USFK commander too media shy for own good
We go together, “katchi kapshida,” was the last and perhaps most touching phrase of U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul last month.
Officers of the U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK) try to use the phrase as many times as possible at formal meetings with Koreans, apparently to highlight the importance of the Korea-U.S. alliance.
However, some members of the Korean defense press corps seem convinced that the phrase is just lip service, especially when articulated by the USFK’s Public Relations Office.
Their distrust against the USFK PR office was so deep-rooted that it even led to a mischaracterization of comments by Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, on Tuesday.
“We were aware that our reports were somewhat misleading and exaggerated but decided not to make any change in order to express our long-held discontent over the USFK’s reluctance to engage with the media in a sincere manner,” a senior reporter of the defense press corps said.
Asked about the need for a surgical strike against missile bases and nuclear test sites in the North, Locklear replied, “Well, I don’t think it would be really appropriate for me to comment on how we pursue any future military operations but I can tell you that with the alliance that we are potentially looking at all options.”
Still, many local media outlets reported as if the USFK would launch a surgical strike to stop future nuclear tests by the North, without suggesting that his response was more of a diplomatic statement, rather than a strong resolution to do so.
Several public relations officers at the Ministry of National Defense expressed sympathy over local journalists’ distorting reports, saying they too find it very stressful to work with their U.S. counterparts.
“They often make decisions unilaterally without consultation with us or prior notice to us,” he said. “They feed information only in favor of USFK. When there are interesting events or developments regarding U.S. troops, they often do not answer phones or promptly answer questions to inquiries.”
He noted that USFK Gen. James D. Thurman has never held a press briefing or had a media interview since he was sworn in as the head of the 28,000-strong U.S. forces in Korea in July last year.
Journalists who were not present at Tuesday’s press briefing were confused over the accuracy of reports that raised the possibility of a surgical strike because the USFK later released a press statement criticizing local media’s mischaracterization of Locklear’s remarks.
I was unable to help prevent the mishaps from taking place in the first place as The Korea Times was banned from attending the press conference, despite the fact it was the only English newspaper available among the defense press corps.
To my understanding, the paper has been banned from press interviews due largely to the Times’ unwillingness to amend an interview article in the way it was requested the night before the article was published.
I refused to make major changes to an interview article with an assistant chief of staff at the USFK when the PR team asked me to do so after obtaining a draft copy of the article to be published Friday under the title, “Korea, U.S. closer in missile defense.”
I was asked to delete the two-star general’s forecast that the North would launch a long-range rocket at noon April 14 and emphasize his or his family’s dedication to Korea.
I removed the sentence, “The two-star general said his best guess would be that the North will launch the rocket on Saturday noon,” for the second edition of our paper as his prediction could be wrong. In fact, the North fired off the Unha-3 rocket at 7:39 a.m. on Friday.
I was only able to add a brief introduction of his family because all the media attention was on the rocket launch at that time and it would have been wiser for me to write a separate feature story about the fascinating story of his family’s dedication in Korea over the past three generations.
Now, I’m in a dilemma over whether to publish an article on his family or write of his skepticism over Korea’s push for defense reform, which would allow the chiefs of the Armed Forces to have operational command.
I hope the USFK PR office lives up to the spirit of katchi kapshida so that I can focus on writing articles that offers insight and valuable facts, rather than mulling on a counterstrike for stripping my rights as a journalist to cover news.