“Oddly enough”

This is a follow-up to an earlier post about a Korean online user called Minerva. I wanted to ‘rant’ as soon as he was arrested about a fortnight ago (That’s right, he was arrested – for “injuring the public good”), but the case kept taking unbelievable turns. So, I thought I’d instead wait till the end and cool-headedly recap the whole thing once the result of a judicial review of the legality of the detention came out last Thursday. Of course, when I suggested this to myself, I was assuming that he would be released after the review. However, once again leaving me speechless, the court justified the arrest. He will therefore remain detained until the trial is over, and if convicted, he could serve up to 5 years in jail.

What did he do? For the sake of the brevity of this post, let me list a few articles in the place of detailing the case myself.

BTW, Reuters put its above article under the rubric of Oddly Enough (where the title of this post comes from). Where else could its editorial staff have categorised this news to?

20090121_Minervas_houseThis case has indeed churned out a lot of suspense and debate across the country, both online and offline. The focus was first placed on Minerva’s true identity, which was way different from what was popularly believed and, moreover, what the Korean intelligence agency leaked to the press. Many pictured him as a ‘social elite’ in his 50s with an enhanced sense of ‘Noblesse oblige’ accounting for his offer of own economic expertise to laymen. One of the major magazines Shindonga (owned by Dong-A Ilbo) claimed to an exclusive with him in its December issue and also confirmed this popular belief. In reality, the arrested was a jobless 30-year-old, who had graduated from a professional college and taught himself economics with a help of the Internet. He has never worked in the financial sector nor lived abroad.

The authorities and the conservative media troika (Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo, aka Chojoongdong) had a ball out of this revelation. Based on his academic qualification, or his lack of it, they called him a con artist. And treated him like one, too. The photo on the right is from an article in JoongAng Ilbo, entitled “My brother has been staying in and writing all day on the Internet for the last few months”, which elaborates on his behavioural characteristics, drawing upon interviews with his sister and neighbours. The photo also kindly marks where the evil act was committed – like a murder scene. Never mind that he was, and still is, a suspect.

Among the three media houses, Dong-A was initially being rather quiet as Shindonga‘s aforementioned exclusive of last December put it in an awkward position. Then the latest issue of Shindonga has just come out and, much to everyone’s surprise, has gone against the prosecution’s announcement – by sticking to their original story that Minerva is an experienced and accomplished senior financial professional. Or a “team” of them, even. The magazine once again claimed to another exclusive with the ‘real’ Minerva. Is this Shindonga‘s cheap shot to sell more copies? Or has it broken out of the Chojoongdong cartel and revealed that the prosecution is up to something? Or is it possibly one of those beautiful “I’m Spartacus” moments? I have no idea, but I believe these questions are beside the point.

OK, if the arrested is the genuine Minerva, he lied about his age and educational background, for which you could challenge his moral ground. That doesn’t however automatically mean that his analysis of the market is to be dismissed, let alone his constitutional rights. Let me be clear here. I wouldn’t personally endorse the use of a made-up persona in cyberspace, although I do understand the temptation that New Yorker once wittingly illustrated in its famous cartoon: “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog“. I am by no means saying that people need to open up their private lives, but it’s just that I tend to take anonymous or pseudonymous comments less seriously in online deliberation. But this is simply my preference. I am sure many others might feel differently. I am aware that some consider the offered anonymity to be the very beauty of Internet communication. For those interested in this line of discussion, here is a small thread on ChangeGov.

Anyhow, the authorities and the conservative media have been busy painting a picture of Minerva as some kind of pathetic Net nerd basking in the sudden celebrity status. Meanwhile, others put forward a conspiracy theory that the government is in fact staging the whole thing and the arrested Minerva is a hired actor. They are as bad as those arrested him, if you ask me. Why is it so hard to believe that he might actually be the one? The D-War debate or the Andrew Keen versus Web 2.0 debate all over again.

The charge proposed against him was also something that I wouldn’t have expected. One of his posts, allegedly accusing bureaucrats of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance of circulating a written request among local bankers not to buy dollars, was found in violation of Article 47 of the Electronic Communication Business Act. Prosecutors argue that this particular post encouraged uneasy traders to buy up dollars, which led to a plunge in the value of the Korean won (KRW). The government therefore had to intervene the currency market, so the argument goes, and made up for the plunge by injecting 2 billion dollars. That is one helluva expensive online post.

Under the rule of general-turned-president Chun, the Electronic Communication Business Act was born in 1983 to cover fax and telex services (which were difficult for the then authorities to wiretap). According to Article 47 of it, no one shall distribute false information via electronic communication means “with an intention of injuring the public good” (Paragraph 1) or “to one’s own interest” (Paragraph 2). Based on this article, the prosecution is already on Minerva’s bank records to identify whether he has made any financial gains from putting up his posts online. They are also checking out what kind of websites he has so far joined and contributed to, in order to identify his ideological orientation. A never-dying big deal in Korean politics. The latest development I hear is that they are now looking into possible defamation that his posts might have caused, especially to the president and the financial minister – or our own “LeeMan brothers” – whom he has explicitly criticised throughout his posts.

There were so many questions I wanted to throw up here when I started to write this post. Questions like: Why the heck was he ruled to be a flight risk (despite the Internet real-name system operating in Korean cyberspace) or What’s the line between economic predictions later proven to be wrong and false information (while the government itself has made quite a few rosy predictions on economy, which couldn’t have been further away from what has been actually happening)? I also wanted to touch upon the clash between ‘old’ legal frameworks and new ICTs and the intolerance of criticism of public policy in the Korean context. However, in the middle of it, I fell in a fit of cynicism. Aaaaah, what’s the point me ranting here?

Just one thing though. Putting all aside, let’s assume that the arrested is the genuine Minerva and that he has been writing on the Internet with a view to manipulating the market to his interest like the prosecution argues. How poor the health of the economy of a state has to be for one blogger to be able to waste 2 billion dollars of the public funds by writing at an Internet forum? And how ‘thick’ those in authority have to be not to see that they are embarrassing themselves (and admitting their incompetence) by arresting him?

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2 thoughts on ““Oddly enough”

  1. Thank you for the good overview of the subject. I wrote a superficial post in my blog (in another language) some days ago sharing some of your ideas.

    Without being really aware of how Korea works yet, and having read less on the subject, i still feel the “hired actor” theory would make a lot of sense.

    – his profile (or lack of) is ideal: it makes everybody “realize” they have been fools to trust a nobody “with no particular job” instead of the extremely competent ministry of economy.

    – it avoids “martirdom” of a true Minerva, which can always cause unpredictable reactions on the people.

    However, again, i am not an informed opinion. And the official theory also makes sense. These days anybody smart has the necessary tools and information to learn the basics of economy. Add some common sense…. and you get a Minerva.

    The most important issue here is the lack of some kind of freedom that has been made obvious.

    • Hello, Jordi.

      I’m with you on this. As you point out, I also fear that the intrigue of his (offline) identity seems to steer observers away from the real question here: citizens’ right to expression.

      Thanks for dropping by. So, are you currently based in Korea? Just a wild guess from your blog. I wish I understood the language. 😦

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