In a gleaming glass-walled building not far from the sweeping tiled roofs of 15th-century Changdok Palace, a group of optimistic journalists is preparing to launch South Korea's first major independent newspaper, Hangyoreh Shinmun (One Nation). Editor in chief Song Kun Ho, managing editor Imm Jae Kyong, and half of the 60 men on the staff belong to an elite brotherhood: They were expelled by government fiat from their media jobs - in 1980, during the first year of the outgoing Chun Doo Hwan government, or by the Park Chung Hee regime that preceded it.
It is a measure of the progress South Korea has made towards democracy that Mr. Song, Mr. Imm, and their friends can think openly of publishing a newspaper like Hangyoreh.
``We will be independent. Not neutral, but independent,'' said Song in his airy fifth-floor corner office. By ``independent,'' Song said, he meant free of government control and of control by wealthy owner-proprietors, as is the case with all of the country's existing national newspapers.
A small, neat, gray-haired man of precise speech and intense look, Song is one of South Korea's most respected anti-establishment journalists. So is managing editor Imm. Song was purged in 1975; Imm in 1980. Both express continuing dissatisfaction with the state of press freedoms in South Korea.
``Political control is less blatant than it used to be,'' said Imm, ``and the emphasis is laid on stiff financial conditions rather than on outright censorship. For instance, in order to be licensed by the authorities, a newspaper must have a rotary press printing at least 20,000 copies per day.''
Still, Hangyoreh is well on its way to achieving an initial funding of 5 billion won (nearly $1.3 million) by public contributions. So far, Imm said, more than 12,000 people have contributed an average of 200,000 won each.
As of the end of January, Imm said, 2.9 billion won had been raised, and the newspaper hopes to have enough funds in hand by the end of February to buy a secondhand rotary press and to start printing late the following month.
Many of the contributors are Christians, Imm said. Some of the Christian churches, Protestant and Roman Catholic, were in the forefront of the movement for direct presidential elections last spring and summer.
With the election and imminent inauguration of Roh Tae Woo as president, many members of this community, as well as academics and intellectuals in general, feel the need to keep strict watch on the words and actions of the incoming government.
``This is an absolutely secular newspaper,'' said Imm, ``but Hangyoreh and the Christian community share a common goal: democracy and human rights.''
The paper has been flooded with applications for work, even though the salaries are far smaller than what established papers pay. A recent advertisement for 20 trainee reporters drew 1,700 responses.
In 1975, Song was editor of Dong A Ilbo, South Korea's leading liberal newspaper. Song championed his newsroom's independence from government dictation, especially by the Korean CIA (now known as the NSP or National Security Planning Agency). The government, then under President Park Chung Hee, forced businesses to cancel all advertising in the paper, which responded by getting subscribers and supporters to buy ad space. After months of intense pressure, Dong A Ilbo's owner finally caved in. Song and 32 others were sacked and forbidden to hold jobs in journalism. Altogether 130 journalists were purged at this time.
In 1979, Park was assassinated and a new democratic dawn seemed on the horizon. But a military coup brought Chun Doo Hwan to power. In May 1980, the bloody Kwangju uprising took place, in which hundreds if not thousands of civilians were killed by government troops. During that year the Chun government purged over 700 journalists, including Imm, then an editorial writer for Hankuk Ilbo.
Purged journalists could not hold permanent jobs in the newspaper field, although some of them published in smaller magazines. ``Some of us became proof readers in small publishing firms,'' recalled Imm. ``Others worked as part-time translators, or even peddled cabbages.''
Only last summer, after mounting public demonstrations, did Roh propose, and Chun accept, reforms extending from direct presidential elections to the freeing of political prisoners. Then, and only then was the ban on the purged journalists lifted.
Song's transition from affluent editor to father of six with no income was sudden and sharp. The Park government offered him good jobs, if he would toe the official line. He turned them down. In 1980, Song says, the Chun regime arrested him on trumped-up charges and tortured him into a false confession.
``I learned that, under torture, people can make you say almost anything,'' says Song.
Kim Keun, one of Song's former subordinates at Dong A Ilbo, took his family to France to study for his doctorate after being purged in 1980. He obtained his PhD and returned to Seoul just in time to sign up with Hangyoreh. Dong A Ilbo offered to reinstate him at more than three times what Hangyoreh could offer him. But ``I wanted to write for a truly free newspaper,'' says Kim.
South Korea presently has six national newspapers. Two are government-owned. The other four, including Dong A Ilbo, belong either to wealthy families or to a conglomerate.
``We need a newspaper that can investigate fearlessly and criticize what is wrong,'' says Song. ``We hope to serve as the conscience of our nation and our people.''