On July 1, 2021 the government of South Korea requested police to investigate how a map of Pyongyang came to be included in a videoclip introducing Seoul at a conference of global climate change, held in May this year.
The request was made after an internal investigation within the Foreign Ministry failed to determine whether subcontractors had deliberately or mistakenly included the map in the video, which was shown during the opening ceremony of the virtual Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals (P4G) summit. The Ministry also initiated an internal disciplinary procedure against three officials of the P4G Seoul Summit Preparatory Office who were responsible for overseeing the preparations for the opening ceremony and reprimanded its own P4G preparation team.
This extraordinary incident took place during the largest international conference ever organized by South Korea. The video was aimed at demonstrating to the international community that South Korea is playing a key role in leading the international campaign to address the global climate emergency and that Seoul is a center of this international crusade.
The video, which was followed by a welcoming speech made by President Moon Jae-in, included panoramic views of Seoul. Then the screen displayed an aerial view of an island – but it was Yanggakdo Island, in Pyonyang’s Taedong River, and not Yeouido, on Seoul’s Han River. The camera then zoomed in, showing clear views of the river, Pyongyang, and the southern part of Pyongyang province, in the DPRK.
The mistake was only noticed later, when it was reported by local media. Afterwards, in the second part of the day, the offending scenes were replaced with scenes of Seoul. Later a representative of the Blue House informed media that the Foreign Ministry group responsible for P4G planning had outsourced the making of the video to a private company. The internal investigation took more than two weeks and revealed that the subcontractor that made the video had mistakenly included a map of the North Korean capital, and that, despite three rehearsals, no-one had noticed the error.
South Korean Conservatives immediately denounced this as an “ideological diversionary attack” – thus preventing the incident from being written off as a simple error. “In terms of protocol, the display of images of Pyongyang as part of such a major event is a catastrophe and a source of humiliation for South Korea.” It is impossible that no-one at the Blue House, particularly Tak Hyun-min, the President’s secretary for protocol matters, failed to notice the error during the preliminary viewings, and it is therefore clear that the images must have been included deliberately, in order to demonstrate the Moon Jae-in administration’s pro-North sympathies. Moreover, in a press conference on the achievements of the P4G summit, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong requested journalists to refrain from asking questions about the video, in an attempt to prevent them from “looking too deeply into this fiasco.”
It is still unclear whether any link with North Korea has been traced, but at the end of July it was superseded by an even greater scandal: the national television company MBC’s use of “inappropriate” images to depict a number of other countries in its screening of the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics on July 26, 2021:
- Norway, Italy and Japan were represented by images of salmon, pizza and sushi respectively – naturally raising the question of how Koreans would feel if they were depicted as eaters of dog meat.
- Count Dracula was used to represent Romania, and the Bitcoin was used as a symbol for El Salvador – perhaps an attempt to remind viewers of that central American nation’s decision to make the cryptocurrency legal tender.
- The entry of Ukraine’s athletes was accompanied with images of the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, considered the worst nuclear disaster in history.
- When Haiti’s athletes came in, MBC showed photographs of riots, together with an on-screen reference to the assassination of the country’s president Jovenel Moïse at the beginning of July.
- MBC described Australia as “the heart of Oceania” and Iran as “the Center of Islam”.
- The Marshall Islands were referred to as a former US nuclear testing ground. And Micronesia, an archipelago of more than 2 100 islands in the Pacific Ocean, was transported to the Atlantic.
- And to represent Santiago, the capital of Chile, MBC displayed a picture of the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela.
The next day MBC’s insulting choice of images was reported widely, including by such international media outlets as the New York Times and CNN, and MBC was forced to issue an apology. The statement read – “We included a number of inappropriate images and comments in our broadcast of the Olympic Games opening ceremony on Friday evening. We sincerely apologize to the countries and peoples in question, and also to our viewers. We prepared images and texts to briefly introduce each country as the time for each country was limited, but we were careless in our choice.”
MBC insisted that it had no intention of insulting people from all over the world and promised to avoid such unforgiveable mistakes in the future – but it then went on to do exactly that, in its coverage of a football match between South Korea and Romania. During the half-time commercial break MBC displayed a message “Thank you Marin” – a reference to the Romanian defender who had scored an own goal in the 27th minute of the match, allowing South Korea to win.
Commenting on these incidents, Kim Se-Won, author of the book “A Global Cultural Code”, pointed out that the Olympic Games promote such values as peace, harmony and tolerance. But MBC has done just the opposite… Every country has less wholesome aspects that it would prefer not to share openly with the rest of the world. But MBC has used these as images to represent different countries. What they did is far from the Olympic spirit.
Here we could also take a look at ideological diversion tactics or talk about Koreans’ racism and double standards, but the author prefers to adhere to the principles expressed by Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”
In Russian internet slang “girl designer syndrome” refers to situations in which mistakes made by careless and unskilled staff (whether male or female) in the media or PR sectors trigger a major scandal. For example the use of German tanks or aircraft in a poster celebrating the Soviet victory over the Nazis. Half an hour before the project deadline the designer adds an image of an impressive looking tank, and does not stop to think about what that particular tank might represent. After all, designers are responsible for composing images, and are not expected to be experts in military hardware!
In South Korea such designers and other arts professionals regularly put their foot in it. For example in February 2021 Sowon, the leader of the K-pop girl band GFriend, issued an apology after sharing a photograph of her hugging a mannequin dressed in a Nazi uniform. And many of her fans defended her, saying that this was just a mistake. And before that, in July 2020, the band BLACKPINK came under fire for including a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha in their video How You Like That, without for a moment thinking about what the statue means for the group’s Indian fans. And in May 2020 Big Hit Entertainment, the label representing titans of K-pop BTS had to apologize after it sampled a sermon by Jim Jones, who was responsible for the 1978 massacre of 900 of his followers in Jonestown, Guyana.
And then, five or more years ago, there was the Gestapo bar – a name which its owners quite genuinely failed to understand might upset foreign tourists.
This is the kind of negligence that allows defectors, by some “miraculous feat of gymnastics” to cross impenetrable barriers, and allows hackers to break into systems that were supposed to be (but were not in reality) disconnected from the Internet.
So, there is no need to look for any political intrigue in incidents like these. And that, in reality, makes them even more outrageous.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.