Public figures suffer as long-lost slurs go viral
In 2002, comedian and television show host Kim Gura likened “comfort women,” a euphemistic reference to Korean women forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military during World War II, to prostitutes.
“To see prostitutes getting onto a chartered bus is a first since the comfort women,” Kim had said while hosting a satirical internet radio program.
The facetious comment slipped by the public and in any other era would have been forgotten as another crass joke. But in the age of the Internet, it reared its head online a decade later and may yet be the quip that kills the popular comedian’s career.
A netizen dug up the audio clip and posted the comments online. After it went viral, Gura - the host of eight television shows this year - publicly apologized and immediately announced he is “taking time off.”
There is an old chestnut in Korea that the mouth is the door and the tongue the root of all troubles. While the mediums have changed, the lesson is as relevant as ever. A recent slew of high-profile scandals have brought down politicians and ruined celebrity careers, and the ascendance of the digital footprint has affected the lives of even the average Internet user.
All eyes were on the April 11 legislative election. The people’s decision was especially significant because for the first time in two decades, the selection of a new parliament fell on the same year as the Dec. 16 presidential election.
While the candidates may have long forgotten - or hoped no one would remember - slurs or derogatory comments made in the past, their rivals certainly didn’t.
And Korea’s real-name verification system for Internet usage made spectacular viral mudslings all the easier.
Kim Yong-min, a Democratic United Party candidate for Seoul’s Nowon District, lost the race after comments he made years ago targeting the United States and lambasting Christians became the prey of the ruling Saenuri Party.
The plucky co-host of the controversial political satire show “Naneun Ggomsuda,” or “I’m a Petty-Minded Creep,” garnered significant support, particularly from the younger generation critical of the current conservative administration. The show is known for its caustic, humorous dialogues that draw their sights on President Lee Myung-bak.
But the public turned away from him in the days leading up to the election after clips of anti-United States remarks and comments insinuating violence against high-level U.S. officials were posted on YouTube. Even for many of those supportive of his earlier works, Kim had crossed a line.
In the video Kim suggested that a Korean terrorist attack on the United States would allow Korea to dodge militant threats from those opposed to U.S. policies, adding that Korea should “kill President [George W.] Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and rape and kill Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.”
He made other comments about the elderly, women and Christians that are not suitable for publication.
The Saenuri Party’s victory in the district - and unexpected preservation of a majority in the Assembly - is seen by some pundits as a direct result of the backlash against Kim and the DUP that supported him.
“The repercussions from Kim’s slurs appear to have reached not just the Chungcheong and Gangwon provinces but also the metropolitan area, working as a main factor behind the defeats in districts where the race was neck-and-neck,” a key figure within the DUP said on the condition of anonymity.
The Internet’s subversive role in the elections didn’t end there. Ha Tae-kyung, an activist for North Korean human rights running in Gijang District, Busan, faced pressure to drop out of the race due to comments he made on one of Korea’s most volatile issues: the Dokdo islets.
The 44-year-old head of Open Radio for North Korea ended up winning in the Saenuri Party stronghold, but an online posting of his comments made the race interesting.
In 2005, Ha stated that “Dokdo should be viewed as a disputed territory.” Dokdo - Korea’s easternmost islets located in the East Sea - has long been a thorny issue in Japan-Korea relations and a topic of heated nationalism. The politician’s comments were seen as highly unpatriotic in the traditionally conservative port city.
There is a truism in Korean political circles that if you want to become a politician, the first thing you need to do is clear out your digital record, as well as cover up the past bribes accepted and the taxes evaded. In the era of Facebook, we may just be seeing the beginning of the Internet’s effect on political campaigns.
When the Web becomes weaponry
Politicians are not the only public figures to fall victim to past comments going viral.
Jay Park, a singer and the former leader of boy band 2PM, pulled out of the K-pop group in 2009 and left the scene for some time after his MySpace page, which contained derogatory comments about Korea and its music scene, was leaked online years after the original posting. The singer left the peninsula for the United States.
Netizens also revealed comments posted online by MC Mong, a rapper and entertainer, asking how he could dodge mandatory military service in 2005. The ensuing 16 grueling months of legal battles damaged his image and career.
Average Joes have also proven susceptible to the telltale digital footprints.
A police officer surnamed Hwang stationed in South Gyeongsang left postings online defending the assailants in a rape case in Milyang, South Gyeongsang, in 2004, before he was hired by the police.
Korean Netizens found out that he had become a police officer and filed fierce complaints with the Gyeongnam Provincial Police Agency. Hwang had posted an official apology on the agency’s Web site - but the surge in criticisms overwhelmed the system and crashed the site.
“Words disappear once they are blurted out, and writings often get lost once publication halts, but the Internet is a different case,” said Lee Sang-jin, a professor at Korea University’s Graduate School of Information Security who specializes in digital forensics.
“If somebody who is in a hostile relationship with an individual initiates the search with malicious intentions, [remarks on the Internet] can be a threatening weapon.”
New operations and services
Nonetheless, the digital footprint has fostered a whole new line of work in Korea.
Recent reports suggest companies are increasingly using Facebook, Twitter and other social networking services during the hiring process, triggering protests from some who claim such an act infringes upon the privacy of applicants.
In the United States, a survey commissioned by the online employment Web site CareerBuilder.com showed that 37 percent of hiring managers use SNS to screen job applicants, with over 65 percent of them opting for Facebook as their primary resource.
There are reportedly some companies that specialize in background checks of potential employees and monitoring of current employees through SNS.
Also as the debate over “digital assets” - blogs, pictures and postings that people leave behind when they die - heated up in recent years, businesses that function as cybermorticians have sprung up.
In the United States, there are companies such as LifeEnsured and Entrustet that take care of a user’s digital legacy according to his or her will.
There are also “digital footprint laundering programs” in distribution today.
For instance, the online community DC Inside (www.dcinside.com) has enabled a “DC Hunter” feature that can delete all of a given individual’s postings in the online community. There is also Twitwipe (www.twitwipe.com), which alleges to wipe all of your tweets and clean up your Twitter account.
Still, Lee Sang-jin of Korea University’s Graduate School of Information Security said that “due to reposting of the postings and retweets, it would be safe to say that it’s impossible to completely delete your entire digital footprint.”
Jeong Tae-yeon, a psychology professor at Chung Ang University agrees: “With the advancement of digital media, the ‘current me’ is living together with past records today. And it is everyone’s task to decide on a clear perception as to how they will act in cyberspace.”
By Kim Hyung-eun [email@example.com]
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