By James Pearson
SEOUL, April 30 (Yonhap) -- An online community on South Korean Web sites has been earning a reputation as a hotbed of political and social conservatism in both online and offline circles, owing to its opinions viewed as politically incorrect.
"Ilbe," short for "daily best" in Korean, is a user-led South Korean Web site sometimes likened to the infamous 4Chan, an English-language online community that, like Ilbe, is well known for stirring controversy. Born out of a messaging board on the popular South Korean portal DC Inside, the community is becoming the de facto voice of online and youthful conservative dissent in modern South Korea.
"The biggest reason for Ilbe's remarkable growth is that Ilbe offers a gathering place for conservative and right-wing netizens." one user wrote.
Ilbe grew out of the Web site's original role as a mirror for the most up-voted images from a DC Inside gallery called "Comedy Gallery," or CoGall, that had previously been deleted by moderators for being too offensive. The site first became famous among netizens for ignoring all forms of honorific language in its postings and its liberal and lax attitude toward swearing and bad language.
The community took an ideological swing to the right after the sinking of the South Korean patrol boat the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyong Island by North Korea in 2010, and after online portal DC Inside suffered a political split in its own community, making thousands of right-wing netizens "homeless" on the Korean Internet.
Some 35 percent of Ilbe netizens are between 21 and 25, according to a self-initiated poll of 1,176 users in March, and are predominantly male. Like many online communities, Ilbe has its own rules and language set by the netizens themselves; women are referred to by an offensive Korean term for the female reproductive organ. Ilbe users also refer to themselves as being "handicapped," although they claim doing so is a self-deprecating move that fights against the hierarchical nature of Korean society.
Netizens using the site have earned the nickname "Ilbe Bugs," meaning they should be "stomped on" by an alliance of more moderate or left-wing Web sites trying to counteract Ilbe's rising popularity despite its tabloid-esque image.
Last October, Ilbe users responded to wide accusations that they were uneducated and uninformed by posting pictures of student identification cards from prestigious universities, bank accounts with high balances and certificates showing sought-after professional qualifications. Although some of the images were later shown to have been faked or digitally manipulated, the Ilbe community maintains that they represent respected members of the Korean mainstream.
The site began to gain notoriety for its very vocal support of now-President Park Geun-hye during her 2012 election campaign, contributing to the site's shift towards politics.
"There is a controversy as to why this happened," Lee Taek-gwang from Kyung Hee University's department of cultural studies said. "Some people believe that there are big political figures behind the scenes, and others even believe that the National Intelligence Service got involved."
Ilbe netizens direct a lot of criticism towards the Korean left, most of whom they label as "commies" or "leftist zombies." This, combined with Ilbe's recent popularity, has prompted left-wing Web sites like Ddanzi to go as far as liken the rise of Ilbe to the rise of the European right in the early 20th Century.
Although Ilbe netizens are notorious for their seemingly extreme views, they are not always necessarily nationalists. Whilst strongly supporting conservatism, they are also quick to denounce Korean superiority in anything, a stance they call "delusional" or "nationalist crack." Articles on Ilbe referring to Japan, for example, can often be surprisingly balanced, respectful, and moderate.
Some observers say that the core "elite" of Ilbe membership has often had negative experiences of studying in the United States, for example, thus contributing to the Web site's tone.
"They are largely still pro-American," Lee says, "But the trauma they experience from not being accepted abroad breeds animosity to 'minorities' in Korean society.
"I would describe this as a sort of 'wounded elitism' or 'fascism of the middle class,' which includes endless aversion to liberals, but affection of conservatism."
Ilbe netizens have also been known to surface in public and represent the community. In November last year, a young netizen studying abroad challenged progressive pundit Chin Jung-kwon to a debate about whether former President Roh Moo-hyun conceded that the legitimacy of the de facto inter-Korean maritime border was disputable.
Chin offered to publicly debate with the netizen, who went by the name of "Gangyul," if the Ilbe community raised 1 million won as a fee. The community did so, and Gangyul suffered an embarrassing defeat, somewhat dampening the notoriously fierce reputation Ilbe netizens had otherwise earned.
"I apologize for losing, I wanted to initiate a productive discourse but I ended up parroting unfounded facts... I'm annoyed by my own arrogance," Gangyul wrote on his blog.
Reports emerged in local newspapers earlier this month that Ilbe had been the victim of an orchestrated cyber attack carried out by the infamous hacking group Anonymous -- a claim that was later denied by Anonymous hacker "MustardOfDoom" during an online messages-based chat with Ilbe users. The reports followed Ilbe netizens' attempt to track down and identify users of Uriminzokkiri, a North Korean propaganda Web site, after the personal details of subscribers were released through Anonymous' successful cyber attack on the North Korean Web site.
Repeated tries to get comments from Korean social commentators and academics on Ilbe's rising popularity were turned down. Owing to the Web site's tendency to mobilize its support base to engage in online witch hunts, not many were willing to have their opinions quoted on the record. Furthermore, to many academics at least, Ilbe is still a bit of a mystery -- its presence being well known, but not net well understood.
Defenders of the Web site argue the loudest voices in Ilbe tend to garner a disproportionate amount of attention, and are not necessarily representative of the wider community's voice. "Netizens," after all, may adopt entirely different personalities online that contradict their offline behavior as ordinary South Korean citizens.
The majority of opinions on the outside, however, would not appear to be in Ilbe netizens' favor. Campaigns to close the Web site down for being "damaging" to South Korean society have so far been unsuccessful and, as Ilbe's popularity rises, so does its notoriety.
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