Monday, January 12, 2009

Don't Mess with Owl-eyed Athena

One big story in South Korea right now is the arrest of a man Lee Myung-bak's government accuses of spreading false rumors on the Internet. Prosecutors have identified this man, a unemployed 30-year-old whose family name is Park, with a blogger called Minerva who became famous for his commentary on Korean business and government last year. According to The Hankyoreh,
Minerva was dubbed “the Internet Economic President” for the accuracy of his predictions about the collapse of Lehman Brothers as the financial crisis that began in the United States was escalating, spiraling out of control and the South Korean currency’s sharp decline in value against the U.S. dollar. He posted over 100 articles on the Internet portal site Daum, but his identity remained hidden. Some people believed that Minerva was an official somewhere in his or her 30s or 50s at a securities firm who had experience living and working overseas. Others speculated that he was in fact a senior citizen in his 70s.
It's hard to disentangle the facts from the rumors in Mr. Park's case. It's certain that he's not a professional economist (which may be why his predictions were so successful): he attended a small two-year college and acquired his knowledge of economics later, on his own. What I'm having trouble telling from what I've read online is what credentials, if any, he claimed in his writings. The Korea Times reports that "According to prosecutors, Minerva identified himself as an elderly man who had worked at foreign securities firms to explain his economic knowledge"; the Hankyoreh attributes these beliefs to the speculations of Minerva's readers. From what I know of President Lee's government (and also of what readers invent about writers), I'm inclined to trust the Hankyoreh's account.

Especially since the prosecutors are finding themselves in a bind. Not only are they coming under attack for trying to stifle free expression, it appears that Minerva did not spread false rumors. The reason the government doesn't like him is that what he said was true. For example,
"On Dec. 26, 2008, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance (MOSF) convened a meeting of representatives from the country's seven biggest banks (and they) were forced to attend,'' Rep. Lee Seok-hyun of the Democratic Party told The Korea Times.

"At the meeting, I learned that banks were requested not to buy dollars, just as Park had contended. I confirmed it with multiple attendants. Accordingly, Park is not guilty,'' the fourth-term legislator said.
According to the Korea Times, "foreigners" are also critical of the government's case.
But for foreigners and overseas bloggers, the Internet witch-hunt is a ridiculous episode that could only hurt the image of one of the world's most-wired countries.

"Korea is starting to look silly for trying to imprison a blogger,'' said Tom Coyner, who helps advise foreign investors in South Korea as president of Soft Landing Consulting. "Authorities are taking this too far.''
That name sounds familiar! Apparently the Korea Times considers it acceptable to quote their own columnists as if they were independent sources; the other foreigner quoted in the article, Michael Breen, has also contributed regular opinion pieces to the Times, and judging by the one I just linked, he's every bit as historically and politically perspicacious as Coyner. (Coyner seems to have changed his mind about the Internet since last summer.)

On the other hand, the Korea Times reports that "
a survey showed a majority of opinion leaders supported the Internet guru's arrest for spreading 'groundless rumors.'''
A survey conducted by the Institute of Global Management, an education institute for CEOs, Sunday, saw 99 percent of 640 corporate leaders, business management professors, lawyers and reporters participated saying they knew of Minerva, with 58 percent supporting the ongoing legal action against him. CEOs marked the highest percentage of support for his arrest at 62 percent.
(Not to hammer the point into the ground, but Minerva did not spread "groundless rumors": his information was accurate, grounded, true. It's likely that these "opinion leaders" know it. So are they, or the Korea Times itself, spreading "groundless rumors" on the Internet?)

(P.S. Just for balance, compare this blast from the American past:

[Rush] Limbaugh took this baseless rumor from a small insiders' newsletter and broadcast it to his radio audience of millions, adding his own new inaccuracies: The newsletter did not report--as Limbaugh claimed--that [Vince] Foster was murdered, or that the apartment was owned by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Limbaugh's repetition of an unfounded rumor has been credited (Chicago Tribune, 3/11/94; Newsweek, 3/21/94) with contributing to a plunge in the stock market on the day it was aired.
Via alicublog, dealing not with Minerva but with American right-wingers trying to exhume Foster's cadaver. Limbaugh remains at large.)

The Hankyoreh has discussed the relevance of university snobbery to media coverage of Park's situation.

They seem to be saying that only people with prestigious degrees have the right to speak about such things. You can finally make sense of why a presidential administration full of individuals rich in Gangnam real estate, who attended Korea University, who go to Somang Church, or who are from the Yeongnam region is trying to maximize the socioeconomic disparity in education so that only the “haves” can enjoy the most prestigious education.
In that respect, of course, Korea is not so different from the United States.

In other news, Samsung Corporation has been blocking demonstrations near its company headquarters by filing for permits for "ghost protests" that never take place. Since only one permit will be issued for any specific time or place, no other demonstrations can get permits. And it appears that President Lee not only wants to go ahead after all with the big canal project he supposedly abandoned last summer, his government has distorted various studies to make the project look more attractive than it really is.

But enough of the heavy stuff. Yesterday the weather in Korea turned very cold, -11 degrees Celsius. (That's about 12 degrees Fahrenheit.) The Hankyoreh ran this photo of a street vendor selling hot sweet potatoes at an open-air market:

and this one of Sri Lankan workers using their vacation day to give charcoal briquets to "underprivileged people" in the city of Pocheon.