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Cyber bullies reign in South Korea

When someone runs afoul of popular opinion in South Korea, they risk being the target of nasty online campaigns, which apparently have led to some suicides. A movement has started to push civility.

January 01, 2010|By John M. Glionna

Reporting from Seoul — When German-born fashion journalist Vera Hohleiter poked fun in print at the smell of kimchi and the short skirts of South Korean women, the cyber response was swift and nasty.

Incensed Seoul Internet users flooded her blog with insults, calling her a racist and a Nazi, and demanded that she leave their country immediately.

"For weeks, I went everywhere by taxi," said Hohleiter, 30, whose perceived transgressions were contained in a 2008 book, "Sleepless in Seoul," her memoir about a foreign woman hopelessly in love with a young Korean man. "I just didn't want to be confronted with this growing public anger."

Hohleiter is among the latest victims of South Korea's combative and often destructive Internet phenomenon -- personal cyber attacks.

In recent years, celebrities, authors and ordinary South Koreans have been subjected to relentless online assaults -- at times with disastrous, or even lethal, effects.

In 2007, a 16-year-old high school student killed herself following repeated Internet bullying that came after she appeared on a TV show to describe how she lost 90 pounds in three months.

Many Net users reportedly became angry because the teen appeared with a popular actor, analysts say. Miffed that they had never had the chance to meet the celebrity themselves, they attacked her.

Most South Korean cyber bullies are teenagers hiding behind the cloak of Internet anonymity, analysts say, products of a highly regimented culture in which the young are discouraged from speaking their minds with parents, teachers and bosses. At home in their rooms, they let loose, often at the slightest provocation.

Other nations endure outspoken and reckless bloggers and Internet posters. But in South Korea, where government statistics show that 99% of citizens between the ages of 10 and 39 use the Internet, cyber thugs carry inordinate social weight.

In recent months, several South Korean celebrities have committed suicide, in part because of vicious rumors spread about them on the Internet, according to press reports here.

Many here now temper their public statements out of fear of the Net.

And efforts are underway to rein in the barrages, including proposed legislation aimed at governing Internet behavior as well as social programs to encourage civility.

The bill, to punish those who "insult" others on the Internet with up to three years in jail or a $30,000 fine, was proposed after a popular actress committed suicide last year. But it has languished since critics questioned whether it would stifle freedom of expression.

Min Byoung-chul, a professor of English at Konkuk University in Seoul, cites the society's hypercompetitiveness as a key factor in online prickliness.

"Many assume cyberspace is not inhabited by people with real feelings who can really be hurt," he said.

He recently encouraged his students to post 10 positive remarks in Internet chat rooms and founded the Sunfull movement, which aims to reduce anonymous derogatory online messages.

The group sponsors a monthly Sunfull day, which inspires as many as 300,000 positive Internet posts by high school and university students. The organization also seeks to make the Guinness World Records for the longest string of positive Internet comments.

"I was alarmed at the level of maliciousness on the Internet," Min said. "Many people enjoy hearing about how much damage has been done to the target person. There needs to be more civility."

That hasn't happened yet.

In November, appearing on a popular TV talk show, a Seoul college student expressed an opinion that "short men are losers."

Within hours, Internet users had tracked down the woman's home page address and graduation photos. Tagging her "Loser Girl," they made her posts public on her university's website and on shopping and plastic surgery sites.

The woman soon closed her page on a Korean social networking site and issued an apology. Like others, she declines to speak publicly for fear of further provoking Net users.

Previously, there was the woman who didn't clean up her dog's mess on a subway. Her picture, snapped by a fellow commuter, was posted on the Internet.

Within days, Web users revealed her identity, including her age, contact numbers and recent test scores. She reportedly quit school to evade the scrutiny.

Emigre journalist Hohleiter says she has tried to ignore the angry posts, which she says resulted from a poor translation by a Korean college student in Germany of passages from her book.

The translation, she said, failed to capture the irony of her work. For example, she said, her comparison of Korean commuters to hamsters came out as her calling all Koreans rats.

Hohleiter has since published her book in Korean to let readers here decide for themselves.

But while she may no longer receive cyber threats, she said, the bullies may have had an unintended effect among her fellow Germans.

"After reading the backlash," she said, "many readers say they're not sure they want to visit this country after all."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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