“Malicious commentators killed her.”

Last Sunday, a Korean actress/singer called Unee committed suicide. It has turned out that she was suffering from depression for quite a while. It’s not news that celebrities’ off-stage lives are not as glamorous as those seen through cameras. However, the case offers another dimension. Her family, friends and even psychiatrist are all now pointing their fingers at anonymous online users for a direct cause for her depression.

She has been indeed an object of cyber-bullying (악플, literally meaning ‘malicious comments’) since her first album was released in 2003. To be honest, I don’t understand what kind of mental status one has to be in to leave such horrible messages. Perhaps the main theme of her album was too sensual for the liking of the general public. Perhaps Koreans were just against excessive cosmetic surgery, which she seemed to have undergone. The point is that most comments tagging after any articles about her were sheer verbal abuses, some of which I myself witnessed. Therefore, now not only the media but also individual online users are raising their voices that it’s high time that we lawfully adopted the Internet real-name system in order to reduce cyber-crime, including such verbal attacks. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an article as dramatically titled as ‘The War against Malicious Commentators (악플러)’ or something in a newspaper one of these days.

This is not the first time that issues about real name use have been brought up. According to a 2005 survey conducted by the Ministry of Information and Communication, 8 out of 10 Netizens are for the Internet real-name system, which will require them to display their real names, verified with their resident ID numbers, whenever they make postings on the Web. In fact, Korean users already have to provide their resident ID numbers to join a site in most cases. (As far as I know, only few other countries including Norway insist such processes of verification requiring resident numbers.) As this 13-digit ID number is indeed an essential access code for all personal information of each individual, a non-Korean friend once even asked me how come I could give it away to commercial sites just like that. I must admit that after a certain point I became kind of desensitised about the whole security and privacy thing.

I know survey results are prone to manipulation. I also know use of real names wouldn’t solve all cyber-crime. Nevertheless, based on my interviews with Korean Netizens and on my own experiences as an intensive user, I have considered a couple of hypotheses about why the majority of Koreans are in favour of such a system that could jeopardise their freedom of speech and privacy.

  • First, quite simply, they are sick of such shitty messages. Worse than spam or what. Plus, as Korean Netizens are generally very proud of their so-called world-leading Internet environment/culture, it seems kind of difficult for them to accept the shadowy side of it.
  • Second, as mentioned earlier, they are just desensitised about violation of privacy – possibly after a series of repressive military regimes.
  • Or quite the contrary, they are in fact wary of the possible risk of identity theft, and want to make sure nobody would be able to join any websites under their identities – in the sense of ‘active defence’.
  • Last, which I am marginally leaning towards, Korean Netizens take the general purpose of user authentication as an alternative showing of one’s face to the other party like when he/she establishes any interaction with them in the offline world. The intangible normative force of face-to-face contact has always mattered in the Korean context.

In any case, may she rest in peace.

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