SEOUL — When the Hankyoreh Shinmun was established in May, 1988, no one doubted that it would become a strong anti-Establishment voice--if the government permitted it to survive.
More than 60 of its initial 144 reporters had been purged from journalism in 1975 and 1980 by President Roh Tae Woo's predecessors. Thirty others quit jobs at established newspapers and took pay cuts of more than 50% in exchange for the greater freedom that the Hankyoreh paper promised. Still others were college students who had been expelled because of protests against authoritarian government.
All of the staff joined "because of a sense of mission," Im Jai Kyung, editor in chief, said at the time. Im, now editor and executive vice president, said he is satisfied that the mission has paid off.
"The birth of the Hankyoreh serves as evidence of press freedom" that President Roh Tae Woo promised in 1987, said Im, himself a victim of the 1980 purge who was jailed for six months under former President Chun Doo Hwan. "Its existence has allowed other newspapers to publish relatively free of interference."
The newspaper, founded by thousands of dissidents and average citizens who purchased stock, started with a press run of only 150,000 copies of eight-page papers. Now it prints 500,000 copies of 12-page papers, Im said. He said the paper sells 450,000 copies a day, the fifth-largest circulating newspaper in Seoul.
Despite initial worries that the newspaper might be denied access to information, Im said his reporters have been accredited to all of the government agencies to which they applied.
"Koreans are now enjoying a press freedom unprecedented in our history, except for the brief period of 1960-61 after the fall of the Syngman Rhee government," Im said.
Hankyoreh, which means "one national people," has a different kind of trouble common to many of South Korea's new media organizations: money. Heightened competition for readers, rising wages, difficulty in securing home delivery distributors and the refusal of big firms to advertise in the avowedly anti-Establishment publication has kept Hankyoreh operating in the red for the last three years, Im said. The paper expects a record loss of about $2.8 million this year, he added.
The editor said the newspaper has been financing its losses by "eating away at our capital," which came from about 60,000 investors, including South Korea's Roman Catholic prelate, Cardinal Stephen Kim. From a peak of $23.6 million, capital has fallen to $18.8 million, Im said.
Hankyoreh has been a disappointment to some of its readers, too. "It's a pity they are not more objective," said Park Kwon Sang, the former editor of South Korea's newspaper, Dong-A Ilbo, who was purged from his job by Chun in 1980.
Park charged that Hankyoreh "has proven itself at all times against the government and at all times against the Americans, and against anything constructive. It confines itself to the radical elements of society."
Americans here, while asking not to be identified, were less harsh in their evaluation. "Occasionally, the Hankyoreh has been more objective than other newspapers about the United States," said one. While the paper "is extremely influential among the minority that reads it," this American added, it has failed to make any headway among South Korea's middle class.