Appropriate Response to Minerva?
Appropriate Response to Minerva?
  • Jeon Hae-sun
  • 승인 2009.02.19 17:47
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When we look back at recent events, We can see that the Korean Government should deal with sensitive political issues more wisely to maintain reasonable authority.

The statue of Minerva in front of the Vienna Parliament
Minerva is the goddess of wisdom in roman myth, but today it is also the pseudonym of a famous Korean Internet blogger. Minerva became famous by writing accurate predictions about the gloomy Korean economic situation on the popular Korean online forum, Agora.

But Minerva doesn't have any degree in economics. He isn't an expert in finance either. What is worse, he isn't even a wealthy investor. If Minerva expressed his own opinions in offline Korean society he would not be influential or attract many fans. However, in online society, a blogger's only credentials are his words. Interesting words can bring readers. And the most important thing in the online world is how popular one's stories are; popularity is decided with page views.

Minerva made his reputation on the Internet with his economic predictions that have so far all turned out to be true. Most famously, he predicted the collapse of Lehman Brothers five days before it happened. Also, he predicted the drastic devaluation of South Korea's currency against the dollar a few days before it happened in the real world. As a result of such accurate prophecies, his blog gained more than 40 million page views and Minerva was nicknamed the Online Oracle and the Internet President of the Economy in Korean online society.

However, his accurate predictions became troubling to the Korean government and the Lee Myung-bak administration because of their gloomy nature concerning this country's economy. To understand the reason why Minerva made the Korean government so nervous, one needs to examine the recent climate of the Korean government's relationship with journalism.

Last October, Prime Minister Han Seung-soo said that the Lee administration would set up a team to help foreign media and investors get a better understanding of the country's economic situation. He also said that the team would promote Korean policies among global investors and help the world better understand the Korean economic situation.

The response of Korean bureaus and journalists was much more negative than the Korean government expected. In November, a staff reporter of the Korea Times, an English-language newspaper, wrote about the poor PR system of the Korean government. He reported that the Korean government had signed a contract a week ago with News Communication, a local PR agency, to better communicate with foreign press. However, he criticized the move by saying that the contract was made in a hurry without using any bidding system. Also, the contract would basically last only three months. It was just a stopgap measure lacking any long-term plan. An anonymous source claimed that the offender responsible for the shortsighted policy was the ill-fated PR scheme of the current administration. He said that the Lee administration seemed to think that negative news reports pop up because journalists at home and abroad misunderstand things about Korea. This was an indicator of the administration's clumsy, heavy-handed approach to the media.

Additionally, Korea went through a painful media experience last year related to Korean people's distrust of the rarity of Mad Cow Disease in American beef. The Korean public was thrown into a panic by media and online reports that American beef would spread Mad Cow Disease, even though the government tried to explain about the rarity of the disease.

Candlelight protests by thousands of people in downtown Seoul last year
The whole fiasco caused by false media, including angry candlelight protests by thousands of people and much abusive language against the Korean government, eventually calmed down. However, it remained a humiliating image of the Korean public to foreign countries because most foreign people already knew how rare the disease was. This even made the current administration aware of the Korean public's weakness to be easily motivated to protest the government, without careful consideration or abundant evidence, by false and irresponsible media reports.

After this disturbance passed, police raided the office of anti-US beef rally organizers, the Korea Alliance for Progressive Movement, and confiscated documents that were made during its meetings. They released those documents which appeared to show that the rallies were organized with the specific intent to bring down the Lee Myung-bak administration. The leaders of the rallies suggested in the papers their intent to paralyze downtown streets by encouraging citizens to participate in candlelight vigils at night. Therefore, officials came to believe the demonstrations started as peaceful candlelight vigils and were later expanded into something more by members of various civic groups spearheaded by the Korea Alliance for Progressive Movement.

The Minerva case happened in this climate. Just four months later, Minerva's daring predictions about a gloomy Korean economy hit the Internet. The direct opposition to the image that the Korean government was trying to portray with its PR scheme, and Minerva's online popularity, must have irritated the Korean government. Even though many people thought Minerva had the right to express his own opinion freely online, it looked dangerous and subversive to the Korean government. So, it managed this case in haste and rather extremely this time, ordering the police to restrict Minerva. The police detained Park Dae-sung, Minerva, by invoking a seldom-used telecommunications law that charges him with harming the public by spreading false rumors.

But the arrest of Minerva has caused a huge controversy throughout the whole world. Basically people are divided into two parties: one which thinks that the government's quick suppression was appropriate, and the other which thinks that the most important thing is freedom of speech and that it was ruined by the government.

The party which agrees with the government's response mostly supports President Lee. They say that his actions seemed to be radical but were indispensable for Korea to overcome this financial crisis and to become a wealthy country.

The other party claims that the Lee Administration made a wrong application of the law. In other words, the application of this law is so arbitrary that people cannot live without fear. As an example, a lot of online Korean controversialists already deleted their articles and turned their backs in silence. It is the so-called chilling effect, the loss of desire caused by severe regulations. They also claim that this case is really dangerous and violent. When the government analyzes and applies the law without strict standards, the law changes its quality and becomes a tool of abuse to restrict anyone that the government wills.

In such a situation where two parties conflict sharply, we need to think rationally to draw a positive and satisfactory conclusion. Despite the tremendous conflicts in South Korea now, we are one nation, sailing in one boat, confronting a fierce financial storm. Therefore, we have to prepare our boat to survive the storm. And it definitely means we must create harmony between different parties.

The main issue of this Minerva case is how much we can accept the controlling power of the government over the freedom of media. If the government controls too much by applying a seldom-used law, Korea will become a kind of dictatorship again. And it will show a warped image of Korea to the world, which is a real problem for the country. We are living in an ultramodern IT world which enables all the people using the Internet to know everything they search for. So, the more and more the government tries to control the media, the worse the side effects will be.

However, when we look back at recent events such as the Mad Cow Disease candlelight protests and the purpose of the Korea Alliance for Progressive Movement lying behind the protests, we can say that a certain amount of control is needed to make Korean society more stable and mature. In that case, the most important thing to the Korean people would be the reasonable and acceptable authority of the government. The Lee administration should think more carefully before taking action, and choose a better way to persuade the Korean people with acceptable logic and reason. Even though their efforts would fail to bring over stubborn leftist Socialists, they could succeed to build faith and lead general Koreans to rely on and support the government.

For instance, when the government had to tell Korean people that they had to import US beef, if they presented the imports as a way to help poor people, or prepared other similar responses to soften upset citizens, the protests would not have been that huge and violent. Or when the government got nervous about Minerva, if they had just ignored his popularity and investigated his purpose without arresting him, they would not have received so much blame. These two cases are exemplary of every political event in Korea. It would be better if the Korean government would be less reactionary, more calm, and respond to the opposition with a more rational and long-term view.

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