Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: How to be a Power Blogger by Mr. Joo Seong-Ha

Another good one from Mr. Joo Seong-Ha of Nambuk Story about being a power blogger.

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"Tarzan, After Coming to the City, Became a Power Blogger"

(As my blog gained some publicity, a magazine called "Newspapers and Broadcasting" asked me to write an article for their March issue. They have been running a series by "power bloggers" which featured a free writeup on why they blog, what is special about their blog, what they learned, what they plan to do, etc., and they wanted my input this time. At first I politely declined because I did not have enough time, but finally I broke down. The following is the article on the magazine's April issue.)

I am a North Korean defector who came to Korea in 2002. To give an analogy, I am like the character in "Old Boy", living 40 years ago in the past and suddenly jumped into the modern society via time machine. Why 40 years? Because when I speak about my life in North Korea in Korea, it takes people who lived through the 1950s~60s to say, "Oh yeah, we did the same thing back then." Judging from everything I heard so far, the North Korea I lived appears to be most similar to South Korea of the 1960s. Of course, I had no idea that I would write as a "power blogger" like this back then.

The very next day after I left Hanawon [TK: educational facility for fresh North Korean defectors], I bought a computer for my house because I thought I had to learn this thing called the Internet that everyone here uses. But there was no one who taught me how to use a computer. I would just sit at home, clicking things away and mumbling to myself, "So this is the Internet." This is how the "computer-blind" got the first taste of the rumored "Internet."

At first, I would take the whole computer to a repair center even with the simplest error, because I had no one to ask. In fact, I did not even know where to fix the computer; there was one time I carried the computer into a laundromat and asked it to be fixed, because the sign of the laundromat said, "Computer Cleaning."

In the Internet world, discovered thusly, I found a help-wanted website on my own, and I applied for my first job through the Internet. Four months after I came to Korea, I became a reporter for a weekly paper. In the following year in 2003, I saw the announcement for a position at Dong-A Ilbo, and sent my resume through the Internet. Ten months after coming to South Korea, I evolved to the level of making a community site at Daum. [TK: similar to Yahoo!.] But that site naturally folded as I began to work for Dong-A Ilbo a few months later.

I did not start the blog because I had any special purpose or plan; it was entirely due to a fellow reporter who began working at the same time as I. He led the way in creating Journalog, Dong-A Ilbo's blog service, and pushed -- nay, begged -- his pushover colleagues to join. At first, I felt a significant pressure hearing that "you need at least an article every 2-3 days to keep the blog from dying." If I had known that soon afterward, I would have to put up one post per day like I do now, I would have never started that blog.

Reading up to this point, some might think, "Huh, there is not much to learn from this guy's life story, and there is nothing special about why he started the blog." Just to fend off the disappointment, I will tell you this now:  even if you read this whole article, there is hardly anything that will help you become a power blogger. The role of bloggers, the conscience or social participation of bloggers -- all the topics that regular power bloggers can easily talk about -- are too difficult for me. I would like to talk about them, but I really just don't know. Because of my ignorance, for this article I will just talk about my own story.

I think the reason why the Nambuk Story: Stories of Pyongyang, Written in Seoul blog became well-known is because it carries my stories that are different from others'. The readers come because the posts cannot be written without the experience of living in the North, and because there are posts that can only be read here. So I have no magic formula for how to become a power blogger; it is not as if I can tell people to try coming back after living in the North.

In the early days of the blog, I would write a post every two or three days. The blog opened on October 21, 2008; it exceeded 100,000 visitors exactly on January 1 of last year. There were a million visitors in late May -- seven months after the blog opened. The number of visitors started exploding in June of last year, when it was being listed on Daum View. Since August, I would have a million visitors every month. The blog exceeded ten million visitors this April. It took 10 months to go from a million visitors to ten million.

Having an average of 30,000 readers every day put a great weight on my shoulders. I started feeling the pressure that I should keep showing something new even if they come every day. I began to get busy.

The reason why reporters don't blog is because they don't have the time. But according to my experience, the more accurate reason is not that they don't have the time, but that they don't have a lot of readers. Once the number of the readers grow and your popularity rises, the time that did not previously exist come to exist.

Being a journalist certainly is a busy occupation. Especially an international desk reporter like myself has a largest turf among reporters. I have to review the entire world's politics, economics, culture, etc. It includes not just the earth, but the oceans and the space as well. In fact, I wrote a number of space-related articles. Other international desk reporters would do the same, but I have North Korea as my turf in addition. I have to examined the international news every day, and I cannot miss a single North Korea-related news.

The scope is so large that sometimes it is difficult maintain the "sense of news". I must also agonize over gaining new North Korea-related information through my own network, as well as over coming up with new feature ideas every week. In addition, I must act as a multi-player appearing on newspaper, television, magazines, the Internet, radio -- virtually all things that may be considered "media". I must write an article every day, write a post for the blog every day, host up to three radio shows per week depending on the schedule, and continue the monthly series on the magazine. Sometimes I also grab the microphone, get out on the streets and make a video news report for Dong-A Newsstation. On top of that, I do a considerable amount of extracurricular activities such as lectures and seminars. All this means that I live as a slave to the time.

In spite of that, I never think that I cannot continue blogging because I'm too busy. I only worry that I cannot keep writing because I ran out of contents. Fortunately, the work of writing for the blog decreases significantly because I post the North Korea-related articles or radio scripts that I wrote on the blog. But I cannot implement the so-called "one source, multi-use" trend. Even though the forms may differ, I don't want to put up the same thing twice on the blog. No matter what the form of the writing is -- through broadcasting, magazines or a newspaper article -- I endeavor to make them all about different things. It would be convenient to repackage a blog post into a magazine article or a broadcasting script, but I have not been able to do that.

Doing all these things means that there are things that I must sacrifice. I can hardly have a dinner-and-drinks with people unless it is very important. About two days out of the week, I sleep about two to three hours.

Then the question is -- is this blog worth sacrificing my lifestyle like this? Frankly, this is a tough gig unless one has one's own reasons, like being addicted to it or grasped by a sense of calling. Even the "several tens of thousands of visitors per day" number gets old once you get used to it. I am not a politician, and my blog gets no advertisement, which make being passionate more difficult. I would have quit long time ago if I did not have something like a sense of calling, that I must inform South Korea about North Korea. I also like that, as a bonus, I get to periodically post what I already wrote about North Korea without having to bury them in a pile.

North Korea is an issue that has especially sharp ideological conflicts in South Korea. It is impossible to write something that makes everyone happy. In North Korea-related posts, the negative comments can be chilling. Despite such limitations, I endeavor to keep fairness and objectivity. I consider it to be a characteristic of my blog. Generally, "current issues" blogs clearly divide friends and enemies, and grow their influence by attracting certain types of readers. This would be a really easy way of running a North Korea-related blog. It would attract more attention if it had an extreme viewpoint and a shrill voice. I wanted to make a blog that would not cause one to be turned off, regardless of which side one is. Once I took my stance that way, various kinds of people actually visit my blog. I have a worldwide readership, even including North Korea's current diplomats.

As I run my North Korea-related blog, I only have one principle -- love for North Korean people. With that love, the indignation for those who oppress them flows naturally.

But it is so difficult to live in Korea without having someone on your side. This is especially true for North Korean defectors. One side looks at me crookedly, saying I escaped from North Korea; the other side does the same, saying they doubt my identity.

In addition, I frequently receive all kinds of threats. It would be an easier life to just stick with one, but I cannot bring myself to do that. This is out of self-respect for my life, which has overcome many chances of death. However, I do often think to myself, "I am just inviting trouble -- I could at least just keep quiet."

When I first started blogging, I interviewed with a newspaper. The reporter asked me how long I could maintain the blog, and I replied, "About three years." Of course, that was with the assumption that I would post once in two or three days. Every blog has an upswing and a downswing, because of the limits on personal contents. Even the most excellent ballplayers retire. Bowing out is no shame. To me as well, there will come a day when the blog will fold.

But North Korea itself is a destiny with which I must travel together. Even now, no matter how many articles I write, if I do not write a North Korea-related article in a while the company officers ask, "Why aren't you writing anything recently?" Even though I am a reporter on the international desk, my presence is diminished when I do not write a North Korea article.

As a trainee, the beat to which I was assigned was the "Gangnam line", including Seocho, Gangnam, Songpa and Gangdong. There were other trainees who grew up in Seoul, but they showed no mercy putting me -- who knew nothing about Seoul's geography or general affairs -- into what was known as the most difficult course. I still do not understand why they did that back then. What did they expect from me?

That was about a year-and-a-half since I came to Korea. Because I was living outside of the city at the time, I had no idea where these Gangnam or Gangdong places were -- I went there for the first time during training. I had to visit every police station and hospital twice a day from Seocho to Gangdong, sleeping three to four hours a night. Of course, I went to every district in Seoul for work afterward.

The most memorable thing was the directive to interview the head of Daechi-dong's best private academy regarding the fervor for private education. The person was considerably flummoxed by the strange Dong-A Ilbo reporter with a Korean-Chinese accent who was totally ignorant about Korea's education system but nonetheless boldly fired away questions. I still feel bad for him to this day.

During that hazing process, I told this to my senior reporter over drinks:

"I am a Tarzan who used to live in the mountains, and now I'm in the city. I can run the fastest with bare feet in the jungle, but I can't run like other people wearing sneakers on asphalt."

Seven years later, now I feel confident that I can run as well as anyone on the asphalt as well. Just an aside, but I indeed ran around on the searing asphalt of Bangkok in the 39 degree Celcius heat last month, reporting the anti-government protests. But even so, I still feel comfortable like Tarzan returning to the jungle when I write about North Korea.

Stories of Pyongyang, Written in Seoul is like a jungle for me. It makes me reflect on where I came from, and where I must go. Frankly, I did not think I would feel this way when I started the blog. On the day I return to North Korea, the posts on the blog are the marks and the chronicle of my life to be shown proudly to my hometown folks. I did not leave North Korea because I committed a crime, or because I was hungry. I went on the road after beating my chest over the unimaginable tragedy of the people. My blog is the space where I can show someday that I had done my best to tell the world of their pain when they were oppressed, that my choice of leaving was the correct one.

I write not for today, but for tomorrow.

"도시에 내려온 타잔 파워블로거가 되다" [Nambuk Story]

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Such a great post. Thanks for translating for us non-Korean speakers.

  2. Yes, many thanks for this. If there is a motivation for me to master Korean, it is to read blogs like Nambuk.


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