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Prescient Young Blogger Did What S. Korea Couldn't -- Foresee Global Financial Crisis

Before police sniffed him out in his bedroom, then-Finance Minister Kang Man-soo publicly demanded that Minerva step out of the shadows for a "face-to-face, down-to-earth talk" with him. (Kang was fired this week, another victim of the lousy economy.)

While Minerva was forecasting doom, government officials spent much of the early autumn inaccurately forecasting moderate market disruption and continued growth. They groused a lot about unpatriotic market speculators.

President Lee Myung-bak, whom Minerva's blog mocked and insulted, warned in early October that currency traders must stop "greedily pursuing private interests" when their nation is in trouble.

Lee, who marks his first anniversary in office next month, has had a memorably awful year.

Before the economy tanked in the fall, his leadership was weakened by months of street protests against his decision to import U.S. beef. The public was, for a time, thrown into a panic by media and online reports that American beef would spread mad cow disease.

The detention of Park has further undermined Lee's popularity, according to Hwang Sang-min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University in Seoul. In recent weeks, Lee's approval ratings have fallen into the mid-teens, according to newspaper polls.

"Legal niceties aside, the public thinks Minerva was arrested by the president because he could not tolerate a challenge to this authority," said Hwang, author of several books on South Korean popular culture. "The arrest weakens the authority of the government."

Even the legal niceties of Park's arrest seem shaky.

Prosecutors claim that one of his postings is clearly false. The government issued an emergency order Dec. 29, Minerva wrote, urging top banks to stop buying dollars. The government has denied issuing the order, but a number of currency traders have told the South Korean media that the government did urge banks that day to refrain from buying dollars.

Park's detention has also upset civil liberties groups. They say it is a worrisome symptom of an immature democratic culture.

"His crime was to have a large following and to make the government look bad," said Song Ho-chang, an attorney with Lawyers for a Democratic Society. "If a court does find Minerva guilty, everyone will be afraid to express an opinion online."

Lee's government tried last year to use the "false rumors" communications law against anti-U.S. beef activists who had used cellphone messages to recruit protesters for street demonstrations. A judge dismissed the charges.

Park is expected to face trial within a month or two. He has told his attorney, Park Chan-jong, that he is bewildered by his sudden celebrity and frightened by the prospect of imprisonment.

"I feel quite lost right now," his attorney quoted Park as saying. "It is scary that I can only talk to you with my handcuffs on."

Special correspondent Stella Kim contributed to this report.


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