Dec 18, 2008

World - South Korea;False God ?

BACK in September a message appeared on an online bulletin board owned by Daum, the most popular web host in a country, South Korea, with a huge internet culture. Written by someone called “Minerva”, it predicted the imminent collapse of Lehman Brothers, a now-defunct investment bank.

Wild speculation is normally disregarded, but when it proved to be right just five days later, a prophet was born. Word raced through the “netizen” community, and when Minerva went on to predict that the Korean won would fall against the dollar by around 50 won a day in the first half of the week of October 6th, his followers began to watch the currency markets in anticipation. The won did indeed fall by about that much over the next three days.

Minerva became an internet phenomenon, with 40m-odd hits to date. Web-users combed through previous posts, looking for prognostications, and clues about his identity. Sharp comments on the state of the Korean economy and government policy only increased his standing. The media now call him “the Internet Economic President”.

The administration of President Lee Myung-bak is frequently accused of authoritarianism by opponents, so it came as little surprise when the finance minister, Kang Man-soo, admitted that officials had attempted to uncover the blogger’s identity. Some people believe him to be a senior figure in a financial firm. Others think he may even be a civil servant undermining the government from inside. All Minerva has revealed is that he is a man in his 50s.

With the government on his tail, the Minerva case is no longer just about economic prescience. As one equity analyst in Seoul puts it, “The real issue about Minerva is the government’s action…we are not in the 1970s or 1980s!” During that period South Korea was ruled by a military dictatorship, and freedom of speech curtailed.

For now, given the state of Korea’s economy—the central bank slashed rates again this week—Minerva’s identity has taken a back seat to his more recent predictions. He says the KOSPI 100 stockmarket index, now over 1,000, will drop to 500, and the value of flats in Seoul will fall by half. Such a bearish prospect may appear outlandish but, unlike Cassandra, Minerva has many believers.

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