[Viewpoint] Korea takes cyber-calumny crown

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[Viewpoint] Korea takes cyber-calumny crown

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Tablo cries during an interview with the JoongAng Daily on Thursday. By Kang Jung-hyun

When I met Korean-Canadian singer Tablo in the JoongAng Daily newsroom Thursday, I thanked him for agreeing to an interview and promised that the story we wrote would put an end to the vicious rumors about him circulating on the Internet.

Tablo scoffed at me.

“The truth?” he asked. “Do you think these people care about the truth? This thing will never end!”

It was a surprisingly violent introduction to a seemingly gentle young man. But Tablo was anything but serene that day. His hands quavered. During the interview he broke down in tears, describing the pain the Internet lynch mob had inflicted on his family. His father is gravely ill, Tablo said, and the singer is afraid the hate campaign is the last thing he’ll know in his life.

Tablo’s travails are a story of the Internet in Korea, and how a country that likes to call itself the most wired place on earth has created, with fiber optic cables, networks and rampant animosity, an out-of-control character assassination machine.

Until very recently, the 29-year-old Tablo’s story was a happy one. Born in Seoul (real name: Daniel Seon-Woong Lee) and raised in various countries (including Canada), he was educated at Seoul International School and got a B.A. and master’s in English literature at Stanford University. (He’s published a book of short stories.) Musical from an early age, Tablo found success in the industry quickly, and he’s easily South Korea’s most popular hip-hop artist. In 2009, he married a beautiful actress, Kang Hye-jeong, and six weeks ago the couple had a daughter.

Around the same time, Korean netizens, for reasons unknown, set their sights on Tablo. The charge: The singer lied about his degrees from Stanford. There have been degree-faking scandals in the past; Koreans’ obsession with education almost ensures a certain amount, and vituperative outrage when frauds are exposed.

In the online world, the controversy grew intense. Admired one day, Tablo was suddenly reviled.

You could see this as another example of fame and popularity transmuting overnight into infamy and contempt, except there was no turning point, no trigger. Tablo didn’t get caught cheating on his wife, or bribing a record producer, or even faking his degrees, as the JoongAng Daily proved in yesterday’s newspaper. He did nothing at all, except go to a good school, work hard, get great grades, and become famous.

Cyber-calumny here is anything but a harmless pastime. In January 2007, a singer named Uni hanged herself after discussion of her cosmetic surgery spread on the Internet. Two years ago, actress Choi Jin-sil, known as “the dream of every man,” was accused of driving an actor to suicide online. In October 2008, she hanged herself in the shower.

So although unrestrained, unconfirmed and unkind cyber talk occurs everywhere, in Korea its lethal consequences are universally known. Every blogger joining in the anti-Tablo gang bang is aware that they could be contributing not only to his professional demise, but his physical one as well. “These people are killers,” Tablo told me gravely, and disturbingly.

The Internet portals, meanwhile, do nothing to restrain their customers. In the Korean online business, restraint wouldn’t be good for revenues. (The parent company of Korea’s largest portal, Naver, had revenues of $990 million in 2009.) When a maniac goes on a shooting rampage, the public asks where he got his gun. In Korea’s cyber-shooting gallery, the portals are the firearm merchants.

Why are these netizens doing what they do? Some say Tablo made too much of his education when promoting himself, arousing admiration but also envy. Some say he’s getting xenophobic heat because of his Canadian citizenship. Maybe some young female fans were disappointed when he wed. It’s a reminder that fame is a glamorous companion, but you can’t neglect its twin, envy.

After the interview, we went into the newsroom to watch the (failed) launch of the Naro rocket. Tablo’s fans among my staff gathered to get his autograph, or take pictures with him.

Tablo was gracious and accommodating, but it was hard to overlook a palpable weariness. I couldn’t tell if it was a realization that this - fame and fans - was the thing destroying his life. Or whether he was feeling elegiac: that this kind of adulation was something slipping into the past.


*The writer is chief editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Anthony Spaeth
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