Financial blogger's arrest tests Korea's progress on human rights

The government has charged Park Dae-sung with spreading false rumors that cost the country billions.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The global economic crisis has resulted in the arrests of high-flying financial wizards on charges of stealing billions, caused economic suffering for millions, and sent thousands into bankruptcy.

Now, in this hard-driving society, touted for a "miracle" economy, the plunge has claimed its unlikeliest victim.

He's an Internet blogger whose offense was to forecast doom and gloom laced with acerbic criticism of the government of President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative with a background in big business.

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The blogger, who spread his often accurate and negative estimates under the code name Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, sits in a tiny cell awaiting his first hearing this week on charges of spreading false rumors that prosecutors say hurt the economy to the tune of billions of dollars.

At stake, though, is not so much whether Minerva, a junior college graduate with no professional credentials, skewed the economy as whether Korea may reverse 22 years of advances in human rights.

"He says the government is not reliable, is not honest and is corrupted," says his lawyer, Park Chan-jong. "He wrote on the Internet the truth. The mainstream of his writing is true."

The blogger was able to forecast the demise of Lehman Brothers five days before its collapse, and his blog garnered 40 million hits before his arrest Jan. 7.

But prosecutors say Minerva – who never wrote under his real name, Park Dae-sung, but claims sole responsibility for his musings – exercised a "grave influence" on the foreign-exchange market by falsely claiming that the government was asking banks not to buy dollars. The result, they say, was market unrest responsible for the depletion of foreign-exchange reserves to the tune of $2 billion.

Mr. Park, or Minerva, is regarded as enough of a risk for a court to have denied him bail at his indictment last week on the grounds that he might try to destroy the evidence against him. He hopes to win freedom this week, however, before a judge who specializes in economic cases. The maximum term could be five years.

Minerva's lawyer, Mr. Park, who ran a distant fourth for president on a human rights platform in 1992, sees the government as the party that's really on trial.

"Our history of democratization goes back only 60 years," he says, harking back to the founding of the Republic of Korea in August 1948.

"Until 22 years ago, we had military regimes," he goes on, alluding to promulgation of Korea's "democracy" Constitution after massive demonstrations in June 1987. He says a succession of liberal presidents "upgraded" democracy but under President Lee "it is a little less upgraded."

Foreign lawyers here tend to agree. The case "does highlight how Korea still differs from the US," says Tom Pinansky, a long-time corporate lawyer here. "In Korea there is still this strong emotional component to these sorts of things."

Brendon Carr, another American lawyer with a lengthy background here, sees the case as a disturbing throwback to deep-seated authoritarian impulses.

"The story on Minerva is [that] Korea is a democratic state with certain fascist impulses," says Mr. Carr. "The basic complaint is that Korea has a high-handed, undemocratic government."

Minerva's "crime," Carr says, is that of "essentially embarrassing the government."

Minerva himself follows his case with wonderment from behind bars. "I never dreamed what I wrote would be popular," he said in remarks published by JoongAng Ilbo, a leading newspaper. "I never expected any impact whatsoever. I am really shocked."

He scoffs at claims his writing was against the national interest. "Patriotism," he says, quoting Oscar Wilde, "is the virtue of the vicious."

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