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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
Update at 1655 KST: this article has been updated to include further comment from News 1
South Korea’s state-funded Yonhap News Agency on Monday filed a lawsuit against competitor News 1 for distributing material from North Korean daily newspaper Rodong Sinmun without permission from the government.
Yonhap on Tuesday said it had formally accused News 1, an affiliate of the MoneyToday Media group, of violating the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act — which requires all commerce between the two Koreas to first receive approval from Seoul.
Since the North Korean newspaper’s surprise decision to end its online distribution of free PDFs in December last year, the two outlets have been at loggerheads over the exclusive rights to distribute its output in South Korea.
Though it was initially unclear why the Rodong, North Korea’s highest-circulation newspaper, removed the PDF option, it was later revealed that the service was halted as News 1 pushed ahead with negotiations for exclusive publishing rights.
Yonhap, which is funded by South Korean taxpayers, held the exclusive rights to distribute materials from the Rodong to South Korea-based clients until the end of 2018.
The organization previously signed a contract with the Japan-based Korea Media, later receiving permission from the South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU) in March 2017.
Korea Media, believed to be linked to the Japan-based pro-Pyongyang Chongryon organization, works with foreign outlets to negotiate rights to republish North Korean materials.
The organization terminated its contract with Yonhap at the end of last year, however, while pushing ahead with a new agreement on the publication rights with News 1.
Yonhap this week accused MoneyToday Media group of agreeing to pay multiple fees to Korea Media without first obtaining permission from the South Korean government.
In a statement, Yonhap on Tuesday claimed that News 1 had distributed and published material from the Rodong obtained through an “unidentified channel” between March 2017 and December 2018.
Between January and March this year, Yonhap said, News 1 also distributed materials from the Rodong to local clients, including newspaper companies, without approval from the South Korean government.
The state news agency insisted that News 1 had violated Article 13 of the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act, which states that “any person who intends to take out or bring in goods, etc. shall obtain approval from the Minister of Unification.”
“The government has punished the act of bringing in content without approval from the government considering… that exchanges between the two Koreas can affect national security or disturb the market order,” Yonhap said in a statement.
“If local companies push forward projects competitively, it may lead to the distortion of sound inter-Korean cooperation.”
News 1 on Tuesday afternoon told NK News that Yonhap’s claims were “not based on the facts at all.”
“We’ve never brought in contents and distributed them, as Yonhap claims,” a senior official at the agency who asked to remain anonymous said.
“Our concern is that this accusation and charge may lead to a delay in the review of the Ministry of Unification which is currently at the final stage and may obfuscate the point of this problem.”
The agency’s president Lee Baek-gyu also last week issued a statement to employees through the company’s private intranet seeking to “dispel the current misapprehensions” surrounding the contract.
In the statement, obtained by NK News, Lee said News 1 and its parent company MoneyToday Media group were in the final stages of negotiations with the South Korean government.
The company plans to sign a formal contract with Korea Media following a consultation on “the government’s requirements” and is in compliance with “normal business procedures,” the statement added.
“The concern that excessive competition can disturb inter-Korean exchange and cooperation is at variance with the truth,” Lee said. “I can confidently say we are pushing forward with the contract process based on sound common sense.”
“If [some] denounces us for concluding the contract with excessive conditions for our profit, it would be… ungentlemanly behavior and black propaganda to postpone the approval of the Ministry of Unification.”
News 1 also pledged to “achieve broader publicity compared to the previous contractor,” promising to provide content from the Rodong to Yonhap and other non-client outlets.
The statement also stressed that the market structure for distributing North Korean media in the South must be reformed in light of the “new phase of inter-Korean exchanges.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham