[Viewpoint]A republic of rumors

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[Viewpoint]A republic of rumors

Of all the nations in the world, Japan likely has the most ghost stories. In that country, there are said to be eight million spirits. The Japanese believe that everything is inhabited by its own spirit or ghost, including the stones, the water and the forests.

The Japanese animated film “Spirited Away,” a story of eight million spirits, was a big hit in Korea a few years ago. Its lead character, Chihiro, works in a bathhouse where the spirits come each night to get some rest and relaxation.

In another Japanese animation titled “My Neighbor Totoro,” Totoro was a spirit of an oak tree. The popular 1970s animated television series “Humanoid Monster Beam” was remade in 2006.

In 1904, British journalist Lafcadio Hearn published “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things.” He wrote his stories based on the Japanese ghost folk tales he heard from his Japanese wife and while travelling throughout her home country. The book is considered to have delved into the Japanese ghost story tradition and found the beauty within it.

In 1965, filmmaker Masaki Kobahashi made a movie based on the book and won the Special Jury Prize from the Cannes Film Festival.

You can find ghost stories and fairy tales in any country around the world, but Japan is unchallenged in its vast variety of fantasy tales.

What about Korean ghost stories?

The legends about the virgin ghost, the bachelor ghost and the fox with nine tails are our most well known, and we also have many goblin stories.

Ten years ago, in 1998, “Whispering Corridors” was released. This film transcended the conventional scary movie genre. The actors weren’t stars, and the movie was released in May, not in the high season of summer. However, over two million people saw it in theaters, making it a big hit at the time.

Whispering Corridors was based on a rather ordinary ghost story that can be heard at any school, and the young audience identified with the revenge of a high school girl who held a grudge against the college entrance examination.

These days, all kinds of spooky stories are spreading in Korean society. However, they are not always about ghosts. The newest scary stories are unverified phantom rumors.

It all started with the mad cow scare, followed by rumors about the privatization of government waterworks, price hikes for tap water, Lee Myung-bak’s abandonment of the Dokdo islets and the death of a college student during a rally.

The scary stories are spreading via the Internet at lightning speed, disseminating into society on the advanced Web of which our country is so proud. If Japan has eight million ghosts, Korea has eight million rumors. We are living in a republic of rumors.

The origin of the most frightening rumors can be found in cyber space. In the past, rumors spread by word of mouth, but now, they are travelling by text. When there is even a post that is slightly plausible, it is copied and pasted all over the Internet. There is no time for a proper response.

The Internet can be a useful tool which enables two-way communication simultaneously. Internet users can get together for discussions and create opinions on the spot.

However, the Internet today is not a forum for discussion but a forum for confrontation. Anyone with a different opinion is considered to be paid to work for the other side. They are not divided into the majority and the minority, but the winners and the losers. Communication is not two-way but unilateral.

As the influence of the Internet grows, we are experiencing more frequent cases in which the facts are intentionally distorted. The mad cow scare rapidly spread after MBC’s “PD Notebook” aired a segment with distorted and exaggerated facts. The show ramped up the public panic.

The rumor that a college student was killed in riot police violence disappeared after the police’s official statement, but Hankyoreh newspaper’s front page reignited panic.

The rumors circulating today are still powerful.

No matter how much the government tries to clarify the truth, many people still believe the scary stories.

There is a clear reason why people buy into the rumors: they don’t trust the government. They’d rather believe the online posts of strangers than the government’s statements.

The Republic of Korea is in crisis. The U.S. beef import issue is not yet resolved, a Korean tourist has been shot to death by a North Korean soldier, and Japan is bringing up the Dokdo issue again. The entire country is being turned upside down.

The government’s ability to manage a crisis is being tested once again. Looking at the performance so far, it’s difficult to expect a good result. Whether it is an individual or a country, if risks are minimized in a crisis, problems can be foreseen and prepared for. The Lee Myung-bak administration seems to have hardly any plans for adverse times.

From the candlelight vigils and the Mount Kumgang shooting to the Dokdo dispute and skyrocketing international oil prices, the administration has been clearly unprepared and slow to respond.

Suddenly, I am reminded of Roh Tae-woo’s plea, “Please trust this man.”

The administration is asking the citizens for trust, but people are not so naive any more.

Even if the government tells us not to believe the rumors, the stories are not going to disappear.

The government has to prove them wrong. It should prepare for the worst case scenario and comfort the citizens.

At any rate, it will take time.

*The writer is the editor of the special reporting team of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Sohn Jang-hwan
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