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Korean Spring: Will the Social Media Revolution Extend to North Korea?

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Lee Brenner

By Lee Brenner on December 20, 2011

With the death of Kim Jong-il, the Korean peninsula has the best chance yet to end decades of hostilities.

It is yet to be known whether anointed successor Kim Jong-un will follow in his father’s footsteps and continue to deny his citizenry the basic rights that have been earned or whether he be the last true dictator of the North and bring his people into the 21st century (or 20th for that matter)?

With the role that digital technologies played in the Arab Spring, coupled with people who are fed up with being denied human rights by dictators, it could be only a matter of time before the people rise up. If Kim Jong-un is smart, he’ll use his new-found power to guide the North Koreans into a respected place in the world. If he doesn’t, he might just find himself at a card table with Gadhafi, Osama and the like.

This past March, in the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs building in Seoul, I sat in a small auditorium and answered eager questions from North Korean defectors. My mind wandered a bit as the interpreter began to translate my words into Korean. Maybe it was the jet lag that had engulfed my consciousness since arriving two days earlier, but for about 30 seconds, I was an outsider looking in on a fascinating experience.

Here I was, giving advice on how to use Twitter and Facebook and texting to college-aged students that had escaped the harsh regime of North Korea to find better lives for themselves.

Their childhoods were extremely different from mine, yet here our paths converged in a moment of significance (well, to me at least) in an effort to see how the North Korean people can use these global digital information tools to spread freedom in one of the tightest-controlled nations on Earth.

For some background, I was asked to participate in the U.S. State Department’s Speakers Program to talk about the role social media is playing in politics, journalism and culture in the United States. The program sends American experts around the world to speak about different topics of interest within the host country with a goal of developing cultural exchanges between citizens. It was an honor to be asked, and I accepted the offer without hesitation. With a month or so of planning, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul set up an intense schedule of speaking events in four cities around Korea, where I presented to groups of elected officials and their staffs, leading journalists, tech entrepreneurs, university students and educators. And yes, groups of North Korean defectors.

After a long flight from Washington DC to Seoul, with a quick stopover in San Francisco, I was met at the airport by U.S. Embassy staff and immediately briefed on the week’s schedule. With only a few hours of shuteye, I was picked up and headed to the embassy. After some brief preparation, I had an hour-long interview with the largest newspaper in Korea. I was asked about the reason for the trip, the role social media is playing in politics and journalism, and how it can be used on the Korean peninsula.

After this interview, I, along with an entourage of professionals from the Embassy, headed to my first presentation with top Korean TV journalists. Questions came streaming in after the presentation, and in what was to become a regular occurrence, the staff had to whisk me out with audiences eager to continue the discussion. I almost felt like I was Justin Bieber…or maybe his slightly older cousin. Okay, maybe not (but I used Justin Bieber in the piece, and you know Kim Jong-un is a fan).

After lunch, the team headed to our next presentation with a group of conservative economists and people that run Radio Free North Korea. The presentation shifted a bit from social media in journalism to the role it has played in revolutions and business. In a final post-work meeting of the day, I presented to the new media staff of the National Assembly (Korea’s Congress). Understandably, this talk focused on politics and campaigns, and the staff was eager to hear about my days at MySpace, the 2008 Obama campaign, and how elected officials are now employing these tools in the United States.

For the next four days, I was whisked around Korea, with stops in Suwon, Busan, and Jeju Island, giving anywhere from 3-5 presentations/meetings each day, with lunches, teas and dinners with university presidents, administrators, embassy staff, a leading member of Korea’s National Assembly (Rep. Hong Jung Wook), and I was honored to be hosted for dinner by Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, a leading U.S. diplomat, at the Ambassador’s home. The dinner included top Korean new media experts, influential bloggers and journalists, leaders from the National Assembly and the head of new media from the Blue House (Korea’s version of the White House).

Overall, the entire process was a whirlwind exchange with an intense schedule of speaking engagements. The question most asked, of course, was how social media can be used to resolve the tensions on the Peninsula. With minimum Internet access in North Korea, my advice always resorted to hypotheticals.

But the one piece of encouragement I was able to impart was this: The more the Internet — and information, for that matter — is attempted to be controlled, the more those that are creating these digital tools will be impassioned to overcome those restrictions. And those creating the tools are smarter than those creating the restrictions!

The Korean audiences across the country were interested, eager and participatory. There was little left to the imagination for the trip, but when I asked for a trip to the DMZ when I had any time off, they were eager to accommodate.

Thus, the final day, I was escorted by the US Army’s head of public affairs on a private tour of the DMZ. Having studied the history (and watched tons of episodes of M*A*S*H), I thought I would be prepared for the experience.

Little can prepare you, however, for walking through a relatively small area where there thousands of mines steps off the path, and there are literally people in view that are trained to watch, and potentially kill, you. Of course, I was being guided by men with large guns, which helped to allay any concerns.

What was imparted to me is that tensions are still high, but there have been exchanges between the North and South through commercial means, and a few humanitarian exchanges. Will these continue?

Little is known about the new 20-something leader except some speculation, but let’s assume he’s been one of the few people in his country to have experienced the outside world. Let’s assume he’s one of the few people in his country to have used the Internet, and potentially Facebook and even Twitter. Let’s assume there is the small hidden part of his brain behind the Iron Curtain influenced by “education” that thinks to himself, “I can be the man that brings freedom to my people, and they will cheer and erect statues of me…and maybe the world’s leaders will cry when I die many years from now.”

Maybe this is too hopeful. But with the other option being what we are seeing in Syria and so many places throughout the Arab world, hope must be kept alive.

Lee Brenner is co-founder and publisher of HyperVocal and speaks regularly about the role of social media in politics and news. Follow him on Twitter @deepdishpol. Read his full HV archive here.

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