Web squad fixes history one e-mail at a time

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Web squad fixes history one e-mail at a time

For the last four years, a group of activists has been scouring the Internet for information pertaining to Korea ― and sending volumes of e-mail to correct it.
You could say that members of the Voluntary Agency Network of Korea (VANK) know the meaning of perseverance. Their efforts have resulted in many Web sites and publications righting bum information about Korea or at least modifying it to reflect Korea’s position on various geographical disputes.
It’s an ongoing mission that’s nearly as hard to stop as the tide. But it’s one that gives members of VANK enormous pride when they succeed, a boost for themselves and their country. In a true testament to VANK’s influence, Japanese scholars and others have protested the group, saying they consider VANK’s efforts as “unjust lobbying.”
Their Web site didn’t start off correcting falsities. Founder Park Gitae started it as a pen pal site, but as the site grew, members became more eager to correct information about Korea after they corresponded with foreign friends.
“If I began a site dedicated solely to correcting wrong information about Korea, it would have failed,” says Mr. Park, speaking in rapid and fervent tones. “Because I started a Web site aimed at promoting cultural exchanges through pen pals, the site has attracted mass appeal.”
Mr. Park does not come across as your average civic activist, but he has been branded as one.
He became a reluctant hero for Korea four years ago when he wrote to National Geographic requesting they change “Sea of Japan” to “East Sea” on their maps. National Geographic agreed to recognize “East Sea” and place it in parentheses under the more commonly used term, Sea of Japan.
When VANK began six years ago, Mr. Park was a student at Seokyeong University, majoring in Japanese. He wanted to learn more about other cultures and improve his foreign language skills. But unlike his peers, he did not have the means to study abroad.
“My generation was never quite interested in history,” says Mr. Park. “We grew up admiring Western culture, wanting to travel abroad. There was all this hype about globalization when I was in college, and students studied hard for the Test of English for International Communication rather than read Korean history books.”
Making use of the Web, he began posting letters on sites of major universities in the United States, Europe and Asia, saying he wanted to make friends with foreign students who were interested in Asia or Korea. Within weeks, he received thousands of responses from students. Mr. Park began exchanging mail with nearly 100 friends from all over the world, and he later wrote a book based on the correspondences.
Mr. Park opened his Web site for students to give them information about studying abroad. The site became immensely popular among elementary, middle and high school students, and now about 70 percent of the 15,000 members are in that age group.
When foreign students started to ask about Korea’s history, VANK members began to bone up on Korean history. It was frustrating for him that many foreigners only knew Korea as the country “near China,” or “somewhere between China and Japan.”
“Subsequently, VANK members became ‘cyber tourist guides’ for Korea,” says Mr. Park.
By fall 2001, VANK’s image shifted from mere cultural exchanges on the Internet to rectifying distortions about Korean history and geography.
After his correspondence with National Geographic, Mr. Park became a media darling virtually overnight.
Soon after, Mr. Park sent letters to some 250 other Web sites with world maps such as WorldAtlas.com, Lycos and the Lonely Planet. Most opted to include “East Sea” along with “Sea of Japan.”
“Later I heard that the Foreign Ministry had been lobbying [National Geographic and others] to have that corrected for several decades but couldn’t get passed the bureaucracy,” said Mr. Park.
Responses from overseas were polite. An official from WorldAtlas.com wrote in November 2002, “Their (VANK’s) claim that the East Sea has as much historical precedent as the Sea of Japan has worked well, as major book and map publishers, educational Web sites along with this site now include the East Sea. In the end, the national pride of the Korean people is the clear winner.”
Mr. Park has taken on National Geographic more than once, writing the organization again in 2003 after it asserted that Korean history began in 668 after the unification of Silla. That November, National Geographic corrected the error, stating that Korean history began in 4,000 BC.
Mr. Park also wrote to major universities and online encyclopedias that included Goguryeo as part of Chinese history. Again, many agreed to alter their Web sites about Goguryeo after VANK members sent letters.
Last year, the contention then became the dispute with Japan over the Dokdo islands, and VANK members sent letters to major map sites in Europe and the United States to protest including Dokdo as part of Japanese territory.
Many wrote back to VANK apologizing for the mistake while some, such as the British weekly magazine The Economist decided to use both Dokdo and Takeshima, the Japanese name for the islands, on their official world map.
But unlike offline publications, online mistakes have vast, immediate distribution, and correcting all would take a colossal amount of time and effort.
So Mr. Park wrote a manual called “Cyber Diplomat,” which enables schoolchildren how to write to foreign Web sites and suggest corrections concerning Korea-related information.
Since the book was published in April 2004, it has been used in major high schools such as Korean Minjok Leadership Academy and Daewon Foreign Language High School.
National Assembly Representative Kim Hee-jung of the Grand National Party, who has been a VANK member since 2003 said, “Unlike other political groups [Mr. Park] doesn’t think that spreading correct knowledge about Korea should be confined to VANK only. He believes it should become a mass effort.”
However, Mr. Park said the apathy of Koreans is frustrating.
“Foreigners, I found, were more logical and rational, while we [Koreans] are emotional,” Mr. Park said. “When I wrote to foreign Web sites, they made changes after they were reasonably convinced of the facts. Koreans think that changing misinformation on foreign Web sites is something the Foreign Ministry should do and has nothing to do with them. In truth, this is about our national identity.”

by Choi Jie-ho
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