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Takeshima History at Stake in Anti-Japan Propaganda Push from South Korea

The South Korean government and civic group VANK closely align on Takeshima and other "history" issues as they use cyber "diplomacy" to try to change history.



Takeshima has been illegally occupied by South Korea since immediately before Japan regained its independence after WWII. (© Sankei)

On February 22, Participants in a ceremony in Matsue City called for the immediate return of Takeshima (Okinoshima, Shimane Prefecture) to Japan. Illegally occupied by South Korea, these islands are inherent Japanese territory. Shimane Prefecture has commemorated February 22 as Takeshima Day since 2015. 

Countermeasures are urgently required public opinion on the issue continues to be manipulated by the spread of disinformation. South Korean civic group Voluntary Agency Network of Korea (VANK) is a prominent source of such disinformation. Self-proclaimed as a "cyber diplomatic delegation group," the organization is waging an information war online. Its activities include campaigning to officially change the name of Takeshima to Dokdo (the Korean appellation for Takeshima). 

Experts warn that VANK is developing "a cunning and systematic method of influencing public opinion."

Over 10,000 Cyber 'Ambassadors' Annually

VANK was founded as a non-profit organization in 1999 by private citizen Park Ki-tae. Its officially stated purpose is "to properly introduce Korea to the world and promote cultural exchange through international friendships." As of 2021, its membership is approximately 150,000, including approximately 30,000 foreigners. 

Most of VANK's members are junior and senior high school students. The organization offers educational programs to foster "future world changers" and "cyber diplomats." With over 1,000 students enrolling monthly, VANK is churning out more than 10,000 "ambassadors" a year. 

Masanobu Matsuura is an associate professor at Fukuyama City University, specializing in international politics surrounding the Korean Peninsula. He observed that VANK is expanding uniquely. According to Matsuura, VANK is not a purely private organization but a non-state actor conducting international propaganda. Its propaganda, he noted, generally focuses on intractable issues, such as territorial and historical disputes. In essence, it is a quasi-government organization. 

VANK does not seek organizational interests different from the government or oppose its views. Furthermore, it does not proactively engage in independent diplomacy either. 

No Deviation From Government Opinion

Behind VANK looms the shadow of the South Korean government. In 2012, South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed a memorandum of understanding for cooperation with VANK. Their collaboration was a cooperative public-private model project in digital networking


Then in 2015, the government established a Civil-Government Cooperation Committee. Through this committee, VANK and the South Korean government developed a system of close cooperation on education concerning Takeshima. They also worked together in the campaign to rename the Sea of Japan, changing it to the "East Sea."

A South Korean civic group protests the holding of the "Takeshima Day" in Seoul on February 22. (© Sankei by Tatsuya Tokiyoshi)

Participation in VANK activities is not compulsory. Nevertheless, members' social media posts are trumpeted for their "international diplomacy" and "public relations." Matsuura explains: "This activism stokes their egos and satisfies their petit patriotism." Members use their personal social media accounts to disseminate VANK's prepared material, which repeats the government line verbatim. However, this makes it difficult for people to detect that it is propaganda, making it effective in shaping public opinion.

Success in Altering Place Names

VANK activists have pressured foreign websites and publications to "correct" the names of places and seas. Matsuura says there have been 303 cases of the "Sea of Japan" being changed to the "East Sea" in various maps. In addition, he reports that there have been 31 cases of territorial-related revisions, including changing Takeshima to Dokdo, in maps and documents.

Some textbooks introduce VANK's activities in their content. Moreover, in some cases universities even award credits for them. 

South Koreans see this kind of activism as a means of furthering one's career. "They (VANK) lure the younger generation in by appealing to their pseudo social justice sensibilities and egos," Matsuura comments. "It's devious." He emphasizes that "the Japanese government cannot ignore VANK's influence and will have to take action."


(Read the report in Japanese.)

Author: The Sankei Shimbun

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