Park Dae-sung, 30, who claims himself to be “Minerva,” is surrounded by reporters before being taken to a detention center, Saturday. The Seoul Central District Court issued a warrant against him on charges of spreading false information over the Internet. / Korea Times Photo by Wang Tae-seok
By Jane Han
South Korean authorities are growing more serious over whether ― and how ― they're going to punish popular online guru Minerva after arresting him last Wednesday for spreading false information. 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.''
Park Dae-sung, 31, who wrote more than 200 online postings criticizing the government's economic policies under the alias Minerva, was arrested on charges of undermining the country's financial markets with his dire predictions.
The Web commentator is currently detained and being investigated. If indicted and convicted, he could get a jail term of up to five years or a fine of up to 50 million won ($37,000)
Minerva's arrest instantly fueled a furor over freedom of speech, as critics blasted the government and prosecutors for tag teaming in a bid to suppress people's basic civil rights.
``You wouldn't see this kind of situation in the U.S. or any other advanced country,'' said Michael Breen, a political and business consultant, who stressed that both the prosecution and the government must learn to uphold people's rights.
He said if the authorities are smart, they will investigate and let Park go.
``If they're dumb, however, they're going to go ahead and prosecute him, but Park will be found not guilty,'' said Breen, adding that such an outcome will only do harm to the prosecution.
Robert Koehler, who runs popular web blog Marmot's Hole, raised a problem with the government's handling of the opinionated blogger.
``Maybe they can bring him in for a talk or even sue him, but having the guy arrested just sends chills down everyone's spine. They're setting a precedent,'' said the blogger, who manages a site that attracts 3,500 visitors daily.
Koehler said the government is probably paranoid from the massive wave of anti-government candlelight vigils last summer that were prompted by the Internet-driven public.
``Still, that doesn't mean the government could crack down on bloggers in such a way,'' he said, asking, ``How many countries arrest bloggers?''
Maybe Egypt, China and Iran, he said, adding, ``It's not a pretty group. Does South Korea want to be grouped with them?''
On blogs based overseas, users have already started poking fun at the situation.
``I guess [Robert] Shiller, [Laurence] Kotlikoff and [Nouriel] Roubini are next,'' wrote one Yahoo blogger with the username billander88. ``They have to arrest half of university economics professors in the world for economics analysis. Who's next?''
Paul Kedrosky, a U.S.-based venture capitalist and a popular blogger at Infectious Greed, wrote, ``Let [Minerva's arrest] be a warning to Nouriel Roubini.''
Koehler emphasized, ``If prosecutors decide to indict Minerva, they will be shooting themselves in the foot. Critics overseas will think so especially.''
Thirst for Analysis
Discussing the financial pundit's extreme popularity, observers generally said the lack of transparency in Korean society was the biggest contributor to Minerva's quick fame and influence.
``Koreans put excessive faith into anonymous information because they've lost trust in mainstream media,'' said Coyner. ``So Minerva's analytical perception attracted an instant crowd of followers.''
David Mason, a professor at Kyung Hee University, who lived in Korea for more than a decade, agrees.
The public fostered a sense of trust for information provided by faceless people because they figured that the government, big companies and reputable media outlets don't give them anything better, he said.
Over the past few months, Minerva's analytical style and sometimes prescient forecasts have purportedly affected foreign exchange markets and investment decisions.
``Frankly, the Internet has a kind of traction that mainstream media doesn't,'' said Koehler, adding that there is not much the government can do to offset the reality.
``They just need to become more media savvy, improve communication and debate,'' he said. ``The bottom line is, if one guy online is causing a massive problem on a government policy, it's clear that they're not combating the issue well.''