Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Presidential Election and Spy Agency

Dear Korean,

With all the accusations about fixing the election last year, what is likely to happen politically?

Jen S.


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
(source)

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.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.



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:
There was also an extensive series of cover-ups:
As a result of the foregoing, the Supreme Prosecutor's Office indicted the head and two mid-level officers of the NIS for intervening in the elections, and the head of the SMPO for the cover-up.

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.
The blowback from this has been strong. Scores of civic groups, made up of students, professors, religious leaders, etc. issued statements and held candlelight vigils in protest. The Democratic Party has been relentless in pursuing in this issue, and is now calling for an appointment of a Special Prosecutor.

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.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

27 comments:

  1. @Korean, do you think that NIS scandal is a sign that South Korean democracy is failing?

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    1. The very fact that this NIS scandal has been exposed and is openly discussed by the public without anyone getting illegally arrested/tortured/murdered is a sign that Korean democracy as a system has matured enough to battle this through

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    2. Agreed with Ramifan there. The fact that the NIS could devise no more than some Internet comments--instead of, say, trying to assassinating the other candidate, which definitely happened before in Korean politics--also probably signals that Korean democracy has reached a certain point of maturity.

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    3. I wonder why expectations for Korea's democracy here are so low. Why is everyone comparing the current state with the darkest days in Korea's contemporary history and regarding this as a progress? Remember Korea has already been through a phase where a President faced impeachment charges because he merely said "If there's anything the President can do good to win more votes for the Uri Party, I want to do whatever lawful. (대통령이 뭘 잘 해서 우리당이 표를 얻을 수만 있다면 합법적인 모든 것을 다하고 싶다)." Anything like this was supposed to be a page of decades ago in history. I apparently been through a historical phase where it would have been completely unacceptable for the government to engage in "psychological warfare" against its own citizens. We're more than a decade into the 21st Century and this is clearly a regression in history, not a sign of progress.

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    4. For my part, the expectation is low because the world's oldest constitutional democracy has been spying on its own people for years and used drones to kill its own citizens, but the people of that democracy don't seem to care all that much. I believe in progress, but it will only come slowly.

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  2. This is a very well-done piece on a very important topic. I'd like to express gratitude to the author for providing this information.

    We have a woman living in the Blue House who had last lived there when she was a young woman, the child of one of the most brutal dictators of the last century. Her political career is based on his, and she has never fully repudiated the worst abuses committed during those years - and I'm sure at least some of her supporters would glad accept living under authoritarian rule again. Therefore, it is not the least bit surprising that some key elements of the intelligence community would support her so strongly that they would see the democratic opposition parties as being in collusion with the North.

    Your account fills in many missing pieces I hadn't myself been able to glean from English-language sources. Again, thank you.

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  3. Thank you for this informative detailed post. I wish you would also go back to posting political stuff on Marmot's Hole.

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    1. I might come back in a few years, to cover the next election. But in the meantime, I am just too sick of the commentariat there. I'm sure you can understand.

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    2. You'll miss the commentariat after a few months. Admit it---the mosh pit can be fun.

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    3. I follow the MH, and although the comments section can get snarky and ridiculous, it is always multifaceted. You have to sift through the rubbish to find the good comments, but the variety of commentators and opinions is worth it. Though I do wish Robert would weed out more of the chronically nonconstructive commentators.

      I also appreciate the detail in this post. Though I also find it to be overly speculative (and inconsequential) to look back on how the election might have turned out if it wasn't for the NIS involvement.

      What effect do you think this scandal will have on Saenuri's popularity in the long run?

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    4. You have to sift through the rubbish to find the good comments, but the variety of commentators and opinions is worth it.

      I think the same on a grand scale, but right now MH comment system is going through some kind of a stupid spell.

      What effect do you think this scandal will have on Saenuri's popularity in the long run?

      Not much actually. The Republican Party is still here after Watergate and Iran-Contra, right?

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  4. Thanks for the post. Seems some progress is being made (considering most former presidents have been convicted of some corruption charges after their term, while this is being actively investigated during Park's term), but it's still disturbing that this has happened nonetheless.

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  5. To be clear - what the NIS did was absolutely wrong. But it had virtually no effect on the election. The Korean netizens posted millions of posts and tweets leading up to the election. The NIS' posting amounted to a drop in the bucket of all the internet posts made. Not to mention ... who pays a lick of attention to negative posts made about the candidate one supports? Korean voters are the same as voters all over the world, i.e., the vast, vast majority vote for their party's candidate and no amount of negative internet blithering by anonymous internet posters ever changes anyone's mind.

    And a one-time poll conducted by a decidedly left-leaning media outlet that called a small pool of people via cell phones only is hardly what I'd call a conclusive source.

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    1. First of all, the poll was conducted by Research View, an independent political consultant and polling organization. Media Today simply reported it.

      Second, it is less about the crime and more about the cover-up. We may or may not know if NIS's activity had any effect on the election. (Although how you can be so certain that there was "virtually no effect on the election," I have no idea.) But it appears pretty likely that the police's hasty announcement that there was no election involvement by the NIS did have some measure of impact on the election.

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    2. "Although how you can be so certain that there was 'virtually no effect on the election,' I have no idea."

      There were tens of millions of negative posts, tweets, emails, etc. about President Obama (and conversely about Governor Romney) in the last election. How many people changed their minds after reading any of them? A tiny fraction of one percent ... maybe? Are Koreans somehow more susceptible to and easily duped by such tactics?

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    3. There were tens of millions of negative posts, tweets, emails, etc. about President Obama (and conversely about Governor Romney) in the last election. How many people changed their minds after reading any of them? A tiny fraction of one percent ... maybe?

      Again, I have no idea how you can be so certain about this, down to numbers. Also, you did nothing to address the two points I raised earlier.

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    4. A number of reasons to disagree with the "virtually no effect" argument:

      1. the sheer scale. It just hit the news yesterday that the Prosecutors' Office found an additional 1.2 million tweets that were part of this scheme, and many suspect this is still just the tip of the iceberg. The head of the Ministry of Defense psychological warfare unit received an honor after the election, because, according to archived official documents, he carried out 23 million activities (or posts) exceeding his goal of 20 million. And remember, this is just the MOD alone, not counting the NIS or other governmental offices or civilian groups that were part of this collusion. Also, remember, they did far more than tweeting. They tapped into Korean portal websites, hobby-based online communities, and even online communities for overseas Koreans in more than 20 different countries including the US.

      2. It does make a whole lot of difference if you were the underdog with scarce support in the cyberspace. Korean conservatives have tended to attribute their loss of the 2002 Presidential election to their failure in garnering online support. And that trend was pretty much maintained until quite recently. Whether the recent more "balanced" online political sentiment in Korea was a result of (or was influenced by) this plot is unknown. However, doing this does make a difference if you were the obvious underdog among online agoras. In a well documented psychological theory of social comparison, people look around and see what others think and do to make sense of their own thoughts and deeds. Whether your opinion has a presence or not online does make a whole lot difference especially among those who primarily access news over the Internet. After all, why would have they done it if they had no reason to do it? It appears to me they needed to do it and believed they could pull this in a scale that matters, which seems to be exactly what happened.

      3. On a more normative note, you can't cheat on an exam and say, "Hey, I would have figured out the answers anyway." You get an F, if not suspended from school. Maybe President Park would later argue, "Okay, they cheated, showed me the answers, but I never asked for it." Well, then, since the whole exam was a mess-up, wouldn't it be correct to have another one?

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    5. "You did nothing to address the two points I raised earlier."

      Much like you, I don't always address every point. Especially in a discussion like this when I started off my first post by saying the NIS was absolutely wrong - a point on which we clearly agree. The thrust of my argument has always been that the effect of what the NIS did is being blown out of proportion - and is essentially being used as a smokescreen. That's the long and short of it.

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    6. Much like you, I don't always address every point. Especially in a discussion like this when I started off my first post by saying the NIS was absolutely wrong - a point on which we clearly agree.

      It is completely your prerogative to choose which points to address. I'm just trying to figure out why you make the thrust of your argument, if you think the NIS was in the wrong.

      The thrust of my argument has always been that the effect of what the NIS did is being blown out of proportion - and is essentially being used as a smokescreen.

      This is the part that I don't understand. Smokescreen for what? What does the "effect of what the NIS did" cover up?

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  6. Really interesting article. Thanks AK for writing this. I'm surprised that the Korean National Intelligence Service would devise such a lame and imbecilic plot to sway the presidential election. Reminds me of the CIA plan (never implemented) to poison Castro so that his beard would fall off and thus cause a popular overthrow of the Cuban dictator. I know Korea is a relatively small country but did the NIS really think that they could change the outcome of the election with a couple thousand Internet posts? Clearly, someone at the NIS should be going to jail over this, if not for attempted election fraud, at least for the lack of good sense and judgment. I think Korean democracy will survive.

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    1. I also thought it was lame until recent findings that there were at least 1.2 million posts on Twitter alone, and far more (even 20 million or more) yet to be found out. Of course, they didn't do this with manpower alone: they used Twitter bots which automatically retweet messages from pre-programmmed accounts. Now that's quite a huge number if you consider the online population of Koreans.

      Today's morning headlines say that NIS not only tweeted stuff, but funded and conspired with online news organizations to write articles about topics NIS fed them so they could go online and tweet about them. One of the main arguments of NIS's defense so far was that their agents didn't make up stuff--they simply delivered what had been published.

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  7. Prosecutors Detail Bid to Sway South Korean Election

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/22/world/asia/prosecutors-detail-bid-to-sway-south-korean-election.html?_r=1

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  8. Come on TK, you're only giving us a partial picture! I can clearly see that you have stayed away from the god-awful carwreck of 통합진보당, but they also play a large role in this crisis of Democracy and the NIS scandal -don't you agree?

    sb1

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    1. I fail to see how the UPP has anything to do with this issue. Are you saying that UPP's existence justifies the fact that the NIS had a team of 70 agents meddling with the presidential election?

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    2. TK, you are right in saying that the UPP (United Progressive Party 통합진보당) has nothing to do with the NIS's election interference. However, both the NIS and Senuri Dang have tried to make the issue about the UPP. As you noted, the NIS claims that the any opposition to the conservative party is a communist fifth column. This was their justification for interfering in the election. In order to support their claim, the NIS has cooked up allegations that the UPP was planning an armed insurrection against the Southern government.

      Recent actions by the Pak Geun Hye administration reek of totalitarian era politics. They are attempting to outlaw political opposition, forbidding free speech, and conducting witch hunts for alleged communists. Their recent attempt to outlaw the United Progressive Party and the indictment of congressman Lee Seok Ki are thoroughly undemocratic. Although I am still learning about the case, it reminds me of the "People's Revolutionary Party" (인혁당) executions carried out in 1975, where 8 people were tried by a kangaroo court and executed 20 hours after a verdict was reached. In 2007, all eight men were exonerated since their "confessions" were extracted through torture. In reality, they were executed for organizing student movements for democracy.

      I would love to hear your two cents on the current UPP catastrophe. As usual, thank you for your insight and analysis of the current situation with NIS and election tampering.

      sb1

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    3. I see what you're saying, but I think the UPP topic would be a bit too far afield. If I talked about that, I should also talk about the Inter-Korea summit transcript and the NLL, and the post would be completely out of control.

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  9. Thank you, this is probably the best summary I found yet on the internet regarding this theme, although you didn't mention for some reason the 23 million tweets of the Cyber command.

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