From: Grant Callaghan (email@example.com)
Date: Sun 02 Feb 2003 - 18:03:38 GMT
Technology: Technology, democracy a potent mix in South Korea
Copyright © 2003
Christian Science Monitor Service
By JONATHAN WATTS, Christian Science Monitor
SEOUL, South Korea (February 1, 2003 6:41 p.m. EST) - The marriage of a
fledgling democracy and broadband technology has spawned a precocious new
media child in South Korea that would have been unimaginable 15 years ago.
In an exhilarating two months, Web-based journalists have swung a
presidential election, stirred tens of thousands of Koreans into
anti-American protests and nudged government policy on the nuclear standoff
with the North.
The leading voice of this New Korea is OhmyNews, South Korea's most
influential online news site. With only 40 full-time journalists, it has
built up almost as big a readership and as fearsome a reputation for moving
public opinion as dailies that have been established for more than half a
"OhmyNews is as influential as any newspaper," says a South Korea diplomat
in Tokyo. "No policymaker can afford to ignore it. South Korea is changing
in ways that we cannot believe ourselves."
Until 1987, South Korea was under a military dictatorship and the press was
firmly under the thumb of the authorities. But huge and bloody pro-democracy
demonstrations forced General Roh Tae-woo to accept direct presidential
elections and freedom of expression.
Liberated from government censors, TV stations and newspapers are now
routinely critical of the country's leaders. In 1997, this contributed to
the first transfer of power to an opposition candidate, the former dissident
Kim Dae-jung, who had once been imprisoned and sentenced to death.
Under President Kim, the young democracy received a technological boost with
the spread of broadband Internet access - embraced far more quickly in South
Korea than anywhere else in the world. The rigidly hierarchical society was
suddenly turned on its head by the Internet, which young South Koreans
turned to first for their news.
Some 67 percent of Korean households now have broadband, higher than in any
other country. This high-speed service means that people use the Internet
more, spending an average of 1,340 minutes online per month. About 54
percent of Koreans play online games - another world record.
"The Internet is so important here," says a Western diplomat in Seoul. "This
is the most online country in the world. The younger generation get all
their information from the Web. Some don't even bother with TVs. They just
download the programs."
Unlike the established media, the editorial policy of OhmyNews is largely
decided by its 23,000 contributors - who are paid between nothing and $8 per
story - and its 3 million very active readers, who can vote and comment on
every published article.
In last month's presidential election, readers vetoed editorial comment by
the publication's owner Oh Yeon-ho and his staff. They made their own
preferences clear with thousands of contributions urging people to get out
and vote for the eventual winner: Roh Moo-hyun.
Polls showed that the victory of Roh - who claims to be the world's first
president to understand HTML Web site coding - came from a huge surge of
support from the Internet generation of twenty- and thirty-somethings. In
South Korea, where elections are usually decided by regional rather than
generational loyalties, this was a dramatic development. It was not the
A report in OhmyNews on an accident in which two schoolgirls were crushed to
death by a U.S. Army tractor prompted one reader to call for demonstrations.
The editors supported the idea and within a week, South Korea was witnessing
the biggest anti-American protests in the country's history.
"We are becoming very powerful," says Bae Eul-sun, one of Ohmy's online
journalists. Slouched in front of a computer in a scruffy Seoul office, she
looks more like a grad student than an increasingly important player in
"The pay is lousy, but it is very satisfying to work here because I really
feel like I can change the world little by little," she says.
When the new administration takes over Feb. 25, its external priorities will
essentially mark a continuation of the "Sunshine Policy" of the outgoing
Kim, who focused on maintaining a strong alliance with the United States,
while engaging with North Korea.
But Yoon Yong-kwan, head of foreign policy formulation in Roh's transitional
team, says policy toward North Korea would be developed to better reflect
This is likely to give more influence to domestic media, such as OhmyNews,
and less to Washington. Compared to the last North Korean nuclear crisis in
1993-94, Seoul has taken a far more active role in trying to head off a
confrontation - even at the expense of infuriating its ally. With online
polls showing most Koreans are frightened more by Washington than by
Pyongyang, Roh has been outspoken in criticizing U.S. plans for sanctions.
Earlier this month, South Korea dispatched envoys to Beijing and Moscow on
what was effectively a mission to build a coalition against the tough stance
taken by America.
Kim and Roh - both former civil rights activists - have their own agendas.
Yet even though they are not acting merely on the whims of Internet polls,
the articles, comments and feedback in OhmyNews and other smaller Web sites
provide them at the very least with a justification for taking a softer line
with the North.
"The development of Internet technology has changed the whole political
dynamic in South Korea to an extent that the outside world has not yet
grasped," Yoon says. "The emergence of the online press has balanced the
political debate between progressives and conservatives. It will affect
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