Cyber diplomats

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 May, 2005, 12:00am

Funded by modest voluntary contributions, a small civic organisation has succeeded where Seoul officialdom has often failed in correcting historical and geographical errors about South Korea produced abroad, by harnessing the power of tens of thousands of the country's schoolchildren.

Over the past four years, the Voluntary Agency Network of Korea (Vank) has identified the more egregious examples of misinformation, such as the wrong name for the head of state, while also convincing the likes of The Economist to adopt the Korean name of Dokdo on its official world map alongside the Japanese Takeshima for the disputed islets lying between the two neighbours.

Vank is the brainchild of Park Gi-tae who, as a student six years ago, set up an internet penfriend site to promote cultural exchanges between students. But he became frustrated by the lack of knowledge abroad about South Korea and fed up with the perceptions of it as 'a country of short-tempered people where police and demonstrators fight on the streets' or 'packed with lawmakers who fight and grab each other by the throat'.

'Many people think it is the job of scholars or the government to correct mistakes about Korea. They think 'that's what we pay taxes for', but if my friend has the wrong information about South Korea, how can we become close?' he said.

By 2001, Vank's remit included correcting errors about history and geography found in books and on the internet. Despite having just five full-time staff, it now claims to have 50,000 members, mostly schoolchildren, who pay a one-off fee of about US$20 and also buy the manual called Cyber Diplomacy.

New members have to undergo a 14-step training session, which includes identifying errors about South Korea and then approaching the companies which are responsible via e-mail.

One of its major successes was convincing the leading publisher Dorling Kindersley to recognise the title 'East Sea' alongside 'Sea of Japan', not only on its internet site, but also in newly published reference books. 'Our schoolchildren members aren't great scholars, their English may not be so good, but I think companies are impressed by their sincerity,' said Mr Park. The group's success in getting international organisations to reflect South Korea's position on a number of geographical disputes has led to accusations of 'unjust lobbying' by Japanese scholars.

But Mr Park has identified a potentially more stubborn obstacle for Vank in his mission to project a more positive image of the country. 'Wrong information can be corrected, but the most serious problem is the lack of any information,' he said.