At the annual Bucheon International Comics Festival 부천국제만화축제 held from September 24 to 28, the gold medal winner of the student cartoon competition was a drawing titled “The Yoon Suk-yeol Train 윤석열차” - featuring a train with the president’s face, driven by the First Lady Kim Geon-hee 김건희 영부인 and a group of prosecutors wielding swords, barrelling toward fleeing citizens. (See previous coverage, “The First Lady’s Many Troubles.”)
The Yoon administration did not take the satire kindly. On October 4, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism 문화체육관광부, one of the hosts of the festival, issued a “stern warning 엄중한 경고”, ostensibly because the winning cartoon “explicitly dealt with political topics.” The ministry also threatened to pull the government funding for the festival, claiming it may do so for events that “cause social controversy.” The next day at the legislative audit, Culture Minister Park Bo-gyun 박보균 문화부장관 further defended the ministry’s actions, arguing that the festival neglected to notify the participants that it would not accept “defamatory” submissions.
Censorship by threat is a veritable tradition of South Korea’s conservatives. The Lee Myung-bak 이명박 administration from 2008 to 2013 kept a blacklist of artists which it deemed too liberal, cutting off government funding and pressuring corporations to not give them work. The subsequent Park Geun-hye 박근혜 administration expanded the list to include over 9k names, including Academy Award winning director Bong Joon-ho 봉준호 and actor Song Kang-ho 송강호, who played lead roles in movies such as The Attorney 변호인, the biopic of former president Roh Moo-hyun 노무현, and A Taxi Driver 택시운전사, portraying the massacre at the 1980 Gwangju Democracy Movement 광주민주화운동.
Even the conservative Chosun Ilbo 조선일보 criticized the Culture Ministry, urging it to “be humble and laugh off” the cartoon. Facing the public criticism that the ministry’s actions threatened freedom of expression, the conservative People Power Party 국민의힘 legislators attempted to pivot, with Assembly Members Jo Su-jin 조수진 and Yu Sang-beom 유상범 arguing that the real issue was plagiarism, supposedly because the train with a face plagiarized a 2019 satirical cartoon in The Sun featuring Boris Johnson as a train. But Steve Bright, the artist of the 2019 cartoon, dismissed the claim: “It’s very clear any similarity was coincidence.”
Meanwhile, the Korea Editorial Cartoon Association 전국시사만화협회 issued a statement that simply repeated the word “Freedom 자유” 33 times, in reference to the number of times Yoon Suk-yeol said the word in his inauguration speech.