"Witch hunting" on the web. The latest Korean fad?

SEOUL, South Korea — One day you wake up to find your personal life plastered all over the web — photographs of your school days, anonymous comments you made on websites and images of your Facebook page. What do you do?

Most South Koreans would advise you to “disappear” for a while. When a university student, who was recently attacked in such a way, responded by posting more things on the web, it only served to fuel the fire. 

The student, dubbed “loser girl” by the public, found herself in the web spotlight after appearing on a popular television show, saying: “I don’t want to go out with men under 180 centimeters … . Short guys are losers.” She tried to apologize, but her efforts led to further cyber-attacks.

South Korea, the most wired country in the world, has been at the forefront of many internet-related problems — such as internet addiction. Now that South Korea is experiencing an escalating number of these cyber-attacks, dubbed "witch-hunting" by the local media, it finds itself again on the cusp of a troubling trend. This, more violent, internet-related problem challenges law enforcement jurisdictions and demands fast answers.

Despite the flurry of comments — some, particularly ill-minded against the student, like, “I guess the next news we’ll be hearing is about the loser girl committing suicide” — the case ultimately fizzled, with the television program issuing an apology for not filtering their content before airing it.

The word “loser” soon became a buzzword, and many web users added humor to the case by circulating postings related to successful men who are under 180 centimeters. “Is it Tom Cruiser and Martine Loser King then?” read some of the postings playing on the Korean pronunciation of the word loser.

But the fiasco also made people question whether web sabotage should go unaddressed. Earlier this year a popular boy-band leader, who is Korean-American, was forced to leave his team after someone dug up a posting he had made on MySpace speaking in negative light about Koreans.

“The laws for these types of actions on the web in this country are actually all in place,” said Choung Wan, a professor at Kyunghee University’s Law School. Choung believes Korea is four or five years ahead of other countries in terms of experiencing unhealthy practices on the web, but he also thinks a lot more can be done.

“It’s true that the victims lack education on legal means they can take,” Choung said. South Korea currently has a heavier sentence on cyber defamation than regular defamation crimes and those found guilty of cyber stalking can face up to a year in prison or a fine of roughly $10,000.

The number of violent, cyber-related crimes has almost tripled over the past five years to 13,819 cases in 2008, according to the country’s Cyber Terror Response Center.

Over the years, South Korea has seen a jump in cyber-related deaths with a number of celebrity suicides caused by malicious postings on the web making headlines. However, there has yet to be a high-profile case in which a victim of cyberbullying has taken his or her attacker to the courts.

Unlike Korea, in the U.S., a case involving a 50-year-old woman and a teenager who took her own life went to federal courts as the country’s first cyber-bullying case. The case gained nationwide attention and prompted states that lacked appropriate laws to draft legislation that directly addressed cyberbullying.

Countries in Europe are also waking up to the dangers of cyber-bullying and launching public campaigns to raise awareness.

The nature of cyber witch hunting in Korea slightly differs from Western cyber-bullying. In Korea it is a pack mentality that drives web sabotage, rather than acquaintances of the victim taking action, but the scale of the cyber assaults — blogs, chatrooms, popular web forums — is what heightens the pressure.

“A lot of times [in Korea] people can’t say things upfront, but they easily ride along with others if they’re anonymous,” Choung said.

Added to the problem is the fact that often the victims are in a culture that is more reluctant to take legal steps to solve their problems.

“People do tend to just put up with what they’re going through,” Choung said.