South Koreans rally around imprisoned political agitator
REPORTING FROM HONGSUNG, SOUTH KOREA -- Nearly 2,000 supporters of a former South Korean legislator and political podcast host jailed for spreading false allegations against President Lee Myung-bak recently staged a rally at a prison here to let the inmate know they haven’t forgotten his cause.
Ex-lawmaker Jung Bong-ju, a former panel member on the nation’s most popular political podcast, is serving one year behind bars after making allegations about Lee’s business connections during the presidential election campaign in 2007.
Many here view Jung’s imprisonment as a threat to freedom of speech.
“We believe that there were political motivations behind the judgment, as it is an issue linked to the current president,” said Lee Gye-hwa, Jung’s attorney.
Jung’s supporters have launched a series of one-person demonstrations around South Korea and in other nations, Lee said. They have also planned mass trips to the prison, this time chartering trains dubbed “Bong-ju trains” in honor of the politician.
Podcast listeners of all ages and backgrounds participated in the most recent trip earlier this month to voice support for Jung and the show.
“It’s important to not become depressed over Jung’s imprisonment,” said So Eun-jung, a 39-year-old rally participant. “We’re trying to lighten up and enjoy the whole event.”
Others said they missed Jung’s presence on the weekly podcast, called "Naneun Ggomsuda" or “I’m a Weasel,” which regularly takes shots at the South Korean president.
"I became a fan because the podcast tells you important things you can’t find in the mainstream media," said Jeong Hui-jang, 74, who attended the event with his wife. "It has laid a cornerstone for an alternative media. We wanted to support that."
Upon arriving at the provincial station here, the crowd marched two miles from the station to the jail, led by the three panels. People waved flags with Jung’s face photoshopped on a poster of the movie “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Outside the prison, the crowd yelled out “Come out, Jung Bong-ju!” and “We love you, Jung Bong-ju!" in unison.
One sign read: “We are anxiously waiting for you.”
The free weekly podcast features four men – now three, minus Jung - who lampoon President Lee and the government. The show, which started last year, became No.1 political podcast in the world. The panelists earned a rock-star status, their books topping sales charts and their national appearance tickets selling out in minutes. Yet the program has been criticized by conservative media here as biased and untrustworthy. Earlier this year, one South Korean army unit deemed the show pro-North Korea and ordered the troops to delete the Internet application.
Last December, the news of Jung’s arrest came suddenly, jeopardizing the continuation of the show. Enraged panelists and the fans claimed that the judgment lacked legal basis.
"This was a scheme to stop the popular run of the podcast," alleged Kim Ou-joon, the founder of the show. “We lost Jung, the one who provided comic relief. But in turn it brought the angry listeners together, forming a bond between us.”
Podcast panelists say the government still tries to interrupt the show by pressuring each one of them.
“I’ve been accused in five to six different cases for spreading false information from what I have said on the podcast,” said Choo Chin-woo, an investigative reporter and show panelist. "All three of us feel the squeeze daily."
Recently, Kim Yong-min, a panelist and producer of the podcast, was summoned to the prosecutor’s office in Seoul to answer allegations of spreading false rumors. But he remains unbowed. The next day, he announced on the podcast that he will run for a seat at the National Assembly in April.
"We don’t know how long we will be able to hold off. Every day I feel that the pressure put upon us four will eventually become violence against the citizens. This makes me mad,” said Kim. “I'm going in for a major fight."
Meanwhile, supporters say they will continue to visit Jung.
“The government wants to intimidate people into thinking that cheering and associating with our podcast will harm them. Putting Jung behind bars was an example of that,” said Kim Ou-joon. “Through these events, we want to send a message to them: Their plan isn’t working.”
-- Jung-yoon Choi
Photo: Nearly 2,000 supporters staged a rally in support of a former South Korean legislator and political podcast host jailed for spreading false allegations against President Lee Myung-bak. Credit: Matt Douma / For The Times