SEOUL — For the first time in its history, the South Korean government will air public service announcements encouraging the use of condoms, officials said Friday.

The ads will run on major broadcast television networks, cable TV channels, Korean Web portals and on buses and subways, officials said.

At the same time, community health centers throughout the country will provide condoms free to anyone who requests them.

South Korean government officials say the new campaign — coupled with a prostitution crackdown by Korean authorities and U.S. military commands — will help stem a growing AIDS problem and change the perception of sex in South Korea.

“We will set up consultation centers in highly populated areas around the nation to encourage the public to get a checkup for AIDS,” Go Un-yeong of the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), told reporters.

Privately, South Korean officials acknowledge the public campaign aims also at eliminating a pervasive myth in South Korea: that only foreigners carry and transmit the AIDS virus.

Many of the red-light districts in the country refuse to serve foreign clients, for instance, openly saying the reason is fear of AIDS. But by taking the new measures, public health officials hope Koreans realize the problem is theirs as well, officials say.

According to KCDC statistics, the number of new human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, cases among South Koreans has grown by 35 percent each year since 2000. From 1985 to 1994, officials said, just 410 cases were reported. But in 2003 alone, 535 Koreans contracted the virus. In the first six months of 2004, more than 300 cases have been reported.

To boost the awareness campaign, health officials will ask the public to choose a Korean-language word for “condom,” hoping it will increase condom use and make people more comfortable buying contraceptives, the KCDC said.

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