Sunday, January 2, 2011

Digitally-Divided Korea

Another matter that this blog will continue to follow in 2011 is that of Korea's digital divides.   The most obvious and poignant of these, of course, is national division itself.  Because Korea was divided before the revolution in digital communications started to gather steam, the present digital divide between North and South Korea is unequalled in magnitude, scope or implications anywhere else in the world.
Western scholars and journalists have, unfortunately, been slow to recognize the extent and impact of the digital divide between North and South Korea.   I've recently been reading the important book by Pippa Norris entitled Digital Divide:  Civic Engagement, Information Poverty and the Internet Worldwide.  (see portions here on Google books)  While her book makes note of Korea here and there, it utterly fails to even describe what South Korea had already accomplished by the year it was published, 2001.  Figure 3.2 in the paperback edition of the book is a bar graph depicting the "percentage of population online by nation" in 2000.  The very top bar, unfortunately, is not labeled, and the second bar represents Sweden, followed by Norway, Iceland and so forth.   I believe the top bar represents South Korea, because in 2000 its internet penetration was number one in the world, by some margin over the Scandinavian countries that caught it a few years later.
The pattern of attention to Korea needs to change, and a December 29 article in The Economist provides some evidence that this change may be starting.  Entitled "Parallel Economies," it compares the challenge of Korean reunification with that of German reunification.  As shown in the accompanying graphic (click to see a full-size version), the economic divide between the two nations has grown to alarming proportions.  If the Korea's reunified, the South Korean government would face a stark choice.  It could try to fill the gap in living standards between North and South through handouts, public investments and subsidies, or it could brace itself for heavy migration, as poor northerners moved to the South in search of higher wages.
Although The Economist focuses on the economics of the matter, what this blog finds interesting is the crucial role played by digital media in these matters.  After all, it is through the new media that residents in the northern half of Korea find out about the South and vice-versa.  
There is some evidence emerging that the government of North Korea has recognized the central role of information technology and digital media.  As reported by the North Korea Tech blog, the KCNA, North Korea's official news agency, has just launched video news.

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