Technology and democracy are a potent mix in S. Korea

Web-based news sites are increasingly shaping public opinion and policy

The marriage of a fledgling democracy and broadband technology has spawned a precocious new media child in South Korea that would have been unimaginable 15 years ago.

In an exhilarating two months, Web-based journalists have swung a presidential election, stirred tens of thousands of Koreans into anti-American protests, and nudged government policy on the nuclear standoff with the North.

The leading voice of this New Korea is OhmyNews, South Korea's most influential online news site. With only 40 full-time journalists, it has built up almost as big a readership and as fearsome a reputation for moving public opinion as dailies that have been established for more than half a century.

"OhmyNews is as influential as any newspaper," says a South Korea diplomat in Tokyo. "No policymaker can afford to ignore it. South Korea is changing in ways that we cannot believe ourselves."

Until 1987, South Korea was under a military dictatorship and the press was firmly under the thumb of the authorities. But huge and bloody pro-democracy demonstrations forced General Roh Tae-woo to accept direct presidential elections and freedom of expression.

Liberated from government censors, TV stations and newspapers are now routinely critical of the country's leaders. In 1997, this contributed to the first transfer of power to an opposition candidate, the former dissident Kim Dae-jung, who had once been imprisoned and sentenced to death.

Under President Kim, the young democracy received a technological boost with the spread of broadband Internet access - embraced far more quickly in South Korea than anywhere else in the world. The rigidly hierarchical society was suddenly turned on its head by the Internet, which young South Koreans turned to first for their news.

Some 67 percent of Korean households now have broadband, more than in any other country. This high-speed service means that people use the Internet more, spending an average of 1,340 minutes online per month. About 54 percent of Koreans play online games - another world record.

"The Internet is so important here," says a Western diplomat in Seoul. "This is the most online country in the world. The younger generation get all their information from the Web. Some don't even bother with TVs. They just download the programs."

Unlike the established media, the editorial policy of OhmyNews is largely decided by its 23,000 contributors - who are paid between nothing and $8 per story - and its 3 million very active readers, who can vote and comment on every published article.

In last month's presidential election, readers vetoed editorial comment by the publication's owner Oh Yeon-ho and his staff. They made their own preferences clear with thousands of contributions urging people to get out and vote for the eventual winner: Roh Moo-hyun.

Polls showed that the victory of Mr. Roh - who claims to be the world's first president to understand HTML website coding - came from a huge surge of support from the Internet generation of twenty- and thirty-somethings. In South Korea, where elections, are usually decided by regional rather than generational loyalties, this was a dramatic development. It was not the last.

A report in OhmyNews on an accident in which two schoolgirls were crushed to death by a US Army tractor prompted one reader to call for demonstrations. The editors supported the idea and within a week, South Korea was witnessing the biggest anti-American protests in the country's history.

"We are becoming very powerful," says Bae Eul-sun, one of Ohmy's online journalists. Slouched in front of a computer in a scruffy Seoul office, she looks more like a grad-school student than an increasingly important player in national politics.

"The pay is lousy, but it is very satisfying to work here because I really feel like I can change the world little by little," she says.

When the new administration takes over Feb. 25, its external priorities will essentially mark a continuation of the "Sunshine Policy" of the outgoing Kim, who focussed on maintaining a strong alliance with the US, while engaging with North Korea.

But Yoon Yong-kwan, head of foreign policy formulation in Roh's transitional team, says policy toward North Korea would be developed to better reflect public opinion.

This is likely to give more influence to domestic media, such as OhmyNews, and less to Washington. Compared to the last North Korean nuclear crisis in 1993-94, Seoul has taken a far more active role in trying to head off a confrontation - even at the expense of infuriating its ally. With online polls showing most Koreans are more frightened by Washington than by Pyongyang, Roh has been outspoken in criticizing US plans for sanctions. Earlier this month, South Korea dispatched envoys to Beijing and Moscow on what was effectively a mission to build a coalition against the tough stance taken by America.

Kim and Roh - both former civil rights activists - have their own agendas. Yet even though they are not acting merely on the whims of Internet polls, the articles, comments, and feedback in OhmyNews and other smaller online sites provide them at the very least with a justification for taking a softer line with the North.

"The development of Internet technology has changed the whole political dynamic in South Korea to an extent that the outside world has not yet grasped," Mr. Yoon says. "The emergence of the online press has balanced the political debate between progressives and conservatives. It will affect foreign policy."

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