Fake news from on high

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Fake news from on high


Yi Jung-jae
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In a New Year’s press conference, President Moon Jae-in declared that Korea has the worst economic inequalities in the world. I was shocked to hear the president spreading disinformation. Other media also pointed out the fallacy in his observation. The Blue House and the president have yet to make any correction.

What is wrong with his comment? Income inequality is generally measured by the Gini coefficient — the higher the number, the wider the wealth disparity. The Human Development Report 2018, the latest annual report published by the United Nations, studied 156 of 206 states whose data can be compared. Korea was ranked 28th in income disparity with a Gini coefficient of 0.316. The data means there were at least 120 countries with wider income inequalities. China and the United States had higher Gini coefficients of over 0.4.

The Palma ratio is another measure of income disparity. It is the ratio of the richest 10 percent of the population’s share of gross national income (GNI) divided by the poorest 40 percent’s share. The smaller number means less inequality. Korea scored 1.2, on par with Germany and Japan. Korea ranked 28th to 30th among the 156 states. In the income quintile ratio — the ratio of the average income of the richest 20 percent of the population to the average income of the poorest 20 percent of the population — Korea stood around 40th. There is not a single piece of data that supports the claim that Korea is the most unequal country.

Moon’s comment was obviously not a slip of the tongue since he has made similar remarks many times before. In a New Year’s press conference in 2016 as head of the main opposition party, he emphasized “severe inequalities” in the country. After being elected president in May 2017, he told a rally the following month that Korea suffered extreme inequalities in income and wealth. In a meeting with the government, cabinet and presidential aides last September, he pointed out that our inequalities have worsened. During a National Assembly address last November, he said Korea showed the worst economic inequalities among developed countries. “The worst” is clearly a lie. At the time, though, he compared Korea with a small group of “developed countries.” Last week, he concluded that Korea was the most economically unequal country in the world.

Moon’s approval ratings have been skidding primarily due to his poor performance on economic management. The president, who denies any fault in his economic policy or the economic performance of his administration, may have wanted to find a scapegoat on which to pin some blame. The stigma of being “the most unequal country” can be expedient. His aides, dedicated to upholding certain ideological beliefs, might have encouraged him. Moon’s tendency to ignore the details in policies might have also played a part. To support his campaign pledge to phase out nuclear power plants, he carelessly and wrongfully claimed that 1,368 people died in the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, which drew an official complaint from Tokyo. (That was actually the number of deaths due to the huge tsunami that led to the meltdown.) Whether intentional or not, a president’s misbeliefs can lead to catastrophe. It is like leaving the economy in the hands of a surgeon who, when confronted with a patient with a stomach ache, cuts out much of the stomach believing it to be a tumor. Even if Moon is the president, he won’t be trusted if he cries wolf too many times. People won’t believe him when he claims, say, that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is sincere about denuclearization or other peace initiatives.

Last October, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said that the people who create bogus news and the people who spread it should be punished equally. The president ordered strong actions against purveyors of fake news. In that case, who should punish the president for spreading false information? Who exactly has implanted the wrong ideas in the president’s head? Who is more responsible? Should it be the person who wrote up the speech or the press that dutifully reported the president’s humbug?

In the beginning, I did not agree with punishing people over fake news. There have been instances in which the country was rocked by false reports, it’s true, such as rumors about mad cow disease. A clampdown on fake news could victimize the genuine truth-tellers and fact-gatherers. But I may have to change my mind if the government is so determined to publish its own fake news, including news spread by the president.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 17, Page 30
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