A growing number of Korean users are migrating to foreign mobile messenger services in what is seen as "cyberexile" after the country's prosecution threatened to step up real-time monitoring of social media to crack down on libelous rumours.
The prosecution's much-disputed clampdown on online rumours and mobile messages came last week shortly after President Park Geun-hye blasted groundless online accusations, arguing that those malicious postings would divide the public and damage social cohesion.
Park's criticism is linked to the prosecution's unprecedented move to investigate a Japanese journalist for allegedly writing libelous reports on the South Korean president's whereabouts on the day the Sewol ferry sank in April.
As public outcry rose against the prosecution's move, the prosecution claimed its monitoring would be limited to malicious commentators on major portals, not messenger services.
But Korean users remain sceptical about its official stance and expressed fear their private messages on mobile apps such as Kakao Talk would be closely monitored by authorities.
The prosecution plans to investigate and, if necessary, indict those who write malicious comments online, even if the injured parties do not file for libel.
The greatest beneficiary of the sweeping online monitoring and potential criminal investigations by authorities is a Russian-made messaging app named Telegram.
In the past week, the app has gained rapid popularity among Korean smartphone users who believe such foreign apps are relatively safe from the government's prying eyes.
Telegram was chiefly designed to avoid the tight monitoring of Russian security authorities. Whatever is talked about on it is not stored in the company's main servers and is strictly encrypted, which makes it difficult for outsiders to covertly monitor the content of messages.
This week, the app rose rapidly on the popularity lists of local smartphone app markets, underscoring growing public fears about state interference in cyberspace. To allow Koreans to use Telegram more conveniently, the app is preparing to offer Korean language services in the near future.
Due to the sense of security Telegram offers, many people in the Korean stock market have already begun using it, multiple sources said. Financial industry workers have apparently shunned Korean messenger programmes as any suspicious trading through local messengers is subject to state censorship.
The bulletin boards for Telegram users have been filled with frustration and anger with some calling the Seoul government "Big Brother." In particular, they claimed that with the crackdown on online libel, they felt like they were in North Korea.
"(We are) not in North Korea. Is South Korea a democratic state?" said a netizen on the Telegram online review board.
Another netizen said, "Let's go to Telegram where the values of human rights and freedom are secured. Another pointed out, "Korean society is moving forward while Korean politics appear to be retrogressing."
The so-called cyberexile has triggered concerns among local mobile messenger providers including KaKao Talk and Naver's Line, as they might be the victims of the government's move to clean up malicious comments online and mobile platforms ― a Herculean task given the fragmented nature of the Internet and the massive volume of messages churned out on various channels.
Kakao Talk officials argued that given some 6 billion messages a day are exchanged through its messenger programme, it is impossible for the state to keep track of all the messages. They also stressed that without any due legal procedures including securing a search warrant, the prosecution would not be able to monitor private messages online.