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VANK at forefront of cyber diplomacy

NGO addresses fallacies in foreign language information on Korea


From the many government sectors to the self-dubbed Korea PR experts, there are probably more than enough organizations, agencies, individuals that promote Korea.

Voluntary Agency Network of Korea is one of them, but it is certainly one of a kind. Park Gi-tae, founder of the organization, said NGOs like it are needed to fill in the shortfalls in the government’s branding of Korea.

Park said there are certain limits to how the government can enforce measures on sensitive international issues, especially geographical and historical disputes. Alongside this fact, with only a handful of diplomats sent abroad, Park said the government should come up with efficient ways to utilize travelers as civil envoys. All this sounds reasonable in light of what the organization has achieved in the last decade.

“Here at VANK, we do more than merely publish travel guides, and promote things like bibimbap, a popular Korean dish. We deal with some of the sensitive issues that the government cannot easily tackle, and act sort of like a subsidiary of the government, yet we do the parts that the government can’t,” he told The Korea Herald.

“We do not only promote what Korea is about to the world, but we tackle and try to correct what is ‘wrongly known’ about Korea.” 
Park Gi-tae, president of Voluntary Agency Network of Korea, poses against a wall showing a Korean map in the VANK office in Seoul. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
Park Gi-tae, president of Voluntary Agency Network of Korea, poses against a wall showing a Korean map in the VANK office in Seoul. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

VANK has been working on projects related to Korean history in foreign school textbooks ― for example, changing “Sea of Japan” to “East Sea” ― and resolving the hypersensitive Dokdo dispute. Thanks to their efforts, textbooks, committees, portal sites and organizations including the National Geographic Society, Lycos, Businessweek and McGraw-Hill changed maps to include “East Sea” in parenthesis underneath “Sea of Japan” or completely replaced Sea of Japan with East Sea.

Moreover, they have corrected false reports by foreign media that described Korea as a country with cheap labor and reports that Korean culture was so heavily influenced by that it has no identity of its own.

“VANK members write letters, visit anywhere in the world in order to let the world know about the ‘true Korea.’ That is what diplomats do, right?” Park said with pride.

“Through the efforts of our members, I see that people’s perception of Korea has changed from a miniscule country somewhere around the Pacific Ocean to a country with significant influence in Asia,” said Park.

VANK created a unique system that delegates “cyber diplomats.” So far, it has delegated 3,000 members overseas as Korea PR agents. “You see, the idea behind it is to make every single traveler a civil diplomat.”

However, Park said he never thought that VANK was going to become as big and influential as it is today. He had launched an online pen-pal site in 1999, and then as its membership increased, it become good as a Korea PR portal, and is now used as a platform for nearly 65,000 members.

“Through the 2002 World Cup soccer championship and the G20 Summit, both of which Korea hosted, and especially due to the Korean Wave called Hallyu, more foreigners are joining the site and promote Korea to their friends in their country. Now one-sixth of our members are foreigners who publicize Korea.”

About six years ago, a VANK youth member applied her web experience as a cyber diplomat to her club activities in school. At present, there are more than 300 middle and high schools who have adopted the same idea.

“Basically, VANK does sort of a franchise club activity like girl or boy scouts in schools.”

Recently, Park found that the network of VANK members was wider than he’d thought.

“At the time of foundation, most of the members were teenagers, and they have become full-fledged members of the society,” he said.

Recently, when VANK called in a person to develop a Korea PR application on smart phones, he turned out to be a member of VANK.

“Even the Foreign Ministry called the other day and told me that one of their policies coincides with the VANK goal to nurture ‘cyber diplomats.’ The official at the ministry later revealed that she was a member of VANK.”

VANK has been engaged in projects with UNICEF, international organizations and portal sites.

It has also cooperated with the North East Asian History Foundation to deal with the sovereignty issue of Mount Baekdu, located across North Korea and China, and China’s Northeast Project, a research project based on an assumption that there was a greater Chinese state in the past which covered northern North Korea.

The non-governmental organization operates money that comes from the 30,000-won monthly membership fee. Companies and research institutes donate regularly or participate in VANK projects. Recently, pop singer Kim Jang-hoon donated 10 million won to VANK.

“As long as Korea does not move its geographical location elsewhere, Japan, Russia and China will always exist as our neighbors. Unless we hold up our head, we will fall into the status of a country near Japan, China or Russia. It’s a matter of Korea being influenced by them or influencing them.

“One day I hope to see those neighboring countries called ‘countries near Korea,’” he said.

Those interested in promoting Korea as a VANK cyber diplomat may visit the VANK website at http://www.prkorea.com

By Hwang Jurie  (jurie777@heraldcorp.com)
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