18.05.2018 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Is the Korean Comment-rigging Scandal Similar to the “Trolling Officials” One?


Only recently we wrote about the conservative ex-president of South Korea, who ended up in prison as a result of a series of accusations levelled against him. Still an ongoing scandal that started in mid-April has all the tell-tale signs that may turn it into an analogous story involving Choi Soon-sil and featuring an equivalent way of “drowning” the current president, Moon Jae-in.

It all began when the blogger Kim Dong-won, known as Druking, @D_ruking or tuna69, and as “an undisputed leader of public opinion” with more than 14 million active subscribers, demanded that Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo (a fiend to Moon Jae-in and a leading member of the Democratic Party of Korea, who is also running for the governor position of South Korea’s Gyeongsang Province) keep his word and appoint him as Consul General in Osaka, Japan as a reward for services rendered.

Soon after, the government initiated an investigation into social networking sites in connection to viral spread of a discussion apparently expressing the public’s disagreement with the decision for the North and South Korean hockey teams to play as one at the Winter Olympics. State officials became suspicious of the sheer number of posts, reposts and ‘likes’ of this topic, and then the before-mentioned blogger was accused of “virally spreading opinions in different portals using a special computer program”.

Further investigations revealed that the blogger, Kim, held a post in the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, and actively supported Moon Jae-in, the candidate in the presidential elections, last year.

At present Kim Dong-won and his 5 accomplices (clearly such a communication channel has its own team) are in custody, and the business connections between the two Kims have been established using their confiscated phones.

Much of the secret communication between the two using Telegram remains unread, but if we are to trust conservative media sources, presidential aids and the administration of the Blue House are awaiting interrogation and the situation is developing as follows.

According to a secret agreement between the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, Moon Jae-in’s administration and the blogger, Kim was engaged to perform publicity stunts, rig rating polls and influence the population using millions of subscribers. They illegally purchased hacking software that enabled them to increase exposure of required articles and posts on social networking sites, ramp up the number of ‘likes’ from robots and send viral mail shots. Attention was focused on improving “Moon Jae-in’s image”, with accidental videos, showing the President drinking beer with South Korean strangers, appearing on social networks, thereby demonstrating Moon’s closeness to his people. What is more, the collaboration between the blogger and Moon and Co began during Roh Moo-huyn’s presidential term when Moon was the head of that administration.

The blogger and his team received up to 1.5 million dollars for services rendered by Kim Kyoung-soo, and evidence of this payment has already emerged. Druing, himself, boasted online that he made Moon President and wrote all his speeches and programs, and that he could render similar services to anyone prepared to pay enough.

On April 17th, Druking was officially indicted for using hacking programs and 614 fake IDs (reminder: Internet provision requires showing a passport in South Korea) in January 2018 in order to ramp up the number of ‘likes’ for two comments criticizing the government’s decision to create a women’s hockey team unifying the teams from the north and south. This concerns the comments that appear right under articles and therefore, immediately attract readers’ attention. People think that these comments reflect the most popular point of view. One piece of evidence for this is the software belonging to the blogger that enables the user to multiply one “like” into 600-700 “likes” originating from different IPs and nicknames. All this was done, on the one hand, to seemingly check computer software, and, on the other hand, to subsequently accuse conservatives in comment manipulation as part of an operation called “under a false flag”.

However, Kim Kyoung-soo has offered a different version of events, stating that the blogger, having had his demands rejected, felt offended to the point of using blackmail and decided to take his frustration out on his ex-employer.

In the meantime, the situation has attracted a great deal of attention in political circles causing a stand-off between the ruling and opposing factions and even the suspension of National Assembly’s activities. In addition, the story is of public importance as South Koreans attentively follow similar scandals in the US dealing with fake news, comment-rigging or the ramp up of positive feedback.

On Sunday, April 22th, right-wing parties organized a multi-thousand-strong protest to demonstrate their lack of confidence in Moon Jae-in, his administration and the ruling party in Seoul. Still, its size is far from the Candlelight Struggle but….

On April 23th, three opposition parties (the center-right as well as the Party for Democracy and Peace) decided to support a draft bill to appoint special counsel because a conventional investigation is bound to be obstructed by the current administration. All three opposition party leaders demanded that the ruling party not impede the investigation, stating that this will ensure smooth running of the unscheduled meeting of the National Assembly, which is currently paralyzed by the opposing factions’ actions.

Even South Korea’s state media outlets already describe Kim Dong-won’s case as “a political comment-rigging scandal right before presidential elections”, which, in theory, means that investigators are already in possession of evidence linking Druking to this case.

If we believe rumors and “substantiated claims” spread with a vengeance by the conservative press, the situation is likely to become much, much worse. Reportedly detained Kim Dong-won has already started making even less savory admissions. As it turns out, his team (and perhaps other parties) actively campaigned to defame and harass the former president Park Geun-hye and the opposition leader Ahn Cheol-soo by spreading falsehoods.

The fact is that before the election, Ahn was right behind Moon with a popularity rating of 37 % to Moon’s 40 %. Suddenly, a meme appeared claiming that Ahn was in fact Lee Myung-bak’ avatar causing Ahn’s rating to drop to 30 % and then lower.

Generally speaking, we have often encountered a pattern when a scandal leads to a wave of public indignation, even before the appearance of any evidence or investigation results in proving guilt, with those in power making “a political decision” to follow the masses.

In this context, the story resembles the infamous case of the “trolling officials” when, in 2012, the National Intelligence Service officers released approximately 1.2 million Tweets in order to influence public opinion in favor of Park Geun-hye. However, our case involves private citizens and not intelligence service employees, whose job it is to remain neutral.

Still, as previously mentioned by the author, people, who attended the Candlelight Struggle to demand Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, need not feel deceived. What will happen if they find out that, in reality, they were spurred on to action by falsified and purposefully exaggerated news items?

Undoubtedly, the idea of Park Geun-hye’s exoneration is out of the question, but the legitimacy of the presidential election results in 2017 and Moon’s victory remain in doubt if the “substantiated claims” stating that the blogger’s team indeed used illegal means to influence the public prove true. In the end, this is how Moon’s losing side tried to use the case of the “trolling officials” five years later.

Nevertheless, the author is committed to follow the latest scandal as neutrally as the scandal surrounding the case of Choi Soon-sil, taking into account the somewhat unprincipled battle approach used by South Korean politicians, which is the reason why the evidence in this case may resemble the notorious “incriminating tablet computer”.

Cleary, this story is still not indistinguishable from that of Park Geun-hye’s confidante, but it is important if special counsel is indeed appointed to spearhead this case. This is how the case against Choi Soon-sil became significant, even if it started as a not-too-serious a story of corruption during the founding of a charity fund. Then, secret notorious evidence started to emerge, which became the basis of a wide-spread media campaign that lead people to come out in protest, and the justice system began working in the “right” direction.

Besides, the comment-rigging scandal has already damaged Moon’s political standing and the resulting paralysis prevented Moon from passing the bill to do with changing the country’s constitution, and now it is unclear whether Parliament will have time to adopt these changes and hold a referendum by the end of the year. If this does not materialize, Moon’s dream of heading the Seventh Republic will remain unrealized.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”