South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, the leader of one of the world’s most wired nations, is facing a barrage of online scaremongering and criticism over his decision to resume US beef imports.
The presidential Blue House has been forced to deny a spate of rumors spread by the Internet or mobile phone texts about the supposed dangers of mad cow disease — including a claim that diapers contain dangerous US beef proteins.
“First human death from mad cow disease reported on May 2” and “Consuming just 0.01 gram of US beef will kill you” are among the other groundless rumors circulating among schoolchildren and others.
Another text message from an unknown source claims that Lee, born in Japan’s Osaka city, is seeking to yield the disputed Dokdo islets to Japan.
The messages fan anger among teenagers against the president, who took office in February and, ironically, vowed to make young people more Internet-savvy.
Lee’s Grand National Party (GNP) was alarmed at a survey this week that put his support rate at below 30 percent, a record low for a new president, the JoongAng Daily reported.
A web petition launched last month seeking Lee’s impeachment has received more than 1 million signatures. It has no legal effect.
Lee’s online homepage was paralyzed by users who bombarded it with messages protesting against the beef deal.
On the eve of a summit with US President George W. Bush last month, Seoul agreed to lift its intermittent ban on US beef, imposed in 2003 over mad cow concerns.
Opening the beef market is an essential precondition for US approval of a separate and sweeping free-trade pact. But Lee was accused of rushing into the beef deal at the risk of public health.
Rumors about the perils of mad cow disease, accompanied by murky videos purportedly showing infected cows, have been spreading fast through the Internet and mobile messaging.
Thousands of people, mostly in their teens, have attended candlelit vigils demanding the scrapping of the beef deal.
“During breaks in class, mad cow perils are the main topic these days,” one teenage participant said.
Chosun Ilbo newspaper quoted a government official as saying the situation was starting to take on an anti-US hue — just like in 2002, when the death of two schoolgirls accidentally hit by a US military vehicle led to a wave of anti-American protests.
The government has launched online and on-air campaigns to calm the public, saying mad cow fears are totally groundless.
“There is not a single case or shred of evidence to support the claims,” the Blue House Web site says.
At a meeting of top officials and GNP leaders yesterday, South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo said the beef issue was being exploited by politicians.
“The government will sternly deal with those seeking to create instability by spreading groundless rumors and staging illegal protests,” Han said.
Journalism professor Ahn Dong-Geun of Hanyang University said many teenagers easily absorb groundless rumors as facts.
“It seems like they are swept away by mob psychology,” he was quoted as telling the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper.
Sociology professor Chun Sangchin of Sogang University has said the government is also to blame for failing to explain its decision to open the beef market.