globeandmail.com, Monday, December 30, 2002:
South Korea, it's the mouse that roars
New breed of politician taps the country's love affair with high
SEOUL -- The
winning candidate in last week's South Korean presidential election
had little need for mass rallies or traditional campaign tactics.
When Roh Moo-hyun's
organizers wanted supporters to vote on Election Day, they simply
pressed a few computer keys. Text messages flashed to the cellphones
of almost 800,000 people, urging them to go to the polls.
During his campaign,
millions of voters absorbed Mr. Roh's message from Internet sites
that featured video clips of the candidate and audio broadcasts
by disc jockeys and rock stars. Half a million visitors logged on
to his main Web site every day to donate money or obtain campaign
updates. More than 7,000 voters a day sent him e-mails with policy
ideas. Internet chat groups buzzed with debate on the election.
call it "digital democracy" and "e-politics,"
and they have become the world's leaders in cyberspace campaigning.
Their high-tech boom has unleashed a new form of grassroots participation
by millions of "Netizens" who exploit the latest information
technology to bypass the once-dominant party machines of the old
With the world's
highest penetration of high-speed and mobile Internet services,
South Korea is at the cutting edge of technology that is transforming
the political system, making it more open and democratic. It could
be a preview of the shape of Western democracy.
revolutionary change, and the catalyst of this change is the Internet,"
said Huh Houunna, director of Internet campaigning for Mr. Roh,
56, a once-obscure human-rights lawyer who emerged as the unexpected
winner of last week's presidential election.
of South Korean voters are below the age of 40, a prime demographic
for users of the Internet and cell phones. Until this year, many
were apathetic politically, put off by the country's traditional
political machinery. But Mr. Roh reached out to voters with one
of the world's most sophisticated Internet campaigns, and the vast
majority of the younger population voted for him.
Until a year
ago, Mr. Roh was best known for his repeated failures to be elected
to parliament. Self-educated, he came from a poor family and had
been jailed for helping dissidents fight the military regimes of
the past. But young voters admired the lawyer for his integrity
and his image as an independent outsider, and they formed an Internet
fan club to promote his future.
The fan club,
with 70,000 members, helped launch what has been called "the
Roh typhoon." Its energetic activism was crucial to Mr. Roh's
triumph in last spring's primaries, when he shocked most observers
by capturing the presidential nomination of the ruling party. And
it was a crucial factor in his narrow victory last week.
like a fan club for a movie star," said Sonn Hochul, a political
scientist at Sogang University in Seoul. "The Roh phenomenon
was based on the Internet. It's a new form of political participation,
and it has educated young people about politics. This was an Internet
allowed Mr. Roh to liberate himself from "black money"
-- corporate donations that are South Korea's traditional form of
campaign financing. Largely through Internet-based campaign groups,
Mr. Roh raised the equivalent of about $1-billion from more than
180,000 individual donors.
Roh mastered the Internet, other major political parties used it
and other forms of mass communication, too. The parties held an
average of only three rallies a day, compared with 49 a day during
the 1997 campaign. Campaigning with loudspeakers on the streets
is much less common.
element is part of a decade-long technological revolution in South
Korea, where more than half of all homes are plugged into high-speed
broadband Internet connections – the highest rate in the world.
(In most Western countries, less than 10 per cent of households
have broadband connections.)
About 25 million
of South Korea's 48 million people are regular Internet surfers.
All across Seoul, high-rise towers and corporate headquarters are
emblazoned with their Web-site addresses in huge letters or neon
signs. About 30 million South Koreans have cell phones, and 10 million
of these cell phones have Internet connections -- again, a world-leading
revolution began with teenagers. The most popular video games here
are on-line, played simultaneously with hundreds or thousands of
gamers. These require broadband connections, and companies soon
responded to the demand.
Since most South
Koreans live in densely populated urban high-rises, it was relatively
easy to do the wiring.
has become the most popular way of organizing street rallies, political
and otherwise -- including that of the estimated seven million South
Koreans who swarmed into the streets after the stunning success
of their national soccer team in last summer's World Cup.
Internet activists mobilized massive anti-American protests across
the country after two girls were accidentally killed by U.S. troops.
Not all South
Koreans are happy about the dramatic rise of the Internet. Critics
say that the on-line games create "zombie" teenagers who
do not know how to interact with the real world.
5 per cent to 15 per cent of Internet users are addicted to the
In one notorious
case, a 24-year-old man died in an Internet café after playing
computer games nonstop for 86 hours.
During the election
campaign, regulators shut down some Internet sites for spreading
false rumours, conducting illegal polls, or other violations of
The newly elected
Mr. Roh, however, is promising to use the Internet to make the government
more open and transparent.