SEOUL, South Korea — It started out as an airline tragedy. Then it grew into a racially charged row.
On Monday, Asiana Airlines announced it will sue a San Francisco television broadcaster for defamation — after a news anchor unknowingly read a distasteful ethnic joke on air, thinking it was a major scoop.
The station offered a fake list of the four pilots from Asiana Air flight 214, which crashed in San Francisco on July 6 and left three people dead: named as Captain Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Low, Ho Lee Fuk, and Bang Ding Ow.
The station apologized, but the segment was still an insult to the air carrier’s reputation, and thus it was actionable, an Asiana spokeswoman told Agence France-Presse.
Of course, the South Korean carrier has good reason to be upset at such media sloppiness.
But analysts in Seoul say the lawsuit is emblematic of Korea’s touchy, reputation-driven corporate culture. And while Asiana might have a strong case in South Korea, it is far from certain to prevail in American court, a fact that reflects a cultural gulf between the two nations.
The American legal system protects free speech — including criticism, satire and humor — above a company’s efforts to safeguard its reputation from journalistic errors and ethnic jokes.
In contrast, South Koreans, far more than their American counterparts, prize “face” as a paramount concern.
Libel and slander rank among the most common tort claims that Koreans file against each other. Criminal law reflects this, providing prison sentences — even if a defendant tells the truth and has evidence to back it up. A satirical skit on television, for example, can be considered defamatory.
“Korea is not really a free speech country,” explains Brendon Carr, an American legal counsel at the Yulchon law firm in Seoul.
This, Carr said, could help explain Asiana’s suit against the US broadcaster, which may be considered an unusual decision for an American firm, given the risk of a public relations backlash.
Asiana may have proceeded in accordance with Korean expectations, “without taking ownership of the differences in the [American and Korean] legal systems,” Carr added. “Korea is very sensitive and reactive to perceived insults to the nation.”
Large corporations here are known for suing critics who poke fun at them. In 2010, Samsung Electronics filed and then dropped a $1 million libel claim against British columnist Mike Breen for his satire in a local newspaper.
Samsung had the grounds for libel in South Korea.
In the US, public figures who feel smeared face major legal hurdles. They must prove the slanderers made false allegations that caused career or monetary harm, and acted with “actual malice.”
In other words, they have to demonstrate that the allegations weren’t just wrong, but that the damaging statements were publicized with “reckless disregard” for the truth.
“At the end of the day, the TV station will be able to argue in its defense that it didn’t know that these names were ridiculous, and that it made efforts to confirm them,” Carr said. A government intern erroneously validated the names for the broadcaster.
The broadcaster’s gaffe was but one example of cross-cultural mayhem that has emerged since the crash.
Meanwhile, the face-over-truth ethic is manifesting itself in other ways in the US, where commentators have questioned whether the hierarchical culture of Korea could have contributed to cockpit communications failures.
This theory had been popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, part of which explores deferential social mores as a cause of Korean airlines’ dismal safety record in the 1990s.
In 1997, investigators blamed the Korean system of deference as one factor in the runway collision of Korean Air flight 801 in Guam, a tragedy that saw 228 deaths. The senior pilot made errors that his juniors failed to correct, investigators said. Korean Air later hired American executives and re-trained its pilots. (The federal investigation body, the NTSB, has not reached any conclusions on the current case.)
“From a young age, Korean people are very aware of the idea of seniority,” said Lucien Brown, a linguistics professor at the University of Oregon. “This is not something that can be unlearned or ignored in professional contexts where it may not be required or valued.”
Others dismiss the Korean cultural link as overstated, and regard such speculation concerning last week’s accident as groundless stereotyping.
“There seems to be a tendency for Korean culture and the Korean language to be blamed when bad things happen involving Koreans — and often it is the Koreans themselves who are pointing the finger,” said Brown. Still, he suggested that air crashes “always” have a cultural element to them.
In Seoul, an aura of nervousness surrounds this line of inquiry. Four Korean pilots contacted by GlobalPost declined interviews out of concern for the reputation of their nation, and of attracting the ire of Asiana before the US government investigation is completed.
All of them cited the fact that Koreans are sensitive to foreign media coverage of the Asiana accident. Call it a notion of face on a national scale — one that keeps public image clean and free from attack.