Manga Comic Wielded by South Korea Against Skeptics About North

South Korea’s latest weapon in the fight against Kim Jong Il’s regime is a 32-page manga comic strip that seeks to dispel public doubts about North Korea’s responsibility in the deadly sinking of a patrol boat.

The Ministry of National Defense yesterday began distributing the cartoon story to schools, libraries and government offices in a bid to turn back a wave of skepticism among the nation’s youth. More than half of South Koreans in their 20s don’t trust their government’s latest account of the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan, according to a poll by Seoul- based research company Realmeter. The incident claimed 46 lives.

“Why do you think North Korea did it?” the comic’s hero, a journalist probing the cause of the incident, asks his fiancee. “To divide public opinion in our country by instigating conflict between the Left and the Right.”

The government of President Lee Myung Bak is turning to popular culture after a surprise local-election defeat in June. The latest propaganda effort may only reinforce the view that government censorship and manipulation of information shows insecurity rather than reflecting genuine security concerns, said Suh Jung Duk, 33, who works in marketing at a software company in central Seoul.

“We don’t live under military rule any more, when we were taught to hate communists,” said Suh. “For the government to think they can take us back to the old days of anti-communist education is just absurd.”

South Korea emerged from military dictatorship two decades ago and the government still prevents its citizens from reading North Korean websites or making phone calls across the border. Last month, it blocked what it said was the North’s Twitter Inc. account, warning that responding to postings may violate national security laws.

Harboring Distrust

“We do fear for the slightly menacing echoes of the older South Korea,” said Aidan Foster-Carter, an honorary research fellow at Leeds University in England who specializes in the Korean peninsula.

North Korea bombed a South Korean airliner in 1987 and attempted to assassinate sitting presidents in 1968 and 1983. Since the North tested its first nuclear weapons in 2006, its state-run media has regularly threatened nuclear annihilation of the South.

That hasn’t reduced mistrust of the government’s accounting of the Cheonan sinking. Forty percent of the 700 respondents in the Realmeter poll said they didn’t trust the findings of the defense ministry’s latest report, released on Sept 13. Only 39 percent of the respondents in their 20s believed North Korea sank the Cheonan, compared with 57 percent of all respondents, according to the telephone poll of people aged 19 or older conducted on Sept. 13. The survey had a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.

Youthful Skepticism

Skepticism toward the official line on the Cheonan incident has grown since May, when the government released the findings of an international panel that blamed the sinking on a torpedo fired from a North Korean mini-submarine. Almost one in four Koreans said they didn’t trust the report, according to a poll commissioned by the Hankook Ilbo newspaper on May 24.

The comic book is in the Japanese-inspired wide-eyed manga style popular throughout Asia. It “looks obviously like the government is trying to influence young people, but what else are they going to do?’ asked Brian Myers, professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea. “Either they drop the issue entirely or they make one last effort to try to make people understand what happened.”

Electoral Defeat

Lee’s line against the North failed to win votes in June 2 local elections. The ruling party, which had held 11 of 16 mayoral and gubernatorial posts, won just six seats, while the main opposition Democratic Party won in seven races and independents and a small party claimed the rest.

Former Foreign Minister Yu Myung Hwan said in July that young people who criticize the government’s North Korea policies should go live there. Leftist attitudes among the nation’s youth would make it difficult to sustain the country, Yu told local media, including MoneyToday.

“I don’t understand how there are still people out there who say evidence has been fabricated to frame North Korea,” Kang’s fiancee says in the comic.

“That’s what democracy is about: being able to say what one thinks,” the journalist replies. “But you have to talk based on facts. It’s wrong to raise skepticism based on irrational reasoning.”

For software-company employee Suh, such exhortations from the government are discomfiting.

“It is clear to everyone North Korea is the bad guy, and we don’t need the government forcing us to believe that,” he said. “The government going out of its way to feed us its own thoughts like that only brings back bad memories.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Bomi Lim in Seoul at blim30@bloomberg.net

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