K.C. Hwang, AP’s bureau chief in Seoul for 30 years, dies at age 99


SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — K.C. Hwang, whose six-decade-long journalism career included 30 years chronicling South Korea’s tumultuous modern history as Seoul bureau chief for The Associated Press, has died at age 99.

Hwang died Thursday of chronic ailments after undergoing kidney dialysis for two years, his son, Yoon Chul Hwang, said.

From joining the AP in 1957, Hwang witnessed and reported on some of South Korea’s most dramatic and turbulent moments in its postwar history, from a public uprising that toppled the country’s first president, military coups and a presidential assassination to pro-democracy movements.

“It was rare luck for a journalist to cover all these historical events in a single country,” Hwang wrote in a 2006 book titled “Korea Witness,” a collection of essays and articles by Korea correspondents.

Hwang chose the 1960 uprising — where massive student protests over the government’s election fraud and corruption allegations triggered bloody police crackdowns before President Syngman Rhee resigned — as “the most shocking, dramatic and nerve-racking” event that he had ever covered.

While covering some of the protests on the ground, Hwang said he beat his foreign media competitors when he dashed to a tearoom to use a phone there to relay the news of police shooting at demonstrators to an AP colleague at the office, who filed a bulletin.

“I was faster than other foreign journalists. The story was moved via our Tokyo bureau. … It touched off immense world reaction,” Hwang said in an interview with South Korea’s Maeil Business Newspaper last year.

A year after Rhee’s ouster, Maj. Gen. Park Chung-hee seized power in a coup. He then ruled the country with an iron-fist for 18 years.

Under Park, freedom of expression and of the press were significantly hurt. In the book “Korea Witness,” Hwang said that intelligence and police officers frequently visited the AP’s Seoul office and pushed him and his Korean colleagues to be “patriotic.”

After Park was gunned down by his spy chief in 1979, Chun Doo-hwan, also an army major general, launched a coup and took power.

On an early morning in July 1980, Hwang said that agents from Chun’s martial law command came to his house, blindfolded him and took him to an interrogation facility in a military jeep. Over three days, Hwang was interrogated intensively over his ties to opposition leader Kim Dae-jung. He was eventually released.

During Park and Chun’s rules, foreign media journalists still received less harsh treatment by authorities than their counterparts working at local media. Opposition politicians sought to use Western media outlets in Seoul as channels to relay their fight for democracy to the world.

“Foreign journalists were relatively freer from government crackdown or censorships … so my father was proud of the fact that he wrote about the situation more accurately than Korean media reporters,” said Hwang’s son.

The younger Hwang said aides to opposition leaders Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung often visited his father at their house. Both Kims later became presidents after South Korea achieved democracy in the late 1980s.

After leaving the AP in 1987, Hwang worked for Time magazine’s Seoul bureau for five years then worked freelance for other Western media companies. He ended his professional career as a foreign media journalist in 2002, after reporting on a World Cup opening ceremony for CBS.

A few years later, Hwang began regularly posting articles in Korean on various issues on a local online site. He had continued contributing articles to the site until he was hospitalized recently. In an article posted this February, Hwang said he had been writing a diary every night for 20 years.

“While being hospitalized, my father worried about a deadline approaching for his turn to write and post an article,” his son said.

Hwang is survived by his son and four daughters. Hwang’s mourning station set up at a Seoul hospital is to run until early Sunday morning.

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