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[VIEWPOINT]DMZ not as urgent as the Internet divide

Mar 30,2003
The Internet and such television services as CNN and BBC World give modern diplomacy instant global reach, conveying powerful and emotive images that help shape the agendas of diplomats, the public and media. Yet in Korea, the Demilita-rized Zone forms a digital divide, thwarting success in diplomacy and separating the world’s most developed and least developed broadband Internet markets.
In the North, children are malnourished and not a single Web site uses the country’s allocated domain name suffix, “kp.” North Korea’s government sets radio and television channels and takes other measures to deprive its citizens of the basic human right to a free flow of information.
By contrast, South Korea’s Ministry of Information and Communication estimates that between four percent and five percent of primary, middle and high school students are Internet addicts who need professional counseling. Last year, young “netizens,” most in their 20s and 30s, used the Internet and mobile communications to organize the largest and most broadly based anti-American demonstrations in the history of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. They helped sweep Roh Moo-hyun to victory in the December presidential election that split South Korea along regional and generational lines.
The immediate cause of the protests in South Korea was the court martial acquittal of two soldiers involved in a heart-wrenching armored vehicle accident that killed two middle school girls. The verdict offended Korean sensibilities and prompted an outpouring of anger, much of it channeled through Korean-language Web logs and public protests. They featured burning of American flags, trashing of U.S. George W. Bush effigies, and a “made-for-television” shredding of giant American flags in City Hall Plaza. The most vitriolic and inflammatory of the sites posted un-retouched photos of the two girls taken just after the accident, and in general, they were full of hate-talk, distortions and misinformation. Through global television and the Web, the whole world quickly perceived, accurately or not, that many South Koreans were violently anti-American.
The demonstrations were actively encouraged by Pyeongyang, as it steadily ratcheted up its bellicose rhetoric toward President Bush who had labeled North Korea as part of an “axis of evil.” Not surprisingly, that public label elicited anger in both South and North Korea.
In the face of these developments, Korea’s intellectual, business and political leaders remained strangely silent, ostensibly fearing that their opinions were not in the majority. The spiral of silence in South Korea collided with a spiraling war of words via the Internet that engaged key segments of the American public, already angry following the Sept. 11 attacks. Web sites and letters to the editor depicted South Korea as an “ungrateful” nation, and a string of well-known columnists called for withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea.
South Korea’s “blogs,” like others throughout the Internet, still lack generally accepted journalistic and ethical standards. Moreover, Koreans are products of an education system that is relatively weak in teaching the “critical reading skill,” needed to assess the reliability or credibility of Web content.
Americans, like most Koreans, surf the Web predominantly in their own language. Therefore, they gained only indirect or delayed knowledge of information circulating in South Korea via “blogs.” Moreover, long-term patterns of low level and sporadic coverage of Korea had enlightened Americans mainly about crises or direct foreign policy interests of the United States, but events of such critical importance to Korea as the 1980 Gwangju pro-democracy uprising received scant attention. Gwangju was Korea’s Tiananmen Square, only bloo-dier and more consequential for Korea and its relations with the United States. A similar massacre in a Soviet satellite would have aroused widespread public furor in the U.S.
American policy toward Korea must acknowledge the DMZ as not just a military, but also a digital divide for which both the United States and Russia bear responsibility. It should use public and multilateral diplomacy to promote the goal of a unified, non-nuclear peninsula on which communication infrastructures in the North and South are at parity. The North’s Internet dilemma is as important as its nuclear one: embrace the Internet and join the world economy, or seek to control it and further stagnate. Broadband access for North Korea’s citizens will be tantamount to the fall of the Berlin wall. Korea’s DMZ can be cleared of all weapons and transformed into a Northeast Asia Digital Media Zone.

* James F. Larson is the author of the forthcoming “Beyond Global Television: The New Internet Diplomacy” (Foreign Policy Association).


by James F. Larson


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