never planned to go to a war zone.
"I was just a housewife. I didn’t know what was going on outside," she said. "I wasn’t interested in the political stories, in the social stories. I was just thinking, what was on the menu for my dinner."
She divorced at 29 and began making documentaries.
Some South Koreans don’t realize the country has troops stationed in Iraq, and some don’t even realize the war is still going on, she said. Others, she added, "think Iraq is a big problem, but they don’t realize that the U.S. Army is there."
Kim she said she’s not afraid to go to jail, and tells her 13-year-old son that it would be a sacrifice that would clear the way for other war reporters to go to Iraq.
She hopes to return to Iraq, and plans to fight the government’s order banning her from leaving South Korea.
"I’m a journalist. I’ve got to work. I have to travel outside the country," she said. "I will fight."