With all the accusations about fixing the election last year, what is likely to happen politically?
Right now, Korean democracy is going through a kind of crisis of confidence. To be sure, it is not the type of severe crisis that Korean democracy has experienced before, such as the military rolling tanks into the heart of Seoul to claim power. Nonetheless, when the nation's spy agency intervenes in the nation's presidential election to favor one candidate over the other, it is a serious concern.
First, some background. It all started in December 11, 2012, mere eight days before Korea's presidential election. The ruling, conservative New Frontier Party, to which the outgoing president Lee Myeong-bak also belonged, fielded Park Geun-hye as the candidate. On the progressive side, the Democratic United Party's Moon Jae-in was gaining steam as the popular independent Ahn Cheol-su bowed out of the race and expressed support for Moon. Park and Moon were neck-and-neck in polls, although Park led slightly in most polls.
|Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in|
On the night of December 11, a team of Democratic United Party officials and the police rushed to an apartment in Seoul. Earlier, the DUP had received a tip from an insider: the National Intelligence Service, Korea's spy agency, was running a division of some 70 agents who was engaged in a systematic campaign on the Internet to put up comments on popular websites, expressing support for Park and disparaging Moon. The informant also tipped that one such agent was working out of the apartment, to which the DUP officials rushed to with the police.
The police and the officials actually managed to speak with the young woman who was living in the apartment. She denied that she was an NIS agent. The police and the DUP officials left the apartment when the woman agreed to cooperate with the investigation by turning over her computer to the National Elections Commission. However, when the NEC officials later visited the apartment with the DUP officials, the woman locked herself in and refused to come out. For the next 40 hours, DUP officials and journalists laid siege of the apartment until they could obtain a warrant from the court.
Video of the seiged apartment. Through the door, the young woman can be heard
claiming that she was not an NIS agent.
On December 13, the young woman--who in fact turned out to be an NIS agent--emerged out of her apartment and sued the DUP officials for defamation, claiming that she maintained neutrality in politics. She also turned over her laptops to the Seoul Metropolitan Police, which initially estimated that it would take at least one week for them to analyze the NIS agent's Internet activity.
(More of the jump.)
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The third and final TV debate between the presidential candidates occurred on December 16. It was the general consensus that Park Geun-hye was not a strong debater. She delivered another lukewarm performance in the debate, which ended at 10 p.m. But Korea's electorate would not dwell much on Park's subpar debate performance, as its attention was quickly shifted to the police's announcement one hour after the end of the debate: Seoul Metropolitan Police Office announced its interim conclusion that, although the NIS agent utilized over 20 online IDs, there was no evidence that the agent put up any Internet comment related to the election.
This announcement was suspicious in several different manners. First, the timing was suspect, as the police initially claimed that it would take them at least a week to analyze the computers but announced the interim conclusion in three days. Further, it was highly unusual for the police to announce an interim conclusion in the middle of the night, as the SMPO did. Second, the police said they only analyzed the computers' HDD, without bothering to check the websites in which the NIS agent was alleged to have been active. Third, the police apparently did not consider at all the fact that the NIS agent locked herself in for 40 hours in her apartment, giving her ample time to clean out her computer and destroy evidence.
Finally, an online ID in Korea is not something that one can make willy-nilly. Virtually all large Korean websites require a person to enter one's Resident Registration Number [주민등록번호] to become a member. However, except in one case, the NIS agent used a fake number and fake RRN to create the multiple online IDs. Further, even though the police was aware the the NIS agent was essentially engaged in an identity theft to create numerous online IDs that do not belong to her name, the police never even ran a simple Internet search to find out if the NIS agent left any comment on the Internet.
The DUP and the progress-leaning media raised these concerns, and the police grudgingly returned to investigating further. Unfortunately for Moon Jae-in and the DUP, the time ran out. On December 19, Park Geun-hye was elected to be the newest president of the Republic of Korea, by the final tally of 51.6 percent to 48 percent. Although a looking back at past events is always a speculative exercise, at least one poll says that if the police truthfully announced the NIS's involvement, 8.3 percent of those who voted for Park Geun-hye would have switched sides--which would have changed the final tally to Moon Jae-in 52.3 percent, Park Geun-hye 47.3 percent.
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Even after the presidential election was over, the investigation trudged along. By February 2013, the Supreme Prosecutor's Office--which, in Korea, has its own investigative authority--took over the investigation. After vigorous protests from the Democratic Party (which changed its name from Democratic United Party after the presidential election,) there was also a National Assembly investigation and hearing. Bit by bit, the facts began to emerge. The following is what is revealed:
- The young woman NIS agent, who initially locked herself in, did in fact actively comment, as well as "up-voted" and "down-voted," in a way that supported Park Geun-hye and undermined Moon Jae-in.
- The NIS in fact ran a division, under the name of Psychological Warfare, of approximately 70 agents whose sole duty was to operate on the Internet and influence the elections. The NIS has run the division since 2009.
- The division received orders directly from the head of the NIS, with detailed instructions on what to post. The division, in turn, provided daily reports to the head of the NIS. The NIS justified this activity as "Anti-North Korea Psychological Warfare," a strange and disturbing claim since the division only operated within South Korean websites. In his instructions, the head of the NIS repeatedly equated the progressives with North Korean fifth column.
- The division had four teams, each of which had an assignment: Team 1 oversaw the entire operation; Team 2 worked the large websites; Team 3, the mid-sized web communities, and Team 5, Twitter. (There was no Team 4.) The website and web communities teams posted between 1200 to 1600 pieces of writing on the Internet per month. The Twitter team posted over 55,000 tweets and retweets regarding the election. -EDIT 11/20/2013- According to the Supreme Prosecutor's Office's latest finding, the NIS agents posted more than 1.2 million tweets and retweets regarding Korean politics, of which approximately 500,000 related to the presidential election.
- -EDIT 11/21/2013- The NIS fed conservative-leaning stories to approximately 30 conservative-leaning websites. Once the websites published the stories, the NIS agents spread the stories through other large websites or Twitter.
- The NIS also recruited civilians, and paid them to also engage in the same activities on the Internet.
- NIS may not be the only government body that systematically involved itself in the election. At least two other governmental arms are being investigated for running similar teams working on the Internet to influence elections: ROK Army's Cyber Command, and the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs.
- While locking herself in the room, the first NIS agent who was outed deleted 187 files from her laptop, and reported to the NIS that she did so. The deleted files included the .txt file that listed numerous online IDs, their passwords, and links leading to materials praising the outgoing president.
- Once the police investigation began, the NIS systematically deleted the hundreds of online IDs it used, and the thousands of posts its agents wrote. Although the police could not recover the deleted IDs and posts, the Supreme Prosecutor's Office restored them.
- The local Suseo police office, which was investigating the claim, originally requested Seoul Metropolitan Police Office's Digital Evidence Analysis Team to search for 78 keywords associated with the laptops received from the first NIS agent who locked herself in the house. The SMPO, however, reduced the number of keywords to four, and three days later announced that it found no evidence of election involvement.
- The SMPO was composing the initial draft of its interim conclusion before it received any evidence from the Suseo police.
- Even with the limited investigation, the SMPO Digital Evidence Analysis Team in fact found a huge amount of evidence showing that the NIS agent was engaged in elections tempering. The closed circuit TV recording of the Digital Team, dated December 16, 2012, shows the police analysts discussing they "found a gold mine" and "this can't go out to the media; the NIS will be in trouble if it does. They could not have known we would find this."
- The head of the SMPO directly intervened, ordering the Digital Team not to send its findings to the local police office. When the Suseo police office protested, the SMPO sent only a part of the evidence. Before the SMPO sent its findings to the local police office, it made the 11 p.m. announcement.
- The SMPO also ordered the Suseo police to have the NIS agent personally attend the laptop analysis as the Suseo police examined the laptop. The SMPO backed off only after the Suseo police strongly protested.
- The NIS issued a press release attacking the DUP based on SMPO's interim conclusion at 11:11 p.m. The Supreme Prosecutor's Office noted that 11 minutes was hardly enough time to receive SMPO's interim conclusion and compose a press release, and raised the possibility that the SMPO leaked its interim conclusion to the NIS before making it public.
- The head of the SMPO also directly called the head of the investigation team in the Suseo police office, pressuring her not to raid the NIS agent's apartment. Previously, the head of the SMPO denied that he ever spoke with the head of investigations.
- As a part of the investigation, the Supreme Prosecutor's Office raided the Seoul Metropolitan Police Office. (If that sounds crazy to you, don't worry--it sounded crazy to Korean people also.) The SPO found that several SMPO ranking officers destroyed evidence of wrongdoing by deleting their official computer's HDD.
The whistle blowers and investigators got their share as well:
- The initial whistle blowers who tipped off the DUP were two NIS agents. Upon finding out the leakers, the NIS fired both agents.
- Gwon Eun-hee, the head of the local Suseo police office who was handling the front-line investigation, constantly clashed with the Seoul Metropolitan Police Office that sought to cover up the NIS involvement. She was taken off the investigation team, moved to a different police office, and was later censured by the Seoul Metropolitan Police for interviewing with the media without permission.
- The investigation was able to move forward because the Supreme Prosecutor's Office overrode the police and exercised its own investigative authority. As the SPO's investigation heated up, the leading conservative newspaper Chosun Ilbo published a hit piece of SPO's head Chae Dong-uk, claiming that he had a child from an extramarital affair. Based on the claim, the Minister of Justice ordered an audit on Chae. Rather than suffer the indignity, Chae resigned.
- The SPO's investigation team moved aggressively, arresting former NIS agents and raiding their homes for evidence. The head of the investigation team, Yoon Seok-yeol, was sacked after the former NIS agents were arrested, apparently because Yoon disobeyed the orders from his superiors and moved forward with the arrests.
What about the president Park Geun-hye, the chief beneficiary of the NIS's intervention to the election? Her response has been stonewalling, not only on the NIS issue, but also, it appears, on every issue in Korean politics. Incredibly, in the eight months that she has been president, Park has not held a single press conference with Korean media. (Even Lee Myeong-bak, a notoriously bad communicator, held four press conferences in the first eight months of his presidency.) Though Park has given six interviews with the foreign media from the United States, Russia, China, Indonesia and France, she has not given a single interview with Korean media. Whenever a major event takes place on this front, such as the National Assembly hearing, the president was on a well-timed summit trip abroad. In her first and only address before the National Assembly, the president said obliquely that she "regrets the conflict and struggle continue even though the election has been nearly a year ago," and urged the National Assembly to "wait, trusting the will of the government and the judgment of the judiciary."
Through other channels, Park has been adamant that her election was fair. In a private conference with the heads of the New Frontier Party and the Democratic Party, she angrily asked the DP representative: "Are you saying I was elected president because of some Internet comments?" In a meeting with Blue House chiefs, she also claimed that she "never received any help" from the NIS, although she also said she supported NIS reform.
What is likely to happen? Although the radical fringe of Korea's progressives are calling for Park's impeachment or resignation, mainstream progressives and the Democratic Party have no appetite for such dramatic measures. This makes for an oddly muted reaction. Sure, a National Assembly investigation and public statements in protests are nice, but are those all in a case in which the national spy agency threatened the very legitimacy of the democratic process in Korea?
Perhaps it is the sign of maturity on the part of Korea's democracy that the leader does not change at every turn, the gravity of the situation notwithstanding. It appears that the maximum that the Democratic Party would seek from the president is a recognition and apology over the tainted election. Otherwise, the Democratic Party would probably be content with using this issue to politically hobble the president, and parlay it into the upcoming local elections next year.
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