On November 6, 2020 a court of appeals in South Korea delivered a verdict against Kim Kyung-soo, the governor of South Gyeongsang Province who is one of President Moon Jae-in’s confidants and closest associates; he was sentenced to two years in jail for conspiring to manipulate public opinion online in favor of Moon in the run-up to the 2017 presidential elections.
To understand the importance of this event, which went largely unnoticed by foreign audiences, it must first be understood who Kim Kyung-soo is. He is one of Moon’s inner circle, and according to one version of events he is a man whom Moon wanted to be his successor very much. Kim and Moon worked together in Roh Moo-hyun’s administration as the presidential secretary and senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, and in 2017 Kim Kyung-soo was Moon Jae-in’s press secretary, and subsequently his chief presidential secretary. To a great extent, Kim was responsible for Moon’s victory in the presidential election, and is now governor, meaning that the democrats hold the reins in a region traditionally led by conservatives.
As far back as August 2018, the 52-year-old politician was accused of conspiring with political blogger and hacker Kim Dong-won, who goes by the nickname Druking, to artificially increase the number of “likes” in Moon’s favor and write “appropriate” comments posted on major South Korean web portals like Naver. From the opposition’s point of view, that helped the Democrats win the election, and created the illusion of popular support for their candidate.
Up until a certain time, it seemed that the authorities had managed to “sweep” the problem under the rug, especially after the time when, at the end of August 2018, special prosecutor Ho Ik-bom decided NOT to prolong the time frame for the investigation, both because of the pressure exerted by the ruling party and the fact that “due to an insufficiently thorough investigation by police officers and prosecutors, the bulk of the evidence was lost”.
However, on January 30, 2019, the Seoul Central District Court sentenced Kim to two years in prison for conspiracy to conduct an illegal cyber operation, as well as a ten-month sentence – deferred for two years – for violating the law governing the elections of public officials. According to the sentence passed by the court, Kim Kyung-soo was involved in manipulating online comments for 80,000 different news articles. For 18 months, he maintained close contact with Kim Dong-won, who helped falsify public opinion at his bidding. In November 2016, Kim Kyung-soo attended a demonstration of a computer program dubbed “King Crab”, which increases the number of fake comments on the Internet, and gave instructions to put it into action. The decisive proof was when a secret chat in one messenger was created where information regarding public sentiment, and other confidential information, was transmitted: the deputy was proactive in indicating to the blogger what should be hyped up, as well as who should be “killed”. It turned out that Kim Kyung-soo, who denied being involved in these contacts, deleted all the information from the chat but his interlocutor managed to take screenshots of the correspondence.
Kim was taken into custody immediately following the court’s ruling, and placed in solitary confinement, but in April 2019 was released on a bail of USD 200 million, despite how evident it is that the current governor could influence the investigation, or perhaps destroy evidence.
And now there is the ruling of the court at the next level of jurisdiction. On the one hand, the court of appeals upheld that in November 2016 Kim attended the presentation of a computer program that was used to manipulate public opinion, and gave the command to initiate that.
On the other hand, the court dropped the charge against Kim that he had offered the blogger Druking the post of consul general in Japan for providing hacking services. The court declared that the presumed crime was insufficiently unequivocal. In addition, the court believed that “there is no need to revoke Kim’s bail,” and he will remain free.
After the ruling by the Court of Appeals, Kim told reporters that he would file the case with the Supreme Court, and that dropping one of the charges represents only half the truth.
If Kim is found guilty by the Supreme Court, he will lose his post as provincial governor, since under Korean law elected government officials lose their positions, and cannot run for public office for at least five years, if they are given a prison sentence or a fine of 1 million wons or more.
What is now also doubtful is his place on the shortlist of presidential candidates from the ruling Democratic Party, where he would definitely wind up if all charges against him were dropped.
The ruling party expressed its regret about the ruling, and proclaimed that it was absolutely unacceptable.
The main opposition People Power Party, on the other hand, has called upon Kim to deliver a public apology, and step down from office.
Kim’s verdict is important in that conservatives’ reasoning about manipulating public opinion with help from a team of bloggers not only turned out to be true, but corroborated the fact that it was done on instructions from someone who was in the president’s inner circle. However, the author is interested in something else: to what extent the repeat investigation by the Supreme Court, against the background of this changing political environment (Moon’s presidential term is coming to an end), will revive a slew of accusations that the official press in the Republic of Korea prefers not to remember.
Let us recall the precise rumors and spectacular stories that were published on the Internet about the Rasputinism prevailing among the authorities, and how that brought an outraged public out into the streets during the days of the “candle revolution”. It is common knowledge now that none of those were substantiated, but back then they painted such an unattractive image of Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil that the widespread, angry reaction in the spirit of “stop putting up with this” was completely understandable.
How do you like, for example, the story about how Park’s entire policy was based not on materials delivered by experts, but on the predictions of a shaman woman, whom she believed without question? Or the story about how, during the tragedy of the MV Sewol ferry, Park and Choi were busy with beauty treatments, and talked about the dying children in a particularly cynical manner? Or about how the president and her confidant staged group orgies with hired gigolos right in the Blue House, and on a bed bought with budgetary funds to boot? If they were true, this kind of regime really should have come to an end. However, they turned out to be lies, and this fact has now been swept under the rug too, because people are uncomfortable when they feel duped.
But even more discomfort has been created by the presumption that these rumors did not spring up for no reason, but were deliberately cast about, and “anonymous sources very familiar with the course of the investigation”, or “an employee at the Blue House who has not lost his conscience, and who has decided to tell the truth” were, in fact, bloggers like Kim Dong-won working for the opposition.
It is clear that there is no use crying over spilt milk – if the sincere protests by citizens were provoked by outright lies, then this says a lot about what ethical principles Moon Jae-in and his entourage actually follow.
According to some of the author’s respondents, evidence of these very actions taken by Kim Kyung-soo, and his bloggers on the take, were “lost in the course of the investigation”. But if confirmation of the bloggers’ connection with the current government, and how they spread odious rumors about Park Geun-hye during the “candle revolution” on instruction from people in Moon Jae-in’s entourage, still crops up, then the country may face a very, VERY big scandal.
Still, even if information about manipulation by bloggers is not publicly available, Kim’s presidential ambitions will be complicated, and Moon will not be able to get “his own person” into the presidency, or guarantee himself a quiet life after he resigns (it is worth remembering that democratic candidates Lee Nak-yon and Lee Jae-myung are from other factions).
And if a higher court also upholds a prison term for Kim, then he will cease acting as a governor. This means that in 2021, Moon’s regime will face a difficult test, when in the context of by-elections for positions with the local authorities not only the mayors of Seoul and Busan, the country’s capital and second-largest city, respectively, will be re-elected but also at a minimum the governor in a significant region. Local elections will be tough anyway, since Busan Mayor Oh Go-dong resigned over a sex scandal, and Park Won-sun’s suicide was linked to the same cause by both the public consciousness and conservative media, although there is still no evidence. For this reason, conservatives are already demanding that the authorities own up, and not nominate candidates for these seats, and if the case involving Kim Kyung-soo is added to this then the conservatives have a serious chance of winning, and Moon risks becoming a lame duck, or perhaps even targeted for impeachment.
Therefore, it is clear that the authorities will fight for their candidate, but any way you look at it yet another scandal has appeared in the host of them that has rocked the foundations of Moon’s administration. And, although the current president of the Republic of Korea masterfully “plays the game of thrones”, quantity may soon turn into quality.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.