Joongsok Oh, 2022 winner
For this year’s Burke Awards, Radio Free Asia (RFA) is nominating RFA’s Seoul Bureau Chief Joongsok Oh. Oh was instrumental in leading the Korean Service’s breakthrough reporting, which gave a rare insight into on-the-ground developments and life inside North Korea. His oversight included stories on the restrictions and harsh punishments meted out to North Korean people over the distribution and consumption of contraband Western and South Korean media, forced participation of citizens in a scripted memorial for a deceased former leader, and a crackdown on a popular clothing trend, among others. The slew of pieces was developed by RFA Korean’s in-depth team, which includes North Korean defectors with sources inside the most restricted news environment in the world. They rank among some of the Service’s most consequential examples of its journalism from the past year, cover North Korea’s human rights violations and crackdown on citizens’ freedom of expression, and were heavily cited by other news outlets, human rights groups, and officials.
In November 2021, RFA Korean broke the news that a man who was caught selling files of the viral South Korean TV show ‘Squid Game’ was sentenced to death, while a group of high-school students who were caught watching it were severely punished, with one receiving a life imprisonment and six others five years of hard labor. For this report, Oh oversaw the Korean Service team behind the story. To confirm details, the team spoke with multiple sources, including parents of the students, as well as trade workers aware of the case. Keenly aware of the subject’s sensitivity, Oh made sure that the reporters contacted unnamed sources in North Korea who were able to confirm suspicions and actions taken by authorities enforcing a rigid ban on outside media. RFA’s reporting on the “Squid Game” story went viral, and was widely cited by Korean and international news outlets including Variety, Boston Globe, Forbes, and The Korea Times. RFA’s reporting was also extensively referenced in the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report on North Korea.
Within the same month as the viral “Squid Game” story, RFA reported that North Korean authorities had restricted citizens from wearing apparel, including leather jackets, which are commonly worn by leader Kim Jong Un—a symbol synonymous with the power of the “highest dignity.” The story went viral and was widely cited by Korean and Western news outlets such as The Hill, Telegraph, and Highsnobeity Magazine.
The following month, RFA reported that North Koreans were banned from laughing, shopping, or recreating during a mandated 11-day mourning period for the 10th anniversary of former leader Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2021. RFA’s coverage of the commemoration, for which Oh made sure that RFA’s reporters contacted North Korean workers in Dandong who were forced to participate in state-sponsored activities, included voices of ordinary citizens testifying to the extent to which North Korean authorities carefully control official events to project a unified picture of loyalty in state-controlled media and propaganda. RFA’s story was cited widely in South Korean and global media, including Newsweek, UPI, and the Independent.
As RFA’s bureau chief in Seoul, Oh oversees a staff that includes RFA’s in-depth team and defector journalists who provide North Korean audiences with independent, fact-based local news in a country ranked at the bottom of press freedom indexes by CPJ and Reporters Without Borders. Oh’s efforts and role in these stories exemplify the Burke Awards criteria, especially with regard to dedication to the cause of democracy and free exchange of ideas.