The Korea Herald


Cyber community jolted by FTA rumors

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 13, 2011 - 19:47

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Quelling of online discussion of FTA criticized as counter-productive

As Korea looks to ratify a Free Trade Agreement with the United States, rumors continue to spread on the Internet about disastrous consequences experienced by other countries that have sealed trade pacts with the U.S.

The main claim is that the trade deal, once it takes effect, will raise medical expenses.

According to the claims, simple operations such as appendectomies will cost as much as 9 million won ($7,993) and cough medicine up to 100,000 won.

They argue Mexico became a de facto subject of the U.S. after ratifying the North American Free Trade Agreement, and spread false rumors that the Mexican president had to flee for his life.

Others said that Bolivia suffered from rapid growth in water bills and that its people had to save rainwater for their daily use. The U.S. and Bolivia, however, have never ratified a free trade agreement with one another. Bolivia’s third-largest city, Cochabamba, did experience a drastic increase in water rates, but due to an issue unconnected with U.S. trade. 
Anti-U.S. FTA protest (Yonhap News) Anti-U.S. FTA protest (Yonhap News)

As the range and intensity of these stories showed no sign of abating the prosecutors’ office declared last week it would regulate the circulation of FTA-related myths as well as protests it deemed excessive.

Officials said they would arrest those who intentionally circulate false information through social networking services, considering the magnitude of its influence.

Government departments also rushed to deny the rumors about the FTA.

“Medicine is not subject to the FTA and will not be affected by its ratification,” said the Health Ministry’s spokesperson.

The government’s responses, however, faced harsh criticism from opponents of the trade deal.

“Should the FTA be ratified, the medical expenses of for-profit hospitals in free economic zones are expected to soar by up to 400 percent,” said Seoul National University veterinary professor Woo Hee-jong.

“The 8-million-won-for-appendectomies story is therefore not totally groundless.”

He also blasted the government for attempting to stifle such stories, without offering any solutions to calm public fears.

“The FTA talks should be laid out and discussed in an open forum,” said Han Sang-hee, professor at Konkuk University’s Law School.

“It is against the principles of democracy for authorities to attack such discussions using criminal penalties.”

Many citizens were intimidated and infuriated by the rumors.

“I usually have little interest in progressive groups’ claims and was not much involved in the FTA debates,” said Lee Jung-ho, a 55-year-old Seoul citizen who supports the conservative camp.

“However, I started to doubt the trade deal as these rumors, should they turn out to be true, would directly affect my life.”

Internet experts also expressed concerns about the influence of online rumors, especially on Twitter.

“I am familiar with the adverse effects of the internet but am nevertheless worried about the use of Twitter these days,” said Kim Yu-sik, head of DC Inside, a representative online community.

“The online bulletin boards, despite their mudslinging and malicious responses, involve a minimum level of two-way communication, that is claims and rebuttals.”

He said Twitter allowed rapid and efficient delivery of information and opinion, but did not offer much ground to dissenters. But he added that attempts to stifle debate were counter-productive.

“A tightly regulated society is easily carried away by urban myths, which explains why there are so many horror stories related to schools and college entrance exams in Korea,” Kim said.

“Regardless of the veracity of the stories, these ominous online rumors will continue to spread, should authorities curb them without offering people the chance to properly exchange opinions about the issue.“

By Bae Hyun-jung (