Seoul bars British journalist who parodied president

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The Independent Online
In an apparent toughening of its attitude towards the foreign media, South Korea has rejected a request by Jeremy Hanley, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, to reinstate a British journalist expelled after writing articles poking fun at President Kim Young Sam.

Earlier this month Mr Hanley asked Gong Ro Myung, the Foreign Minister, to reconsider the case of Bruce Cheesman, who works for the Australian Financial Review. On 26 February, after nine years working in Seoul, his application for a new visa was rejected by the Justice Ministry.

Despite lobbying by diplomats, a government spokesman said the decision was "irrevocable" and Mr Cheesman would not be allowed to work again in South Korea.

No official reason has been given, but Sohn Woo Hyun, director-general of the foreign-media division of the Korean Overseas Information Service, said Mr Cheesman had violated immigration regulations by doing research while visiting the country as a tourist, and had "repeatedly gone beyond the bounds of what we consider sound journalistic practice. He repeatedly made false and defamatory allegations about the government of Korea."

Mr Cheesman insisted his visits as a tourist were made years ago and that what really rattled Seoul was his personal criticism of President Kim and members of his family.

Chief among the government's complaints is the case of the presidential Buddha. Last year Koreans were shaken by a series of disasters, including the collapse of a bridge and a store in Seoul in which more than 500 people were killed.

A Buddhist paper reported rumours that Mr Kim, a Christian, had ordered the removal of a Buddha statue from the garden of the presidential palace. This - the rumours went - had angered the heavens.

The President's men denied the Buddha had been moved. The Financial Review's jokey account, complete with cartoon, and citing inside sources, provoked fury. Mr Cheesman was hauled in for the latest in a series of official scoldings. Last week the Review received papers from lawyers for the Korean government initiating defamation proceedings.

But more decisive, Mr Cheesman believes, was the book he has been working on: an unofficial biography of Mr Kim focusing on the most controversial rumours which billow around the charismatic President. He admitted he has no documentary evidence for the most serious allegations.

But, based on interviews with former and serving politicians and aides and officials, the book will make embarrassing allegations about the funding of Mr Kim's 1992 election campaign and about the avowedly Christian President's private life.

The past few months have been a critical period for President Kim: as well as the trials of his predecessors Roh Tae Woo and Chun Doo Hwan, on charges of corruption, mutiny and treason, his New Korea Party faces parliamentary elections in a month's time which could rob him of control of the National Assembly.

Mr Sohn said: "This present action is not aimed at the foreign press, with whom we enjoy excellent working relations. The action we have taken is a legitimate recourse of a kind acceptable in any civilised country." Until this year, no correspondent had been expelled for professional reasons since the days of military dictatorship in the 1980s.

"The screws have been tightening in the last couple of months," said Mr Cheesman. "It is anti everything that the new Korea is supposed to stand for, a Third World mentality of worrying what the foreign press says about it."