“Discovering Voluntary Agency Network for Korea (VANK)”
The original idea of VANK was born from a personal project by Park Ki-tae, the agency’s founder and current director. While he was talking with some foreign friends through an online chatroom, Park Ki-tae realized that foreigners didn’t know much about Korea and their knowledge was mostly erroneous. He began to think about how to unravel those misunderstandings and distortions and the first solution he came up with was to create a website where Koreans could meet and talk with more foreigners. Initially, the first network of contacts was designed through a pen-pals website which later on turned into VANK.
Today VANK is a highly recognized agency both by the Korean government institutions and by several foreign countries. More than 200,000 Korean volunteers participate in their activities.Through this project, young people have the opportunity to become cyber-ambassadors, carrying out digital diplomatic activities. Over the years, they have been busy producing and distributing thousands of articles, books and materials concerning Korean history and culture.
Thanks to the recognition of their work by the Korean community, many private investors offered their help and over the years VANK has also managed to establish different collaborations with various Korean companies, to promote Korean cultural heritage in the world.
Furthermore, one of the agency’s goals is to expand the involvement of young students and citizens regarding global issues, encouraging young minds to participate in developing projects as global citizens. Through their contribution as young ambassadors, they can improve their language and problem-solving skills and gain a broader understanding of Korean and global history.
There are several ways in which everyone can participate. It is possible to enroll through their website and take part in a one-month training course to become official cyber ambassadors. Additionally, people can sign up as general volunteers for projects such as promoting the recognition of Dokdo and the East Sea. Even those who are not registered members but simply want to give their contribution can sign the petitions promoted by the agency openly on the website.
In the last decades, Korea has acquired considerable fame all over the world, both thanks to the export of consumer goods and to the growing popularity of its music, movies, and television industries. As the “Hallyu Wave” is gradually becoming more popular, VANK’s role is even more essential in spreading a correct knowledge of the past, present, and future of South Korea.
Q: Director Park, when did you first realize that foreigners had an incorrect idea of Korean history?
A: After several conversations with some American and European friends, I soon realized that their image of South Korea was far more different than mine. Because Korea suffered the Japanese colonization and later the Korean War, the international community kept receiving a misleading picture of our country.
Q: Could you give me some examples?
A: One of the most famous disputes concerns the name of the sea between our nations. Since Japan had subjugated Korea under its rule and had an international position, most of the maps and data reported as “Sea of Japan,” which should rightly be called the “East Sea.” It’s still a controversial matter, as much as Dokdo Island. It has been a long time since Japan has been trying to claim Dokdo Island as one of its territories, naming it Takeshima Island and including it in their maps. However, historically it is proven that the island has always belonged to Korea. It is a place with unique natural resources, and it is the farthest border of our peninsula, which is why its recognition is so dear to Korean citizens.
Q: How do you decide which topics you should focus on?
A: Since Korean culture is still not well known abroad, we could cover basically anything related to our traditions and culture. Moreover, there are often new misunderstandings and international issues concerning the roots of our cultural milestones, which we feel obliged to clarify on an international level.
Q: How has the purpose of VANK changed over the years and what are your future goals?
A: I wouldn’t say that it has changed, but it has definitely evolved and expanded. In some ways, South Korea is still perceived as an unsafe country, constantly threatened by North Korea. Initially, we focused on giving Korean history and culture a proper international recognition and now, in addition to this, we try to attract foreigners by promoting a friendly image of our country, dreaming of South Korea as a gateway for Asia.
Ilaria Righi is a student at the University for Foreigners of Siena, in Italy. Her major is Cultural Mediation, specializing in Korean studies and English linguistics and translation. Currently, she is an international exchange student at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
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