- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 30, 2012

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - Google is not just a search engine for 26-year-old South Korean Ma Han-joo. Nor is Twitter merely a fun way to share pics of K-pop stars. For Ma and thousands of other young conservative activists _ many of them teenagers _ they are crucial weapons in their campaign to scrub the Internet of North Korea sympathizers.

Ma, whose delicate frame and shy smile makes her an unlikely warrior in real life, uses Google in her spare time to search for blogs, videos and other Internet postings that identify fellow South Koreans who are “sincerely idolizing” communist North Korea.

In the past year, Ma has reported more than 30 online postings that she considered dangerous and which could “brainwash the minds of South Koreans” to the National Intelligence Service. Using search keywords such as “Great Leader” or “Nation’s Sun” _ references to the North’s dynastic leadership _ she trawls the Internet until finding offending content and then submits a link along with a screenshot online.

The agency uses the tips to investigate possible violations of South Korea’s National Security Act which prohibits praising or glorifying North Korea _ a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison. North and South Korea technically remain at war, having never signed a peace treaty after their 1950-53 conflict ended with a still uneasy truce.

The number of prosecutions under the security law, which are not limited to glorifying North Korea, has risen in recent years. Convictions are harder to secure but not uncommon. Last September, a 43-year-old South Korean man was sentenced to 10 months prison for operating a pro-North Korean website and posting over 300 messages and 6 videos praising North Korea.

The zealous policing of the Internet by a rising movement of young nationalists seems at odds with the wealthy, dynamic and democratic image that South Korea projects to the outside world. Yet for South Koreans it is unremarkable, even if not accepted in all corners of society. Anti-communist instruction was a staple of the curriculum in South Korea’s schools into the 1980s. Liberal groups say similar anti-North Korea education has been revived under conservative President Lee Myung-bak, although the education ministry disputes that.

Activists like Ma see themselves as cyber guardians of national security, keeping the Internet in South Korea safe from infiltration by pro-North Korean ideas. In doing so, they have become a vigorous vanguard for enforcement of the national security law, which critics argue puts excessive limits on freedom of expression.

The young activists are a “manifestation of misleading patriotism,” said Park Lae-goon, director of Human Rights Foundation Saram.

“Under the anti-communism environment, South Korean society has denied diverse values,” Park said. “In a democratic society, we should be able to talk about different ideologies and opinions.”

The National Intelligence Service sees it differently and rewards informants with a metal watch that has become a coveted item among teenagers. They call it “the One Watch,” after “the One Ring” in the popular “The Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy.

Ma and another activist Park In-beom, 17, both received the One Watch. Park said he was extremely happy when he got the gift that came with a thank you letter from the spy agency.

“I realized I was doing the right thing,” he said.

Many of the activists say it was North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island in 2010 that catalyzed their anger and mobilized them. It was the first assault by the North on a South Korean civilian area since the Korean War, singling it out from North Korea’s other deadly provocations over the years.

At a recent retreat near Seoul attended by about 40 online campaigners, Park In-beom recalled that the attack made “his blood boil” and his body “shiver with indignation.”

“I seriously contemplated what I can do for my country. Because I’m not an adult, I can contribute by reporting the posts that threaten national security in the cyber world,” he said.

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