The Korea Herald


Ex-defense minister gets commuted 2-year sentence for political meddling

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : Aug. 18, 2023 - 13:51

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Former Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin (second from left) heads out of Seoul High Court after a ruling that convicted him of political interference on Friday. (Yonhap) Former Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin (second from left) heads out of Seoul High Court after a ruling that convicted him of political interference on Friday. (Yonhap)

Kim Kwan-jin, former defense minister under the conservative former Lee Myung-bak administration, was handed down a two-year jail sentence for instructing members of the ministry's Cyber Operations Command to write and distribute over 9,000 political comments online from 2011 to 2013 in a bid to sway public opinion during a period in which there were two national elections.

The commuted sentence -- from the previous 2 1/3-year prison term by an appellate court in October 2020 -- had been widely expected as the Supreme Court in October 2022 sent the case back to Seoul High Court due to lack of institutional competence in the lower court's decision.

"Interfering in the free formation of public opinion by having his unit subordinates post political opinions and his abuse of power undermining the investigation into the case so that it could not be conducted fairly cannot be taken lightly," the court said.

The court, however, did not immediately send Kim to jail after the ruling. Kim, a current civil member of the presidential defense innovation committee under the Yoon Suk Yeol administration, commented briefly after the ruling that he "had no words to say."

If either the prosecution or the defendant appeals the ruling, the case will reach a final resolution in the Supreme Court.

This is the latest in the series of legal cases against Kim that have lasted four years.

With this ruling, the 73-year-old Kim has been convicted for meddling in political affairs by instructing his subordinates in the military cyber command to write and circulate over 9,000 online comments supporting the then-Lee administration and ruling party while criticizing the opposition, especially during a period in which there were two nationwide elections, under the pretense of cyber warfare to counter North Korea.

In the April 2012 general election, the conservative Saenuri Party won the majority of seats -- 152 out of 300 -- and in the Dec. 2012 presidential election, conservative Park Geun-hye won and was elected president.

Ongoing allegations against him are that he abused his power as the defense minister to obstruct the ongoing investigation into the allegations itself, to fabricate its results before they were announced, and to hire staff at the cyber command based on their political affiliations.

Kim is a retired four-star Army general who served as defense minister from 2010 to 2014 under the Lee Myung-bak administration, and as national security director from 2014 to 2017 under the Park Geun-hye administration.

Kim in February 2019 was sentenced by a district court to 2 1/2 years of imprisonment, but his sentence was commuted to 2 1/3 years by a high court in 2020, as the high court did not acknowledge his involvement in the allegations that he had hired staff based on their political affiliations or fabricated the probe results.

Korea's top court in 2022 remanded the case to the high court as it did not recognize as an abuse of power crime Kim having preventing a key Cyber Operations Command official from being arrested while the investigation into the political meddling was underway -- one of the allegations against Kim.

Alongside the Defense Ministry's Cyber Operations Command, the National Intelligence Service was also found to be involved in the political maneuvering of public opinion in support of the conservatives.