Special counsel Huh Ik-bum and his team have started investigating the online opinion rigging scandal involving a detained power blogger and several close associates of President Moon Jae-in. The investigation and its result will have many implications for Korean society and politics.
First, it would put to the test the nation’s justice system, which has often been challenged in past cases involving those in powerful positions, including the president, senior government officials and politicians.
One case in point is a special counsel investigation into former President Lee Myung-bak over stock price manipulation allegations, which was conducted in the first year of Lee’s presidency in 2008. The special counsel team only cleared Lee of the allegations, prompting criticism that the special counsel system was exploited to exonerate Lee.
Huh and his team ought to dispel public skepticism about their commitment to get to the bottom of the case. The skepticism arises from the fact that the probe targeting Moon’s close aides comes at a time when the Moon administration and the ruling party are unusually strong in politics. In recent local elections, Moon’s ruling party scored the biggest-ever landslide victory in the nation’s election history.
It is against this backdrop that police faced criticism that they did not carry out due investigation because those implicated in the case included key members of the inner circle of the powerful, popular president.
All criminal cases come to close at the court, but major allegations made so far -- some of which have already been verified by police -- and common sense tell you that key figures in the case should not be allowed to avoid criminal charges.
One of the key figures is a power blogger, Kim Dong-won who is better known by the online alias “Druking.” He has been in detention since April for manipulating comments on online news articles to sway public opinion. Heading an online community, the blogger was engaged in opinion-rigging activities since October 2016, seven months before the presidential election.
The case gained attention because he claimed that he had been in close contact with some of Moon’s key aides, including South Gyeongsang Province Gov.-elect Kim Kyoung-soo.
In a recent open letter he wrote in his detention cell, Druking claimed that the governor-elect visited his office to watch a demonstration of the online opinion-rigging software and gave his consent. Police investigators found that the two men communicated with each other through a secure mobile messenger app.
There are more allegations that point to a suspicious relationship between Druking and other senior presidential aides. Song In-bae, presidential secretary for political affairs, met Druking four times. Baek Won-woo, presidential civil affairs secretary, met a person Druking recommended to Kim Kyoung-soo as a candidate for the position of consul general in Osaka.
There are allegations about suspicious money as well. Song allegedly received 2 million won ($1,780) for participating in a forum Druking’s online community hosted and a former aide to Kim Kyoung-soo received 5 million won from Druking, only returning it after the blogger was detained.
All these point to a simple equation. Druking and his associates were engaged in online activities for political purposes; they were in close contact with Moon’s aides; and there were money and government appointments involved.
Special counsel Huh said that the investigation by his team will go in the direction “evidence” suggests. There is no doubt that efforts to find evidence should focus on whether and how the Druking group committed any illegal online opinion-rigging activities during the presidential election, and how close the ties between the Moon aides and the online group were. The success or failure of the team will be determined by its work on these key issues.
The Druking scandal comes after online opinion manipulation scandals committed by government intelligence agencies during the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations. It is yet another case showing that democracy faces a new kind of threat in the digital age. The Huh team’s mission is more important in this regard.