Producers of the TV drama "Tamna, the Island," which was originally intended to be a 20-part series, decided to terminate the program after the 16th episode due to ratings plunging to less than 5 percent. But when fans found out, they launched a cyber petition drive, took out newspaper ads and held rallies in Yeoeuido and Gwanghwamun to protest. The fans raved about French actor Pierre Deporte, one of the leads. Internet message boards are filled with praise for Deporte, calling him "a gem of an actor" and "Prince Charming."
Even three or four years ago, it was unimaginable to see foreigners play the lead in a historical drama and for viewers to get so worked up about them. The Korean public now seem to accept foreigners in society as part of their own extended family. But is it safe to assume that a long-standing obsession with ethnic homogeneity has disappeared?
The cyber lynching that has taken place over the last few days tells a different story. Scathing comments posted on Internet message boards about Park Jae-beom, the Korean-American leader of the popular boy band 2PM, were reminiscent of fanatical nationalism. Park became the target of public rage when comments he posted on social networking website MySpace four years ago, while he was an understudy at JYP Entertainment, come back to haunt him. "Korea is gay. I hate Koreans. I wanna come back," he wrote in the peculiar argot of the website.
Among some of the tens of thousands of comments targeting Park were, "Jae-beom is just another American who just came to Korea to make money," or "U.S. citizens who don't even serve their military duties should hurry up and go back home." Other comments compared Park to Yoo Seung-jun, another Korean-American pop singer who was deported in 2002 after he became a naturalized U.S. citizen, drawing accusations that he did so to dodge the draft.
Using expletives on the Internet is a common weakness among adolescents. Park used to be a street dancer. His comments, which were written in English, are demeaning, and even though he was young, he should have been more careful with his words and actions if he hoped to become a star in Korea.
But the real problem is our Internet culture, which is unprincipled and fickle. A word or sentence taken out of context spread through the Internet and led to a virtual social death sentence for Park. When he quit the boy band four days after the scandal erupted, another set of comments he posted four years ago began to spread on the Internet. "I got a new idea. I want to live in Korea for about a year. Not as an understudy at JYP, but as an ordinary Korean. I want to see what this place is like." Predictably, public sentiment is now turning in his favor. Park, a teen who was not fluent in Korean but hoped to become a singer, probably never dreamed he would end up leaving this country because of some careless complaint he made four years ago. And he probably feels even more confused to see the growing expressions of sympathy.
Allegations of plagiarism are disproportionately frequent in Korean pop music, but no singer has ever retired because of them. Many celebrities bounce back into the spotlight after getting caught taking drugs, gambling and even after causing deadly traffic accidents. But singers like Yoo and Park, who get entangled in problems involving the Korean nation or mandatory military service, must kiss their careers goodbye forever.
There is no doubt that Park made a mistake. But his cyber lynching demonstrates a lack of maturity among the Korean public, which can get incensed by a few words written by an unhappy teenager who was struggling to make it big in the entertainment industry. Perhaps a pride in Korean culture strong enough to permit acceptance and love of a foreigner starring in a historical drama goes hand in hand with resentment of Korean Americans whose citizenship appears to give them special privileges.
Perhaps public sentiment is being led by a few Internet warriors who confuse national pride with xenophobia. The departure of one young pop singer leaves many questions open.
By Choi Seung-hyun from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk