At the end of July 2021, two events occurred in South Korea that could be conventionally called “the return of the political boomerang” – especially for those who remember the high-profile events surrounding the circumstances in which the current President Moon came to power.
On July 19, 2021, police arrested a former special prosecutor in charge of investigating the corruption scandal involving former President Park Geun-hye on suspicion of bribery.
Park Yong-soo, who had been investigating “Park Geun-hye’s crimes” for more than four years, resigned after allegations that last December he had rented a Porsche and high-end seafood from a con man named Kim, who posed as a fishing expert and persuaded influential people to invest in his non-existent business. For this, Kim trumpeted his acquaintances with influential persons in the police and security services, including Special Prosecutor Park and the head of the security services, Park Jie-won.
The case has now been referred to a criminal investigation team. The Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, the state anti-corruption body, has stated that it believes Park is punishable as a public official under the anti-bribery law.
Park’s defense argues that its client is not a public official. It also claimed that the car was only rented for two days and the cost was paid in full. However, it is “rumored that” the payment was made after police had launched a full-scale investigation into the businessman, who is currently standing trial on fraud charges.
Of course, in fact, we face a murky story, and the evidence of bribery in the story of this “gift” in the author’s opinion is lacking. Except that the bribery charges that Special Prosecutor Park brought against the former president were even more far-fetched.
On July 21, 2021, the case of Gyeongsangnam-do provincial governor Kim Kyung-soo came to an end, which, in the author’s opinion, is very important. The Supreme Court of the Republic of Korea sentenced him to two years in prison for obstructing the work of state agencies, upholding a November 2020 ruling by a second-instance court. In those days, we dealt with this story in detail, but let us remind you: it is a conspiracy to manipulate public opinion on the Internet in favor of the Toburo Democratic Party and to indirectly help President Moon Jae-in in the run-up to the 2017 presidential election.
When Kim was sentenced first by the lower instance court in August 2018, the governor was charged with conspiring with political blogger Kim Dong-won, known by the alias Druking or Druid king, to illegally form a favorable opinion of Moon Jae-in in the run-up to the 2017 presidential election. This was supposed to be done by using computer software to increase the number of “likes” on political comments in favor of Moon on web portals such as Naver, creating the illusion of popular support for their candidate.
The investigation proved that in November 2016, Kim Kyung-soo attended a demonstration of the “King Crab” computer program, which increases the number of fake comments on the Internet, and ordered it to be used. The decisive evidence was that Kim Kyung-soo and Kim Dong-won had established a secret chat room on Telegram where information related to public sentiments and other confidential data was transmitted. Kim Kyung-soo deleted all the information in the chat room, but his counterpart managed to take screenshots of the correspondence.
Up to a particular time, it seemed that the authorities had managed to “wrap” the problem and hide it under the carpet, especially after “due to the lack of thorough investigation by police and prosecutors, the main evidence was lost.” But on January 30, 2019, the Seoul Central District Court sentenced Kim to two years in prison for conspiracy to conduct a cyberattack and added another ten months in jail for violating the Public Official Elections Act with a two-year stay of execution. In April 2019, however, Kim Kyoung-soo was released on bail, having served 77 days after the first court decision.
In November 2020, Kim was sentenced (although he was still free on bail), and in July 2021, the sentence was upheld, and Kim Kyung-soo will have to return to prison. Kim was immediately removed from his position as governor by court order because an elected public official loses his position when a court issues a prison sentence or harsher punishment in a criminal case. He would also be suspended for five years after his prison term expired under the Public Officers Act, so any return to the political arena would be impossible for about seven years.
This will seriously affect the political career of Kim, who before the criminal case was often referred to as “the next Moon Jae-in” and was expected to hold higher positions in the ruling bloc and even run for president one day.
The political parties of the Republic of Korea reacted ambiguously to the decision of the Supreme Court. The spokeswoman for the ruling Toburo Democratic Party Lee So-young, expressed regret over the Supreme Court’s decision while also saying that she respected it. Jong Joo-hye, the spokeswoman for the main opposition People Power Party, said the manipulation of public opinion that Kim Kyoung-soo was caught in was an act that destroys democracy. She added that such actions should not be allowed since they undermine the fairness of the election process.
People Power Party also called on President Moon Jae-in and the Toburo Democratic Party to apologize because Kim Kyoung-soo was a key party figure during the campaign before the 2017 presidential election and until a specific time was even planned by the president as his successor. In an official statement, People Power Party called the final condemnation of Kim the obvious result of serious and shameless actions that have trampled our democracy by falsifying public opinion.
Conservative MP Hong Joon-pyo and the head of the minor opposition People’s Party, Ahn Cheol-soo, who were Moon’s rivals in the 2017 election and are set to run in 2022, also attacked the president. The former wrote on Facebook that Kim was Moon’s secretary during the election, and therefore Moon may have been his accomplice. And, “if Moon became president through manipulated public opinion, isn’t it right for him to make a public apology?”
Ahn also wrote on Facebook that everyone knows who benefited the most from the crime committed by Kim and the blogger team. “I urge Moon to apologize to the people of Korea, whose right to know the truth has been violated by the crime.”
As the Korea Times notes, the court ruling “dealt a heavy blow to not only the political career of Kim, one of the closest aides to President Moon Jae-in, but also the entire ruling bloc as the guilty verdict recognized that an attempt to rig public opinion had taken place ahead of the 2017 presidential election.” In a similar formulation, the author wrote: “Kim’s verdict is vital because conservatives’ reasoning about manipulation of public opinion through a team of bloggers not only turned out to be accurate but confirmed the fact that it had been ordered by a man in the president’s inner circle.
However, there is a chance that the case will not end with this verdict: the author cannot help but recall the “reasonable suspicion” (a common term during the Candlelight Revolution) that the duo of the governor and the blogger were not only engaged in this, but also in warming up the indignant people during the mass demonstrations against Park Geun-hye. Back then, people took to the streets mainly due to rumors and leaks that gave the impression of blatant Rasputinism. “Insider information” that Park’s entire policy was based solely on the predictions of the shamaness Choi Soon-sil, whom she blindly believed? Tales of orgies with hired gigolos that the ex-president hosted right in the Blue House? Speculation on the blood of the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster, during which the president was allegedly out of reach for seven hours “for the reason described above. Leaks, supposedly from the investigative team, that Park will stage a coup d’état, and everyone needs to take to the streets? None of this fake news was subsequently confirmed, but that became clear later, and things done cannot be undone.
However “it is rumored that” all the evidence directly indicating that the campaign to deceive the people and PR on the blood of the dead children of Sewol were carried out by hired bloggers under the direct order of Moon Jae-in’s favorite, was lost in the course of the investigation. But there are other stories in the political life of the Republic of Korea about miraculously discovered testimonies that come to light at a politically opportune moment. So maybe when Governor Kim is in jail and unable to influence the situation the way he used to, something will be found. And then, amidst the rest of Moon’s difficulties, the throne beneath him could eventually collapse.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, 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”.