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N.K. preparing to impact S. Korean elections

A pro-North Korean Internet site closed by the government. (Yonhap News)
A pro-North Korean Internet site closed by the government. (Yonhap News)
Seoul intensifies watch on pro-North websites, voting of overseas residents

Elated by former civic activist and lawyer Park Won-soon’s recent election as Seoul mayor, North Korea is gearing up its offensive to influence the upcoming high-profile elections in South Korea through IT technology and refined tactics, observers in Seoul say.

The communist North Korea, which is technically still at war with the South, has for years tried to wield influence over the presidential and parliamentary elections here by condemning the conservative, anti-North political party.

While such attempts in the past had remained small in scale and of little impact, Seoul may have to be more watchful of the April parliamentary elections and December presidential elections next year, according to analysts.

As one sign of Pyongyang’s potential political influence, the number of pro-North Korea websites has been multiplying sharply each year, with only nine such sites detected by police in 2007 and 2008, 10 detected in 2009 and 16 in 2010, according to police.

In recent months, North Korea has opened accounts on global social networking sites such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

The Kim Jong-il regime also set up in April an independent team handling strategies to influence next year’s polls in Seoul, intelligence officials here have said. 

A pro-North Korean Internet site closed by the government. (Yonhap News)
A pro-North Korean Internet site closed by the government. (Yonhap News)

Shortly after the Oct. 26 Seoul mayoral elections, Pyongyang’s state media trumpeted it as “victory of the up-and-coming forces” in South Korea.

Rodong Sinmun, the official daily of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, analyzed that South Koreans “are eager for new politics, new life” free from the “old right wing party,” referring to President Lee Myung-bak’s Grand National Party.

“A victory of citizens,” the newspaper added, dubbing the elections “a people’s revolution.”

Experts in Seoul note how the North Korean media has begun to use words like “citizens,” “citizenship,” “new forces” and “democratic reform” to describe South Korean politics. This is seen as a turn from its previous focus on reunification and anti-conservatism.

“By refining the vocabulary and using expressions familiar to the people here, North Korea appears to be aiming at unifying the pro-North forces in the South,” Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said.

The Pyongyang regime apparently realized it can no longer catch voters’ attention by attacking South Korea’s right wing for its hardline policies or lack of attention to reunification, a government official said.

“It will try to focus on real life-related issues rather than ideology to influence the election results,” the official said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The Seoul government is moving fast to strengthen the crackdown on pro-North Korean forces nationwide, with five government agencies including the prosecution, police and the broadcasting watchdog setting up a joint investigation body on the pro-North websites and cyber activities earlier this month.

The five agencies plan to hold at least one discussion session each month to increase cooperation in shutting down such pro-communist internet sites and blocking anti-state postings.

The move came shortly after a police report revealed that the number of overseas-based websites glorifying the North Korean regime has been increasing rapidly, making it difficult for South Korean authorities to deal with them.

South Korea bans its citizens from accessing pro-North Korea propaganda sites, citing the technical state of war it has been in with Pyongyang since the war ended in 1953 with a truce.

Police detected 58 such sites from 2007 until September of this year, and blocked South Korean Internet users’ access to 37 such websites, according to the National Police Agency report.

South Korea has also shut down some 140 social networking service accounts opened by people during the same period for praising the Pyongyang regime, according to the document.

Some operators of these websites are said to be South Korean nationals who are residing in foreign countries, police said.

Of the 58 websites detected, 26 had servers in the United States, eight in China, seven in Japan and five in North Korea.

Seoul is also considering banning overseas residents with pro-North Korea tendency from taking part in national elections, another controversial move aimed at preventing Pyongyang from wielding influence over local politics.

Starting from April next year, some 2.5 million Koreans living abroad will be able to take part in the vote at home by registering with a South Korean embassy in their vicinity and directly casting a ballot.

Expecting that pro-Pyongyang overseas residents will try to influence politics in Korea by acquiring South Korean citizenship, the election watchdog is seeking to restrict their voting rights.

The measures may include reforming the nationality law to apply stricter standards on people who want to achieve South Korean citizenship, according to the National Election Commission.

“We are concerned of the negative impact some pro-North Korean agencies may have on overseas voting,” an official at the commission said.

“Giving suffrage to people who are prone to praising the North Korean regime appears to go against the Constitution. But it is also true that we cannot ban someone from casting a ballot based on his or her political or ideological tendency,” the official added.

The election watchdog believes some pro-North Korean entities such as the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan are planning to influence South Korean politics in a direction desirable to the Pyongyang regime.

Those belonging to the association, known more widely as “Chongryon,” can easily get South Korean citizenship within two to three weeks under the current nationality law. Chongryon is an organization that functions as North Korea’s de facto embassy in Japan.

Some 50,000 ethnic Koreans belonging to the association will be able to cast ballots under the scenario, wrongly influencing election results, the Seoul government fears.

By Shin Hae-in (
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