SEOUL - A war of the worlds is being waged in South Korea. One world is that of conventional print newspapers. The other world is that of Internet newspapers, which have been credited for helping to elect the current president.
Reading Korea's established, mainstream newspapers, one would conclude that President Roh Moo-Hyun and his government are doing poorly and that the president may face a disgraceful fall from power before his tenure ends in four years.
The younger, Internet-savvy generation that reads online newspapers thinks differently. For them, Roh symbolizes a reaction against the established values and norms. They support him for the reform he is pursuing.
For many Korean voters and foreign observers, last December's presidential election was indeed a revolution. Having only finished high school, Roh lacked the higher education of his opponent, Lee Hoi-Chang, who graduated from the renowned Seoul National University law school. For prestige-conscious Koreans, college is a necessary stop for anyone aspiring to a high position.
Roh also lacked his rival's regional support, organization and money. Most of all, Roh did not enjoy the support from the nation's conservative mainstream newspapers.
The Chosun, Joong Ang and Dong A dailies, collectively dubbed the "Chojoongdong," together account for more than 80 percent of Korea's newspaper market. They all supported Lee in the election. Skepticism over Roh's candidacy was widespread, and even many of Roh's own campaigners were not confident of his chances.
Yet, turn the table he did. His secret weapons consisted of the Internet and young voters.
As many as 17 million viewers visited Roh's website each day during the campaign. He had a fan club "Rosamo" home page and support from two progressive on-line papers (www.Ohmynews.com and www.Pressian.com). But unlike Lee's supporters, they were not passive. They actively participated in lively discussions and sought to persuade others through the Internet chat rooms and via e-mail. Internet-using voters in their 20s and 30s comprise more than 58 percent of Korean voters.
Most Korean politicians and the older generation were so accustomed to seeing hundreds of thousands of supporters at campaign rallies that they failed to notice this newly developing Internet phenomenon.
The conservative forces, especially the major newspapers, were stunned by the election results. And as soon as they recovered from the shock, they began their offensive against Roh.
Since Roh's inauguration, scarcely a day has gone by without a major newspaper printing derogatory reports about him, his family and his aides. And how does Roh counter this? He files libel suits alleging malicious reporting. Now the major newspapers are accusing him of abusing the legal system to suppress his media critics.
"It's nothing but sour grapes," said Jung Woon-Hyun, editor of the online Ohmynews newspaper. "In the past, the power was with the military. With the end of authoritarian rule, power was shifted to the media. Korea's major newspapers 'Chojoongdong' enjoyed the power for decades. Roh chose not to recognize this. He is trying to put the media in its rightful place of fair and accurate reporting. The media resent this and fights back dirty," Jung said.
Belatedly recognizing the power of the Internet, some conservative forces began an Internet paper this past July, called "Independent.co.kr" to cope with the new liberal media. On October 7, however, the Independent announced that it would "temporarily" close due to the lack of advertising.
"Were it not for the Internet papers, Roh would have been finished by now," said Jung of Ohmynews.