Korea’s Cyber Vigilantes

Webmasters, beware. If you have a map of Northeast Asia on your site and the body of water located between Japan and the Korean Peninsula is labeled "Sea of Japan," you may soon find your e-mail inbox full of messages seeking to "correct" your geography. Groups of loosely organized South Korean netizens regularly fire off ...

Webmasters, beware. If you have a map of Northeast Asia on your site and the body of water located between Japan and the Korean Peninsula is labeled "Sea of Japan," you may soon find your e-mail inbox full of messages seeking to "correct" your geography.

Webmasters, beware. If you have a map of Northeast Asia on your site and the body of water located between Japan and the Korean Peninsula is labeled "Sea of Japan," you may soon find your e-mail inbox full of messages seeking to "correct" your geography.

Groups of loosely organized South Korean netizens regularly fire off thousands of e-mails in an effort to promote their country’s national image and rectify what they consider to be grave mistakes about Korean history, geography, and culture. Depending upon how you view them, these folks are either self-styled "cyber fact-checkers" or hyper-nationalistic spammers. One such group is the Voluntary Agency Network of Korea (VANK). Originally founded as an international pen pal organization, VANK’s mission no longer involves friendly exchange. Instead, its members scour Web sites for "errors" about Korea, then barrage violators with protest e-mails. For instance, VANK wages a continual campaign to change the name of the Sea of Japan to the East Sea. "We are aware that some people criticize us as nothing but nationalists who give one-sided facts to foreigners. But it is a misconception," says Park Gi-Tae, VANK’s founder and director.

Korea’s government encourages this cyber-vigilantism. The Korean Information Service (KOIS), the government’s public affairs branch, sponsors contests to hunt down foreign Web sites that have "incorrect" content about South Korea. Some mistakes are honest, such as mixing up the flags of North and South Korea or misspelling a Korean name. Others are more controversial. One popular cause is to have the Liancourt Rocks, a group of uninhabitable craggy islets claimed as sovereign Korean territory, be called only by the Korean name Dokdo, and not by their Japanese name, Takeshima.

Of course, oftentimes what is "incorrect" history is a matter of opinion. And people expressing views that portray the country in an unpleasant light — such as the entry on South Korea at Answers.com, which some complain portrays Korea as a "war-torn, separated country" — are often the ones targeted. The government remains unapologetic. "KOIS is resolved to monitor the contents of Korea-related Web sites and provide correct information on the Net in order to help generate an accurate image of the country," says Park Jung-yul, a KOIS official. For some people, history isn’t open to interpretation.

James Card is a freelance journalist based in South Korea.

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