South Korea's unification ministry on Thursday vigorously defended the move, despite criticism that they're overreacting to an online propaganda campaign that is likely to have little impact and will be difficult to stamp out.
“When South Korean nationals want to contact North Koreans, they should do so according to our law,” says Lee Jong-ju, spokeswoman for the South’s unification ministry, responsible for dealings with the North. “We already blocked it.”
Attempts to get into any North Korea website are greeted by the word, “Warning,” in large western letters and the announcement, in Korean, that the site is inaccessible and illegal in the South. Beside the word “Warning” are the initials KCSC for Korea Communications Standards Commission, but the message is also signed by the National Police Agency, suggesting that the police will go after anyone who tries to get around the law.
The South Korean controls are running into severe criticism – not just from foes of the conservative government here, but also from foreigners with long records of analyzing and writing about North and South Korean problems.
“It shows they don’t trust their own people,” says Michael Breen, who runs a consulting service here and has written a biography of Kim Jong-il. “In a democracy, citizens should be allowed to make up their minds about dictatorship. There’s always been this fear that people, if exposed to North Korea, will fall for it.”
Andrew Salmon, author of a book about battles fought by British troops in the Korean War, agrees.
“It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This seems to be a holdover from the authoritarian governments of the past. The best they could do would be to lift all restrictions, exposing to the South Korean people how groundless it is.”
US takes a different approach
South Korea's strict policy on accessing North Korean websites – via Twitter or otherwise – differs with that of the US.
He did, however, point out that the North Korean regime's presence on Twitter, and on assorted websites, might be as difficult for average North Koreans to access as it now is for South Koreans.
True, “the North Korean government has joined Twitter,” said Mr. Crowley, “but is it prepared to allow its citizens to be connected as well?”
The answer, say South Korean experts, is that only a small percentage of North Koreans, basically the elite surrounding leader Kim Jong-il, have access to any form of electronic communications. And those few who do are likely only to see special North Korean sites on the intranet, restricted to sites within the North, not the Internet.
Can North Korea skirt the restrictions?
As for South Korea, authorities here may find it difficult to impose a complete blockade.
North Korea has taken to changing IP addresses to get around restrictions, says one official, and it’s sometimes a few hours before the new addresses are discovered and blocked. Links from the North Korean Twitter account were accessible in South Korea, at least briefly, despite the ban.
Restrictions on what South Koreans can see or read about the North is not constrained to the Internet.
The North Korean flag, and images of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and his father, Kim Il-sung, who ruled for nearly 50 years until his death in 1994, did not begin to appear regularly on South Korean newscasts until South Korean President Kim Dae-jung introduced his Sunshine policy of reconciliation with the North after his inauguration in 1998.