Monday, June 30, 2008

Anti-Americanism, Anti-American Beef Protests and Televised Images

Although the number of people participating in the demonstrations against importing American beef has decreased in recent days, the demonstrations have become more clearly political in nature and more violent. Public opinion polls show that nearly 60 percent of Korean citizens think that the candlelight vigils have accomplished their goal and should cease. Polls also show that many Koreans understand that the demonstrations now continue largely to push other political issues such as opposition to privatization and reform of public TV networks or opposition to the KORUS free trade agreement. The video embedded in this post was taken some days ago, before the violent protests of this weekend. However, I share it with you because it happens (almost or surely by accident) to include some powerful symbols. Those symbols--the golden arches of McDonalds and the Burger King logo, appear in the video only because this demonstration occurred at the Sinchon Rotary where these two fast-food establishments are located.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Korea's National Image

The current flood of images of anti-American beef protests, candlelight vigils and meat-processing plants in the U.S. has implications for South Korea's national image. However, these new images will become part of a larger context which, cumulatively, shapes Korea's national image. A few archive searches on Google News, can give us a very rough idea of the predominant images that Korea is projecting these days, wittingly or unwittingly. Google News is a computer-generated news site that aggregates headlines from more than 4,500 English-language news sources worldwide. As such, it is one of the more comprehensive sources of world news media attention patterns currently available. This is not to suggest that it is a comprehensive measure, especially since Google news crawls only English sources.
To start with, I did a Google archive search for "Korea broadband revolution" (without the quotes) It produces results like the first graphic included here (click on the graphics to enlarge). A search for "Korea broadband" produces very similar results. For the first seven and a half years of the 21st century, news media around the world paid attention to South Korea as the world leader in broadband networks.
Another image of Korea conveyed by media around the world has to do with North Korea's nuclear development. As shown in the second graphic here, world media attention to this story line started during the Clinton Administration's negotiations with North Korea in the 1990s. High levels of attention then resumed during the Bush administration, both before and after North Korea's 2006 nuclear test.
The summer Olympic Games are traditionally the world's largest planned television and media event, and that was particularly the case for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. South Korea seized on the opportunity of hosting the Games to open up political communication with China, the Soviet Union and many socialist countries of Eastern Europe. The spike in international media attention to Korea surrounding the Seoul Olympics is vividly shown on the time line produced by a Google News archive search.
The division of Korea is today the world's last vestige of the World War II and Cold War era. For more than half a century, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea has been a prominent part of Korea's national image. The truce village an Panmunjom has long been a popular tourist destination and a mandatory backdrop for television coverage whenever a U.S. president or other high-level official visited Korea. In an important sense, the 1988 Seoul Olympics were a "coming-out party" for South Korea, with considerable emphasis on its electronics industry. We can safely say that, prior to the Seoul Olympics, South Korean electronics companies like Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics or Hynix, were relatively unknown around the world. Today that has changed, as shown by a recent poll of opinion leaders by The Corea Image Communication Institute, a Seoul-based organization that aims to promote positive images of Korea overseas. The Institute surveyed 139 foreign ``opinion leaders'' including diplomats, journalists, academics and businesspeople who have visited Korea or are currently staying in the country. When asked about Korea's best-known image, nearly half of all respondents picked indigenous corporate brands such as Samsung and LG, and Korea's Information Technology business. Another well-known image associated with Korea was the North Korea issue. More than 26 percent of those polled said Korea was ``best known" for the continuing nuclear standoff between the South and North. (see Korea Times article on the poll) Once again, a Google news archive search on "Samsung Electronics" suports the notion that it has contributed substantially to South Korea's national image over the past two decades.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Where's the Beef? The Sources of Public Anger

One reason that the 1980s Wendy's commercial keeps popping into my mind is that I, like most observers of the political upheaval in South Korea these days, wonder what are the true or genuine sources of public anger. Few people who observe the repeated candlelight vigils and the evolution of the anti-Lee Myung Bak government movement would question that the people seem angry. Koreans are passionate about many things, including their politics. But what are the sources of this current passion? According to press reports, they include:
  • Opposition to President Lee's proposal for a Grand National Canal.
  • Disagreement with the new President's media reforms, including changes in relevant cabinet ministries and creation of a new Broadcasting and Communications Commission.
  • Opposition to education-sector reforms instituted by the new government.
  • A general opposition to the way in which President Lee's government implemented its policies, without considering the wishes of the Korean people.
The list could probably go on, but it appears the primary source of public anger in South Korea was pinpointed in an insightful New York Times article by Choe Sang-Hun. That is, it has to do with nationalism and with Korean pride. Powerful television images from Camp David instantly conveyed to some Koreans that President Lee had kowtowed to President Bush by bringing him an agreement to resume imports of American beef in exchange hopefully for approval of the KORUS FTA. As correspondent Choe notes, when faced with the wall built from shipping containers, "... people pasted identical leaflets on it, their message dramatically summarizing Mr. Lee’s image and alienation from many of his people: “This is a new border for our country. From here starts the U.S. state of South Korea.”

North Korea the Internet's Biggest Black Hole

The depth of the digital divide separating North and South Korea is difficult to overstate. The organization "Reporters Without Borders" reports that North Korea is the biggest black hole in the internet. The accompanying graphic was commissioned by that organization to visually represent the countries that are the world's biggest enemies of the internet and the free flow of information through it. Another graphic appeared in the local press today, presenting data compiled by the Ministry of Unification, on the number of North Koreans defecting to South Korean annually over the past decade. I think it provides some interesting additional context for the digital divide on the Korean peninsula.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Korea in Cyberspace: National and Brand Images

The current political uproar in South Korea and the flood of images it has released are important politically, economically and culturally. The images emanating from South Korea these days help to create the image of this nation in North America, Europe an other parts of the world, as well as here on the peninsula. Use of the term "flood" to describe the flow of images is appropriate insofar as the internet and modern digital communications accelerate the diffusion of political information. Here in South Korea, former President Kim Dae Jung and others have observed that the country is experimenting with "Direct Democracy." Without doing a quantitative empirical study, I would hazard a guess that the current political activity in South Korea, centered as it is around the internet and new digital media, is having an effect on Korea's national image in the world. According to an article in the Korea Herald, South Korea's embassy in Washington D.C. surveyed 136 U.S.-based experts on July 12-13. The survey found that 60.2 percent of the respondents believed the anti-U.S. beef rallies and candlelight vigils would damage Korea's image among Americans, while 27.2 percent said that they would not.
Candlelight vigils in the Spring are an ideal place to exploit the new media. Think how easy it is to snap photographs or record videos with your cellphone, and then share these with netizens. By definition, sharing such images with netizens means that they are available to anyone in the world. In other words, they help to define Korea's national image and its place in cyberspace. The point of this post is simply to note that South Korea is building its national image, or its place in cyberspace. Once constructed, national images cannot easily be altered or torn down, for the simple reason that the digital images stay there in cyberspace. Some elements of the emerging image also seem clear: candlelight vigils, labor demonstrations and anti-government protests, anti-Americanism, genuine fear of American beef, gullibility to rumors about Mad Cow Disease, and so forth. These elements are mixing with South Korea's existing national image which includes such aspects as being an "IT Powerhouse," "Broadband Leader," and a country which places a high priority on education, science and technology generally.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Where's the Beef? It's in the Images

One thing is certain. The current political uproar in South Korea over the import of American beef has produced a flood of visual images of all kinds. They include the placards held by participants in candlelight vigils which, although individually small, create quite an impression when carried by thousands or tens of thousands of vigil participants. Images circulating on the internet range from still photos through doctored photos, cartoons and caricatures. Of course, the most powerful images of all are probably the live or timely video portrayals of events. To see a representative sampling of such images, check out one of South Korea's major internet portals such as Daum , or the site of an organization promoting the anti-beef-import campaign, , or search the many videos that have been uploaded to YouTube.
Still photographs are very easy to distribute via e-mail and the internet. They are routinely used by print media, in both their print and web editions, and by the major international news agencies. A recent photograph by Reuters is included here as an illustration. In this connection, it is worth noting that major search engines, such as Google, provide an image search option for quickly locating photographs and video images on the internet. Despite the obvious origin of most images in Korea itself, mostly from Seoul and other large cities, the anti-beef protests quickly generated a response in the U.S. and in other countries around the world, as illustrated by the image of Koreans in France staging a sympathetic protest near the Tower of Eiffel.
The main media outlets in South Korea today are reporting that the number of people participating in anti-beef import vigils decreased notably over the weekend. Some of the articles attribute this to the fact that the "anti-U.S. beef" movement is being politicized to include anti-FTA concerns, the concerns of labor unions, broadcasting and other media concerns, and so forth. However, one of the most interesting images from today's news in South Korea was a before/after shot of Seoul Plaza, showing the wear-and-tear on grass that is an inevitable effect of the nightly vigils. Another powerful visual image emerging from this month and one-half long political movement was the construction of a barrier made of shipping containers on the north side of the Kwanghwamun intersection, right in front of the statue of Admiral Yi. Although the barrier itself was short-lived, the image was extremely powerful. The first image included here is a photo taken as the barrier was being constructed. The second shows how it was used during that evening's protest.
Finally, please take a long, hard look at the final still image included here. It says volumes about the role of the internet and new media in South Korea's current political situation. The image is a photograph of a reporter broadcasting the anti-beef protests live over the internet via his notebook computer.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Hacking and Viruses in South Korea

On June 3 the Korea Times and other local newspapers reported that the web site of McDonald's Corporation in Korea had been hacked, apparently in connection with the public protests against import of American beef. Although this may be one of the latest hacking incidents to be publicized, it is part of a larger trend in recent years. Data from Korea's Cyber Terror Response Center show that hacking and virus related crimes increased dramatically from 2003 through 2006, and have declined somewhat since then. A recent article in the Joongang Daily notes that "In Korea there are about 30,000 information security workers, about 4 percent of all IT professionals. Investment in security is about 5 percent of all investment in IT, compared to 10 percent in most advanced countries." Data on the number of hacking incidents involving public sector networks in Korea showed a similar pattern. For further information on these phenomena in South Korea, consult the website of the Cyber Terror Response Center or the Criminal Investigation Statistics on the website of the Korea National Policy Agency.