The Persecution of Daniel Lee
An Internet smear campaign nearly destroyed the South Korean star, but he fought back with the only weapon he had: the truth.
Photo: Timothy Archibald; Hair and makeup: Veronica Sjoen/Artist Untied
By Joshua Davis
On August 19, 2010, Dan Lee stood on the steps of Meyer Library and pointed to a nearby patch of grass.
"The Rodin statue," he said nervously. "It was here."
The Korean television crew following him noted that there was nothing there, just a well-mowed lawn. Students on bikes zipped past, paying no attention to the cameras or the skinny, dark-haired 30-year-old they were filming. In Seoul, it was hard for Lee to walk down the street without being mobbed. To Koreans, he was known as Tablo, a chart-topping rapper who was also married to one of the country's most prominent movie stars. Until recently, he had been one of Korea's biggest celebrities. Now his career was in tatters, he'd parted ways with his record label, and his family was receiving death threats.
The reason? Hundreds of thousands of Koreans refused to believe that Lee, '02, MA '02, graduated from Stanford.
The cameraman for the television crew closed in on Lee as he looked at the empty lawn. They were here to document for Korean national TV whether or not Lee was a liar.
"It's not here anymore," Lee said, staring at the spot where he knew The Thinker had been. He rubbed his face and wondered if maybe he was going crazy.
When the program aired two months later in Korea, this was the opening moment.
In 2001, when Lee told his parents that he was going to be a hip-hop musician, they were horrified. They were thinking doctor or lawyer, not rapper. In Korea at the time, hip-hop was not a popular genre. The music scene was dominated by attractive young people assembled into groups by record labels. They belted out sugary sweet songs—dubbed K-Pop—and strived to sound upbeat and happy. Critics saw no room for a guy who produced his own lyrically complex music, particularly when it dealt with issues like discrimination and class warfare.
Lee formed a band with two other musicians. They called themselves Epik High and released their first album—Map of the Human Soul—in 2003. It begins with a swirl of harps and what sounds like a 1950s-era ballroom dance class: "We're now going to progress to some steps which are a bit more difficult," an instructor says in English. Then there's an explosion of lyrics, beats and a dense overlay of sounds.
It was infectious and Epik High went on to release seven albums during the next seven years—an astounding burst of productivity. Five of those albums reached No. 1 on the Korean charts and they scored six No. 1 singles. As if that weren't enough, Lee published a collection of short stories in both English and Korean in 2008. It sold 50,000 copies in its first week and became a bestseller in Korea.
Lee's music had such broad appeal that he began to attract fans outside of Korea. He launched a series of U.S. tours starting in 2006, playing Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. In March 2010, Epik High became the first Korean group to reach No. 1 on the iTunes U.S. hip-hop sales charts, topping Jay-Z, Kayne West and the Black Eyed Peas. Korean hip-hop had broken through.
It seemed like a modern fairy tale, complete with a match made in celebrity heaven. In 2009, Lee married Kang Hye Jung, a beautiful actress with a string of hit movies. Celebrity blogs in Korea breathlessly reported news of the wedding in October 2009 and hundreds posted comments of support.
"OMG!!!!!! CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!!!" one fan wrote deliriously. "OMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMG."
"Way to break a girl's heart," wrote another more ominously.
In the summer of 2010, Korea was reeling from a streak of fake diploma scandals. It began in 2007, when the chief curator of a modern art museum in Seoul was found to have fabricated her Yale PhD. (It didn't help that Yale initially confirmed the degree.) She was jailed for 18 months on forgery charges, and a nationwide hunt for other offenders ensued. Prosecutors investigated at least 120 cases of diploma fraud, ensnaring celebrities, politicians and even a monk.
"There are definitely more people out there," one of the prosecutors told the Bloomberg news service in 2007. "We just can't spot them."
While this was happening, Lee regularly appeared on Korean television shows and was asked about his credentials. He said that he had not only graduated from Stanford in 3 ½ years, but that he also had received a master's degree in that time. He said he had written his book, Pieces of You, while he was an undergrad and that he had received a creative writing award for one of the stories from author and Stanford professor Tobias Wolff, MA '78.
In May 2010, a group of Internet users created an online forum titled "We Request the Truth from Tablo," better known by its Korean acronym TaJinYo. The group didn't buy Lee's story. They started referring to him as "God-blo" because only God could have accomplished as much as Lee. The members of the group participated anonymously and attacked Lee from behind user names such as Whatbecomes and Spongebobo.
To many in Korea, TaJinYo's questions were legitimate. For instance, it usually takes four years to complete a bachelor's degree. A master's normally takes another two. Students typically also write a thesis to attain a master's and yet Lee said that he never wrote one.
Lee hesitated to respond. The whole thing was absurd to him. He was a musician. What did his degree matter?
To his detractors, it mattered a lot. "What is it good for in rapping? Nothing," says Hyungjin Ahn, a vocal critic. "But Koreans still said, 'Wow, he is great. If we listen to his rap, we could get in touch with something genius and holy.' Mothers in Korea worshipped him. He was a role model for every child in Korea at that time."
Entertainment gossip sites reported the existence of the anti-Tablo site and membership swelled to nearly 200,000, many of whom launched their own investigations into Lee's past. Tobias Wolff and Stanford registrar Thomas Black were barraged by emails from Koreans who questioned Lee's educational background. Black alone received 133 emails on the subject. Everybody wanted to know one thing: Was Lee lying?
When online hecklers started to criticize his wife for marrying him, Lee realized something had to be done to protect his family's reputation. On June 11, he released his transcript to the JoonAng Daily, a newspaper in Seoul. That same week, Black issued an official letter.
"Daniel Seon Woong Lee entered Stanford University in the Autumn Quarter of 1998-99 and graduated with a BA in English and an MA in English in 2002. Any suggestions, speculations or innuendos to the contrary are patently false. Daniel Seon Woong Lee is an alumnus in good standing of Stanford University."
That should have been the end of it. Instead, it was just the beginning.
As the members of TaJinYo began to dissect Lee's public statements and dig further into his past, an elaborate conspiracy theory took hold. Forum members were willing to accept that a man named Dan Lee graduated from Stanford, but they weren't willing to accept that the rapper they knew as Tablo was the same person. They argued that Tablo had taken over Dan Lee's identity in order to parlay a Stanford credential into fame and fortune.
"He just paid a lot of money to do this, lied about it and still became famous," one forum member told a Korean TV crew, who blurred her face. "It represents a total loss of hope for people who work hard."
The conspiracy theorists did not just accuse Lee, they implicated his entire family. An anonymous researcher uncovered a newspaper clipping from 1995 that stated that Lee's mother had won a gold medal at an international hairstyling competition in 1968. The researcher posted it online and pointed out that Lee's mother did not actually win the medal, implying that Lee's family had been lying about their achievements for decades.
"Can anybody give me the phone number of Tablo's mom's hair salon?" wrote one Internet user. "I would like to ask her how it feels to be a criminal."
Lee's mother began to receive threatening phone calls. At a family dinner, she answered her cell phone and heard a man's voice. "You're a whore," he said. "You and your family should leave Korea."
The attacks spread. Posts appeared that questioned Lee's brother David, who had begun a master's at Columbia but never finished. A researcher found a web page that indicated that David had completed the master's and calls flooded into the public broadcasting channel in Seoul where he worked. He was fired.
David's home address and phone numbers were published and he also started to receive worrisome calls. One caller threatened to stab him to death for his alleged transgressions. The tenor of the anonymous mob was turning decidedly more violent.
"If #blobyblo doesn't leave Korea, something bad might happen to him," one heckler warned on Twitter, referring to Lee by his Twitter handle.
Lee felt that his recording label, Woolim Entertainment, was doing little to counter the accusations against him and his family. "We have nothing to say about allegations against Tablo that he had fake education qualifications," the agency stated on June 7. Two days later, it publicly pledged to help, but Lee felt that his representatives never followed through. He left the label later that month.
"It broke my heart," he says. "They abandoned me."
In the midst of the controversy, Lee's wife gave birth to their first child. It was a moment of joy, but as Lee walked the corridors of the hospital, he saw people looking at him coldly and he panicked.
"Since my attackers were all anonymous, there was no way for me to know who was after me," Lee says. "I didn't know if the doctor, who's putting needles in my baby, is one of those people. It was terrifying."
On the streets, strangers would shout at him, calling him a liar and a cheat. "It was like I had stepped into the middle of a modern-day witch hunt," he says.
Lee stopped going out—the environment had become too hostile. Still, he did his best to respond to the attacks. Fifteen years prior, Lee's mother had contacted the author of the newspaper article that incorrectly stated that she had won the medal. She had told him that it was an error and he apologized. Now the reporter issued a statement confirming the mistake and Lee forwarded it to the press.
He also tried to explain that his brother did not maintain the web page that indicated he had completed a master's. Whoever had typed the information made the error. Lee pointed to other online résumés that correctly stated David's credentials.
The conspiracy theorists online dismissed all this as simply part of the conspiracy. They argued that the reporter had been paid to defend Lee and didn't believe that the error in David's résumé was accidental. Lee's efforts to answer their questions were turned into evidence of how far he was willing to go to defend his false identity.
Part of their suspicion stemmed from the fact that Lee is not actually a Korean citizen. When he was 8, his family had moved to Canada; he became a Canadian citizen when he was 12. That meant he was exempt from compulsory military service, even while his two Epik High bandmates were drafted. Many forum commenters interpreted this as yet another example of how Lee had gamed the system.
The doubters scored what they believed was a major victory when they discovered a man on Facebook named Daniel Lee who got a degree from Stanford in 2002. This Daniel Lee lived in Wisconsin and worked as a mechanical engineer. Tablo, they claimed, had stolen his identity.
In the registrar's office, Black fielded a series of emails about this allegation. The truth: Two Daniel Lees received Stanford degrees in 2002. One got a BA and master's in English and became a rapper in Korea; the other got a master's in mechanical engineering and works at a product design firm in Wisconsin.
"One day I started getting random emails from people in Korea who were violently angry at me for allowing some rapper to steal my identity," says the other Daniel Lee, laughing at the recollection. "I had no idea what they were talking about."
Black repeatedly confirmed that Daniel Lee the English major was a graduate in good standing but that only seemed to create more agitation. Some emailed to question Black's integrity, suggesting that he was colluding with Lee. Black got angry. "These people don't want the truth," he says. "They dismiss everything that doesn't align with what they already believe."
Lee continued to fight back. On August 5, 2010, he released his Canadian citizenship certificate to the press. To his astonishment, he was promptly sued by four anonymous Koreans who charged him with forgery.
"I was doing everything they asked and it was never good enough," Lee says. "That's when I realized that they weren't looking for answers, they just wanted to destroy me."
Korean media widely reported the suit, which only served to further sow doubt about Lee's identity among the general population. Gossip-oriented celebrity sites pored over every detail of the charges; the mainstream press even covered the case. The fact that Stanford had officially confirmed Lee's diploma did not seem to check the flow of articles. By midsummer, Lee's travails had become one of the biggest news stories in the country.
Sean Lim, '01, MA '02, had a front-row seat to the drama. He was a morning news anchor for Arirang, an English-language network in Korea, and watched with horror as the story dominated the summer news. It was a surreal experience because he knew Lee wasn't lying: The two were friends from Stanford.
In fact, Lim could count himself as one of Lee's oldest fans. He lived with Lee in Okada, and was an enthusiastic member of the audience at the small dorm events Lee's first hip-hop group, 4n Objectz, played. So when people started to question Lee's background, Lim told everyone he could that Lee was a Stanford graduate.
"The problem was that it was just me and the people I ran into against the millions online," Lim says.
One man's word wasn't going to turn the tide so Lim contacted Kevin Woo, MS '92, the secretary of the Stanford Club of Korea. Lim asked the group to issue a statement in Korean vouching for Lee. He felt that part of the problem was that all of the evidence in support of Lee was in English and was coming from Stanford, an overseas source. Maybe if a trusted Korean organization such as the local alumni association took action, it would come in a form that ordinary Koreans could appreciate.
The president of the association, Joon Chung, MS '88, PhD '93, decided not to issue a statement. "It was an unusual situation," he says. "Some people believe it's not good to respond to irrationality."
According to Woo, Chung wanted to do something publicly to support Lee but alums in Korea warned him not to. These alums had never met Lee—he'd never attended an association meeting—so many felt that they couldn't be sure that he was who he said he was. They were afraid that their reputation as Stanford alumni in Korea would be tarnished if they erroneously vouched for the rapper.
Instead Chung sent an email to members urging them to take individual action on Lee's behalf. It would be up to each member to decide whether or not to do anything.
Lim was furious. "They left Dan hanging out to dry," he says. "They could have ended this but nobody wanted to get close to the fire."
It was an understandable fear. The online mob wanted blood, and anybody who stood up against them could incur their wrath. Lim himself admits he struggled with the decision to help. He had a job in broadcasting and relied on public goodwill. He could endanger his career if he spoke out. "I'm ashamed to say that I thought twice about helping Dan," he says. "I saw what they were doing to him and I was scared."
Lim met with his old friend at an out-of-the-way coffee shop in July. Lee looked exhausted and said he hadn't been sleeping. He was depressed and his emotions were getting the better of him. Only months earlier, he had played sold-out concerts and was besieged by requests for autographs on the street. Now, he had to sneak around just to meet a friend. "I was contemplating whether my life was actually worth living," Lee says.
Lim realized there was no choice: He had to do something. He started emailing friends from Lee's days at Stanford and, collectively, 22 of them formed a Facebook page in support of Lee.
"I don't want the memories Dan, I, and others shared to be erased by people seeking to prove that he never went to Stanford," wrote Eddy (Chi) Qi, '01. "Memories including him taking my drunk and occasionally vomiting self (once on his shoe) back to my dorm after a party."
"I remember suffering through some rough early performances at the AASA [Asian American Students' Association] talent shows and am glad to know his talent eventually caught up to his enthusiasm," wrote Tipatat Chennavasin, '00.
Although the Korean press reported that Lee's Stanford friends were rallying around him, TaJinYo members refused to believe it was real. Kang Han, '02, a friend from Lee's freshman year and the first to post on the Facebook site, received threats even though he lived in Los Angeles. "Watch your back," one person messaged him. Another peppered him with emailed insults and called him a liar.
In Korea, Lim received a call from the prosecutor investigating the charges against Lee. He was asked to come to the division headquarters in Seoul and bring his Stanford diploma. When he arrived, an investigator took the diploma and held it up to the light to determine if it was a forgery.
"You've got to be kidding me," Lim said. "You want to test the paper too?"
The investigator looked at him without smiling and told him he was going to send the document over to the forensics department to test the paper.
"I started to understand how Dan felt," Lim says.
When the attacks on Tablo began in the spring of 2010, Ki Yeon Sung received more than 200 emails requesting that she investigate Lee. She was a seasoned producer with a show called PD Note, something akin to 60 Minutes in Korea, and explored topics such as politics, organized crime and corruption. Celebrity gossip wasn't her beat so she ignored the requests.
"We have more important things to worry about in Korea," she thought at the time.
The situation changed when the attacks grew to include anybody who offered evidence that supported Lee. Reporters and their managers who published stories disputing TaiJinYo claims about Lee were flooded with outraged emails, calls and demands for the reporter's resignation. Nobody wanted to be threatened so, according to Sung, reporters stopped adequately questioning the validity of the claims. As the story became one of the top news items in the country that summer, she saw that the mob was have a chilling effect on the coverage. That's when it became something worth worrying about.
Not that Sung necessarily believed Lee. It did seem unusual to her that Lee had accomplished so much, so fast, and she could understand how people might have doubts. Many students studied extraordinarily hard to get into a top school and then worked even harder to do well once they were there. Lee appeared to have breezed through Stanford in a short amount of time and come away with a master's on top of it. His story had the power to make people feel stupid.
The dominant conspiracy theory suggested that Lee had appropriated someone's identity, so Sung decided to challenge him directly on this point. If Lee was who he said he was, then he should be able to travel to California and request a transcript in person. If he got it, the mystery would be solved.
Lee accepted the challenge.
It was the first time Lee had been back to campus since graduation and a lot had changed. For one, the damn Rodin sculpture had been moved, and that had the potential to make him look like a liar on Korean national TV. (When not on loan to other institutions, The Thinker now resides in the Cantor Arts Center.)
Luckily, when he walked into the English department, student services manager Judy Candell recognized him and gave him a hug. She'd heard about his troubles. "I hope all this goes away," she said. "Because we believe in you."
The camera crew followed him to the registrar's office where Thomas Black was waiting. Lee pulled his diploma and transcript out of his backpack and laid them down on a table for Black to inspect. He also handed Black his passport. Black printed Lee's transcript off his own server, compared the two and checked Lee's name against the name listed in the passport.
"It's exactly the same," Black concluded, holding up the two transcripts. "Line for line, word for word."
The footage would air as part of a two-part special on MBC, one of Korea's four national networks. Lee was vindicated, but all he could feel was numbness.
"The people who are doing this to me will never stop," he said. "They just won't believe me no matter what I do."
Lee filed suit against 20 of his most virulent attackers. By October, the prosecutor investigating both his claims and the allegations against him determined that Lee was who he said he was. The prosecutor demanded that a Korean Internet site divulge the true identities of the 20 attackers. Whatbecomes, the leading agitator, was revealed as Eung Kim, a 57-year-old Korean-American businessman living in Chicago. Korean police asked him to report for questioning.
"I posted in a fair manner, so I will not answer the summons," he told them.
The police then issued an international warrant for his arrest, which he has defied now for months. On the TaJinYo forum, Kim questioned whether defamation was an international crime and vented his frustration at being unjustly targeted. "I am so angry they are treating me like a suspect when they have not confirmed I am a criminal," he wrote.
To outside observers, the case was closed. At a cabinet meeting, Korean President Lee Myung-bak stated that what happened to Lee was a "witch hunt that should never happen again." Ashton Kutcher, who follows Lee on Twitter, chimed in. "Time to kill the evil eye on this guy," he tweeted.
Lee, however, hasn't recovered. He's still afraid to go out in public and doesn't know if he'll ever be able to perform for an audience again. This May, he returned to Stanford to give a speech to the Asian American Students' Association. It was his first public appearance since the controversy erupted and even though it was a friendly crowd, Lee was paralyzed by stage fright, something he'd never experienced before. He felt nauseated throughout the talk and periodically had to pause to catch his breath. It reinforced his fear that he'd never be able to dominate a stage as he once did.
"Honestly, I'm damaged," he says. "And I don't know if I'll ever be better."
The crowd didn't seem to mind. After the speech, Lee was surprised to see a long line of people waiting for his autograph. He posed for pictures and seemed to relax. He smiled and, for a moment, there was a glimmer of hope.
JOSHUA DAVIS, '96, is a contributing editor at Wired and author of The Underdog (www.joshuadavis.net).
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Fantastic article, and congratulations on the article of the year award! It's strange what happens to people when a conspiracy is in the air. I hope Tablo is doing better these days. I'll have to check out some of his music and see if I can find those short stories, because it sounds like he deserves my support.
Posted by Mrs. Jessica Fishell Sadoway on Dec 4, 2012 1:04 PM
A tragic consequence of groupthink and of ignoring the evidence. I myself have experienced the dysphoria of not finding The Thinker in his rightful place but the persecution he suffered is unimaginable. I can only hope the Chicago 'businessman' who was so relentless is brought to justice to offer Daniel some peace, and that Daniel is able to recover his confidence and return to the stage. Remember Daniel, your Stanford family supports you!
Posted by Jim M. Montoya, M.D. on Dec 4, 2012 1:25 PM
A friend of mine said this was like the birther mentality here on steroids. So ridiculous. But says a lot about the state of affairs where anonymous online persecution/bullying/harassment/mob mentality spills over into reality. Thank goodness for people with a backbone and some integrity to tell group think to drown in their haterade. Daniel, the world is still your oyster. You'll always have fans in whatever you pursue, and more than likely others who are green with envy. But your value is intrinsic and separate from public perception. Hope you get your groove back. Not to hear the roar of adoring fans, but to express the awesome person you are.
Posted by Ms. Kalei Kim on Dec 5, 2012 12:19 AM
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Data is from the past two weeks.