Seoul eyes crackdown on North Korean Internet propaganda

The South Korean government wants to block Pyongyang's propaganda activity on social media networks.

The South Korean government plans to further restrict its citizens from accessing and relaying information on the Internet that is sympathetic to North Korea.

Outlining its plans for 2011, the country's Justice Ministry said it will "try to block North Korea's propaganda activity through social-networking services, such as Twitter."

The plans build on South Korea's existing Internet filtering and come at a time of increased tensions between the two neighbors.

Websites judged to be sympathetic to Pyongyang have been blocked by the South Korean government for several years. The sites are largely those of organizations based in China or Japan with links to North Korea. South Korean Internet users attempting to access the sites are redirected to a National Police Agency page indicating that the site is forbidden in South Korea.

Until recently, North Korean propaganda on social media networks wasn't much of a problem, but that changed in July when Uriminzokkiri, a China-based site with close ties to Pyongyang, opened a Twitter account.

The Twitter feed carried headlines and links to news stories on the organization's website. It was followed by a Facebook group and accounts on Flickr and YouTube. The Facebook page was quickly closed but the other accounts remain active.

Within a few weeks of its appearance, South Korean authorities moved to block access to the Twitter channel but the result was symbolic at best. While the account page is blocked, Twitter messages from the account can still be seen when the site is accessed via a secure HTTPS connection or via any of the hundreds of applications that use Twitter's API (application programming interface.)

The Twitter feed currently has 10,545 followers including some that appear to be in South Korea.

Under existing legislation, it is already illegal for South Koreans to take part in exchanges with North Korea without first getting permission from the South Korean government. The "Inter-Korea Exchange and Cooperation Act" provides for up to three years in prison or fines of up to 10 million won (US$8,660) for doing so.

The Justice Ministry hasn't detailed how it plans to limit the spread of North Korean propaganda in cyberspace, but this existing law could be part of its plans. Lawmakers said earlier this year that any attempts to communicate with North Korean social media accounts could be considered a violation.

The ministry also said it plans to crackdown on those circulating false reports on the Internet that could affect national security.

Earlier this month it indicted 19 people for spreading rumors in the wake of North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. The 19 sent text messages saying or implying the government was calling up reserve military forces, but the government never did.

(Hyuna Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.)

Martyn Williams covers Japan and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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