[Viewpoint] The rumor mill runs at home

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[Viewpoint] The rumor mill runs at home

Rumors of a so-called “March crisis” appear to be dwindling after affecting the foreign exchange market for some time. Exchange rates and stock prices are now stabilizing, and the current account balance is expected to remain solidly in the black. We may not be able to have much of an effect on the global economic crisis, but at least no one is saying anymore that Korea could go bankrupt.

What the rumors cited as grounds for a March crisis was nothing new, and actually nothing has changed since the rumors died down. They were fabrications from the beginning, and now that we think about it, they seem like farfetched exaggerations, just like the “September crisis” rumors of last year that shook the nation.

The real crisis never comes with an alarm bell. The financial crisis that began in the United States began quietly, but shook the global economy to its roots. In other words, just as there is no goldfish inside a goldfish-shaped cracker, there is also no crisis within the rumors about a crisis.

Yet still rumors appear and when they come the government frantically tries to calm them down. Why is that?

It’s because in our hearts, we harbor fear of the possibility of disaster. We do that because we are not sure of ourselves. We do not have strong faith that the Korean economy will not go bankrupt, that it will recover in the end. That’s why the groundless rumors about a crisis, prompted by outsiders, shook the market and the nation.

Criticizing foreign media and credit rating companies for intentional “Korea-bashing” is wrong. An official in Seoul has reportedly lodged a complaint with the British finance minister about British media reports that depicted Korea as a country facing the risk of national bankruptcy, just like some in Eastern Europe. That’s absurd.

Did the British government use the media to influence the Korean economy? There is nothing wrong with Korean officials visiting the media companies and refuting their reports. It would be good, though belated, to expand briefings for foreign media and appoint a public affairs official to keep them informed.

But the rumors about Korea’s crisis did not stem from the government’s lack of public affairs outreach efforts to foreign media.

No matter how hard the government tries to beef up foreign media relations, it would not have been enough to calm the rumors, because these did not start overseas, but at home.

Let’s not even discuss what some say that the media had reported wrongly about the Korean economy because they failed to quote accurate statistics or confirm the facts. If there are factual errors, we can point out their mistakes and demand corrections. Or we can ignore them completely.

What’s more problematic is that we are too sensitive about every single line in foreign media reports. Foreign media are not omniscient or omnipotent, and they no longer have advantages over Korean media in information-gathering or reporting. So there is no need to make a fuss about what they write about us.

But we need to pay attention to where the rumors about the crisis started in Korea.

When read carefully, the English-language articles of the foreign media often quote unsubstantiated rumors inside Korea or from Korean officials’ remarks.

There is a pattern in this rumor mill. First, a pessimistic forecast is drawn up in Korea, emphasizing the instability of the Korean economy. Then, it spreads online and through word-of-mouth in the financial sector here. Through this process, the rumor is developed and becomes plausible. By the time a rumor about the crisis is mentioned in the Korean media, it has been introduced back into the country by the foreign media. Then, the rumor becomes convincing because it seems internationally accepted. The nation’s exchange rate and capital markets fluctuate, and speculative investors fan the rumors.

How much longer will we torment ourselves?

Better foreign media relations are a good approach, but what the Korean economy needs right now is self-confidence. It needs faith to survive groundless rumors and foreign media reports. We can believe but still correct actual problems.

There is no need to emphasize the importance of strengthening our economy to prevent rumors about a crisis from erupting. Instead it is time to quit panicking foolishly at the sound of our own words.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jong-soo
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