Humble Web site builds a small army of patriotic fact-checkers

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Humble Web site builds a small army of patriotic fact-checkers

"I was a little upset to read on a foreign Web site that the first kingdom established in Korea was the Goguryeo; that was when I first felt compelled to make our country's history better known to foreigners," said a 33-year-old office worker.

"There are still world maps that are describing our East Sea as 'Sea of Japan,'" said a 22-year-old student. "If nobody corrects these errors they become accepted facts over the long-term and are then hard to undo; as a member of the Voluntary Agency Network of Korea I have made it my job to correct such mistakes."

The Voluntary Agency Network of Korea, also known by the acronym VANK, was formed three years ago on the Internet to, as its motto states: "Let the right facts about Korean be known, by having each member reach out to at least five foreigners." The organization, on the Net at www.prkorea.org, has already signed up some 10,000 members, who volunteer their services in making sure non-Koreans have their facts about Korea straight. The members are encouraged to find penpals abroad, and educate them about Korea.

In May of 1999, Park Ki-tae, then a junior at Seokyeong University, created the Web site and counted around 200 people with the same interests as charter members. Eventually, as the organization grew, it took an office in the Namdaemun area. Still, however, most of the group's work is done online.

Acknowledging the work, the Korean government has been offering free training to the volunteers since last November, and even partially funds what it calls "this civilian diplomatic group."

Besides the penpal work, the organization also scours international news sites for misstatements about Korea. The group says that since its foundation it has pointed out some 1,600 mistakes that were later corrected on Web sites of organizations such as CNN, the CIA, Businessweek and NASA.

For instance, National Geographic magazine in January changed the "Sea of Japan" name to "East Sea" on one of its primary maps after VANK members barraged the magazine with 3,000 e-mails, urging it to change the "wrong" name.

Though the group has always been a young one, it keeps getting younger. Starting last year, it has been focusing on enlisting the services of elementary, middle and high school students to tell youngsters worldwide about Korea.

The organization has also started a recruitment project called PR Korea under which it plans to widen its membership to 200,000. The organization also plans to establish a database on Korea that would be divided into 20 areas ranging from politics to culture. In addition, its members will continue to monitor big Web sites, such as Yahoo, Lycos and CNN, to find errors.

For the record, Korea's first kingdom, though somewhat mythical, was the Gojoseon, established in 2,226 B.C. The Goguryeo Kingdom came two millennia later, in 37 B.C.

by Hong Seung-ho

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