Tuesday, November 20, 2007

My Interest in Korea's Information Society: II

In his classic 1950s study of American perceptions of China and India Scratches on our Minds, Harold Isaacs noted that "Vagueness about Asia has been until now the natural condition even of the educated American." His study was motivated by the apparent tendency of Americans, including policymakers, to view the world with emphasis on Europe, despite the obvious importance of Asia in America's emergence as a major world power. As I have written elsewhere, Korea illustrates the persistence of such tendencies. After living in Korea for two years as a young (early twenties) Peace Corps Volunteer, the lack of attention to Korea by the mainstream U.S. media became a matter of concern. When I began researching television coverage of international affairs for my doctoral dissertation at Stanford in the late 1970s it became clear that Korea's status in the American media was similar to that of many other developing nations. It appeared in the news only when there was a crisis to discuss. Other than that it was hardly covered at all. These empirical findings are all documented in my book, Television's Window on the World. Even in May of 1980, when the Kwangju uprising shook Korean politics to its core, the American television networks and other mass media devoted only a minimal amount of attention to Korea. (See my "Quiet Diplomacy in a Television Era: The Media and U.S. Policy Toward The Republic of Korea") They were preoccupied, as was the U.S. government, with the long, drawn out Iran hostage crisis. The Kwangju story never led a network television newscast. The State Department in Washington and the White House under Jimmy Carter never held a press conference. As a result, the television networks and the other major media didn't have the incentive of a press briefing in Washington D.C. to cover the Kwangju uprising. Over a decade later, in the early 1990's, I began to conduct research on the remarkable changes in Korean telecommunications during the 1980s. They constituted a truly amazing transformation, yet they did not attract the international attention they deserved until much later, after Korea itself had become an active member of both the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Even in the late 1990s and the early years of this century, the media seemed to have great difficulty in reporting South Korea's world leadership in broadband internet infrastructure and usage. I attribute this lag in international recognition of South Korea's accomplishments to the general patterns of coverage that were well-established over the years in television and the mainstream press. Although South Korea is now receiving well-deserved press attention, much of that is because of North Korea's nuclear weapons development, the six-party talks and related topics. The information revolution and the new information society evolving on the Korean peninsula, although attracting attention, are hardly given their due. Nor, for that matter, is the importance of the digital divide in Korea. The Korean peninsula, which was divided as a vestige of the Cold War, is now the world's most poignant and extreme example of a digital and communications divide. Vagueness and misunderstanding of Korea persist in the United States and other parts of the world. One purpose of this blog will be to call attention to that phenomenon and to add context and clarity whenever possible.

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