South Korea: Comedian Sued for Making Fun of Politicians

Politics is seen as a fair target for most comedy shows, but in South Korea a politician is suing a comedian. The lawsuit – claiming that the performer defamed all politicians – has drawn immediate criticism from various parts of Korean society, inundating social media with jokes and comments.

Choi Hyo-jong is the 26-year-old male comedian in question, from one of South Korea’s top comedy shows, ‘Gag Concert’, which airs on Sunday primetime network television. In one recent comedy segment, Choi pretended to tell children guaranteed ways [ko] to become a politician [note: the show is not actually for children].

Kids, first make friends with the head of the ruling party, so they can endorse you to an electorate which has traditionally been in favor of the ruling party. When you run for the (mayor/governor's) seat, be sure to visit the election committee and bring 200 million Korean Won (176,000 USD) with you.

During the campaign, go visit the local market place you hardly ever visit, and shake hands with old ladies there. That is no big deal, right? And sure eat the entire bowl of rice soup [locally made inexpensive soup, which usually the working class eat] that you rarely eat.

When you make campaign promises, say you will build a bridge or a subway station. Oh, you think that is too hard? No worries, you just need to say that without actually doing it.

If you tenaciously go on about others’ weaknesses like a dog, you can become a politician.

Choi Hyo-jong performing at the comedy show, Gag Concert

Image of Comedian Choi during the show, Image by Blogger Noi, Attribution Required, Used with Permission

Kang Yong-suk, a policymaker who was ousted from the ruling party after he made lewd remarks against several news announcers, sued Choi on November 17, 2011, for making his defamatory comments.

This move has shocked the Korean public. As a sign of support, several thousand net users have filed an online petition [ko] in Daum Agora, the nation's largest public forum, to protect Choi. Twitter users have encouraged each other [ko] to follow Choi's Twitter account (@hyojong66) to empower him with numerous followers. Their goal is make Choi have 100,000 followers.

The comedy community has expressed strong support for Choi and encouraged other comedians not to succumb to any censorship. Kim Mi-wha (@kimmiwha), a legendary figure in the Korean comedy community, tweeted [ko]:

효종아..기가막히고 코가막힌다 그쟈!! 강용석의원이 우릴 코미디언이라고 우습게 보나본데[…]”국회의원 모욕죄”로 고소했다고? 우리도 맞고소하자. 국회의원들..뻑하면”코미디하고있네” 라고 코미디언 모욕했으니!!

Dear Hyo-jong..This is beyond being ridiculous. Policymaker Kang Yong-seok thinks he can push us around because we are just comedians […] Did he sue you for ‘defaming politicians'? Then we shall sue him back for ‘defaming the name of comedy’. They always say ‘that it is like a comedy show’ [when weird things happen in politics], so thereby defaming the name of comedy.

Another extremely well-known comedian, Nam Hee-seok (@Blove12), tweeted [ko]:

혹시 내 후배 가운데..개그 때문에.. 벌금 나오게 된다면..전액 내가 내주마..맘 놓고 하던거 해라.

If there is any young comedian who was fined because of their jokes, just carry on what you've have been doing. I will pay all the fine for you.
Image of comedians at Gag Concert, Image by Blogger Noi, Attribution required, used with permission.

Image of comedians at Gag Concert, Image by Blogger Noi, Attribution required, used with permission.

Famous culture critic, Chin Jung-kwon (@unheim), explained [ko] via Twitter two terms he has created to distinguish comedians from politicians.

개그맨들이 하는 개그는 미학적 개그입니다. 즉 개그맨들은 정말 바보가 아니라 멍청한 척 연기하는 거죠. 반면 강용석을 비롯한 국해의원들의 개그는 존재론적 개그입니다. 그건 연기가 아니에요. 삶이에요 삶… 리얼 라이프 잇셀프.

The comedy that comedians practice is ‘aesthetic comedy’, which means comedians are acting as if they were dumb (to create a fun situation). However, the type of comedy politicians, including Mr. Kang, practice is ‘existential comedy’, which means comedy is their life, their real life itself. It is not acting.

Chun Woo-yong (@histopian), a historian living in the Mapo area where Kang was elected as a policymaker, tweeted [ko] that he is shamed by the place:

어디 가서 마포 산다는 소리도 창피해서 못하는데[…]이런 ‘모욕감'은 어떻게 씻어야 할지.

I cannot openly say to others that ‘I live in Mapo’ because I am so embarrassed […] It is so defamatory and I don't know how to wash away this feeling. I feel so insulted.

Mr. Chun even half-jokingly asked his fellow Twitterers [ko] whether they knew any good lawyer so he can sue Kang for “defaming” the entire of Mapo's residents.

Twitter user @korea486 tweeted [ko] a link to a news article with a short comment:

“강용석 의원 왜 이래요?”의원실에 물었더니.우리라고 욕 먹는 걸 모르겠냐? 알면서도 하는 것””무소속 된 뒤 찾은 새 할 일은 블랙 마케팅, 확실히 자리매김될 것” 확실이 맛이갔군.

When I asked “what is up with policymaker Kang Yong-seok?”, this [anonymous] staff member from Mr. Kang’s office answered me, “Well. Do you really think we don't know people's bad response? Of course, we are aware of people's curses on this, but we kept doing it.” Then he added “Policymaker Kang, after he became an independent [non-party politician], found this ‘black marketing’ (negative marketing or noise marketing) as his new job. This act will at least place him on the map”. Oh, Kang is totally insane.

Blogger Kim Na-young, however, provided another explanation to the case [ko]. According to Kim, such a lawsuit is not to restrict freedom of speech, but is Kang's shrewd attempt to invaliate the concept of group defamation, so Kang, who has himself been accused of group defamation, can stand on better ground in his next court appeal.

Last year, Kang made lewd remarks about various news announcers and was sentenced as guilty in a lawsuit that several female announcers filed against him. Kang even lost his appeal. If he accepts the court's decision, it means he is no longer eligible to hold his post.

자기가 유죄 판결 받은 “집단 모욕죄”가 애당초 말도 안되는 법이라는걸 보여주기 위해서랍니다.…아무런 관계도 없는 무고한 최효종을 끌어들여 본보기로 보이겠다는 겁니다…나 말고, 얘도 유죄 때려봐, 하는 식으로. 만약 최효종이 무죄를 받으면 왜 재는 무죄고 나는 유죄야? 하겠지요.

Kang's purpose in this lawsuit is to negate the concept of “group defamation”. He wants to argue that this concept is invalid from the start… Kang wants to nullify the court’s decision by showcasing this innocent and irrelevant comedian, Mr. Choi… It is like Kang saying “Sentence Mr. Choi as guilty, as you have done to me!”. So, when the court rules Choi as innocent, Kang would argue back, “How did Choi get cleared of charges, while I [who was charged under similar case of ‘group defamation’] remain guilty?”

Whatever Kang's true intention, this is just another story idea for some creative types. Choi's colleague, Kim Won-hyo  (@wonhyokim), tweeted [ko] that he is thinking of a new comedy segment with fun titles, such as ‘Sue-back 60 minutes’ (parody of the American show 60 Minutes) or ‘Sue Anything’ (mimicking a Korean show titled ‘Ask Anything’).

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