We continue to follow the events that can potentially transform into the latest political crisis in South Korea. Even at this stage, the online comment-rigging scandal buried Moon Jae-in’s plans of ensuring the constitutional amendment referendum coincided with the 13 June local elections, almost sabotaged work on an extra-budgetary project and, in the end, led to the appointment of a special prosecutor to spearhead this case.
Below is the description of the essence of the scandal. The top blogger Kim, better known as Druking, was apprehended because, on orders from individuals close to the current President, he was engaged to systematically spread rumors, ramp up the number of online “likes” and positive comments before and after the presidential elections in the period from October 2016 to March 2018. At present, we know that during that period the blogger’s team manipulated comments in favor of the President in response to 90,000 political articles.
It is also widely known that the blogger had close ties to the former Deputy and now Governor Kim Kyoung-soo, who is viewed as one of Moon Jae-in’s close associates. It was Deputy Kim who, via Telegram text messages, sent the blogger instructions and links to newspaper articles that needed hyping up. Conservatives and their supporters believe that the case involves wide-spread publication of fake online news that pushed people to come out in protest en masse and support Park Geun-hye’s impeachment (it is worth remembering that the most damning accusations that spurred people to action have proved to be false), and Moon’s presidency, which, therefore, may be illegitimate.
The notorious case led to a parliamentary stand-off, as the conservatives demanded that a special prosecutor be appointed to spearhead this case (and this is how Choi Soon-sil’s downfall began), and also blocked all the draft legislation including the one key to the President on holding a constitutional amendment referendum. As things stand, momentum was lost and any changes to the Constitution will not be adopted during Moon Jae-in’s presidential term.
On 21 May, a bill to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the comment-rigging case involving the blogger Druking was approved. This is the thirteenth investigation by independent counsel in the history of the country, and the first after Moon Jae-in became President. Twenty days have been allocated to prepare for the investigation, which will last 60 days, with the possibility of extending this term by 30 days once.
The Special Prosecutor has two aims. Firstly, he or she will have to determine whether Druking’s team was actually responsible for flooding the internet with comments before the presidential election. Secondly, it is essential to find out more information about the relationship between Druking and politicians, including Kim Kyoung-soo. While the blogger has denied any ties with the head of state, certain facts speak against his assurances. Nevertheless, some pertinent Telegram- and Signal-encrypted messages remain unread. It is also public knowledge that the Secretary of the Deputy received 5 million won from the blogger in September 2017, which he returned on 26 March 2018.
In the meantime, there is a new person of interest from Moon’s inner circle in the investigation. South Korea’s First Aide to the President Son-in Bae, who at the time of the presidential election prepared Moon Jae-in’s schedule, was acquainted with the blogger and introduced him to Kim Kyoung-soo. So far it has only been established that, during the period from June 2016 to February 2017, Son-in Bae met Druking four times, and was at the first meeting between Kim Kyoung-soo and Druking as well as members of the internet community, “joint economic revolution”, headed by the blogger.
Curiously, the news about the special prosecutor caused some irritation among the police force who are investigating the blogger’s case. The detectives believe that a) they will not be able to solve this case, and that passing it on to another agency embarrasses them; and b) the prosecutor’s office, with its substantial number of Moon supporters, can interfere with the investigation. As for rumors that the police deliberately avoided investigating the ruling party and state officials, the fact remains that they simply did not know about the meetings between the blogger and Son-in Bae. If one were to believe the rumors spread by conservatives, statements made by those apprehended in the case indicate that Kim Kyoung-soo and Son-in Bae were fully aware of everything. What is even more damning is that prosecutors attempted to convince the blogger not to testify against Kim and Co with a promise of a provisional sentence.
On 7 June, President Moon Jae-in appointed Huh Ik-Bum as a special counsel to investigate the comment-rigging scandal involving Druking. Huh Ik-Bum began his career in Daegu’s prosecutors’ office, where he worked as the Head of the Public Security and Criminal Department. At present he is a member of the court administration commission for Seoul’s Central. District and of the commission for restructuring the Public Prosecutors’ Offices under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice.
On 27 June, Huh Ik-Bum’s independent counsel team began investigating the comment-rigging scandal involving Druking. The special counsel’s team has to include 3 aides, 35 independent investigators, plus 13 prosecutors and 35 state officials specially assigned to the case, but so far only 13 people have been recruited. The special prosecutor and his aides will have to go over approximately 47,000 pages of case documents and 6,600 investigation-related videos, aside from fact-finding work that they have already completed.
Thus there have not been any public relations announcements in South Korea’s media sources so far, which means that either the ongoing evidence collection process is complex or that this unsavory news is being overshadowed by other scandals involving Moon’s opponents.
However, many believe that the blogger is not the culprit, and the problem lies with Naver, the largest web portal in the country. Naver News allows its users to add their comments to each article or use the options “agree” and “don’t agree”, which resemble the “like” option in Facebook.
As far back as October 2017, Naver was accused of manipulating search results for news and other queries. First of all, at the request of its “close acquaintances”, the portal provided a desired rating the most popular news stories and other information. Secondly, news was arranged into categories in the way that benefited the government by downplaying the importance of topics that were distasteful to it and creating a hype around those subjects that the state wanted to draw attention to.
Undoubtedly, an investigation may uncover many different things, but the author does not discount the fact that the accusations levelled at the government by the conservatives could prove to be true. The author clearly remembers that prior to the impeachment of the former president and her confidante, the internet was abuzz with completely ludicrous rumors, which continued to add fuel to the burning fire of the indignation felt by the populace. And if similar methods were to be used against Moon Jae-in, as those employed during the “democratic investigation” of Park Geun-hye, Moon would surely face the prospect of impeachment. Clearly, he must have conspired with his aides, who could not have made those key decision without approval from the very top.
In author’s opinion, just as in the case of Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, a lot will depend on the servility of the South Korean justice system that often takes its lead from the political environment. Still, if this scandal involving Moon’s inner circle is followed by another, his strange economic policies have an adverse effect on the living standards in the country, while his foreign policy victories cease to matter, then the comment-rigging scandal may turn into something bigger.
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.”