South Korea spy agency admits trying to fix election

Clandestine online campaign helped conservative Park Geun-hye to victory

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South Korea’s spy agency has admitted trying to manipulate the 2012 presidential election through a secretive online campaign to benefit Park Geun-hye, the winning conservative candidate.

An internal investigation found that about 30 “extra-departmental” teams of National Intelligence Service officials and tech-savvy civilians posted messages using 3,500 IDs to support conservative politicians over more than three years in the run-up to the vote.

They also uploaded posts critical of Ms Park’s political opponents, a government task force in charge of reforming the NIS said on Friday. Ms Park narrowly defeated Moon Jae-in, her liberal opponent, at the election.

Critics had for years questioned the vote. Ms Park, who was impeached this year after an unrelated corruption scandal, is accused of bribery and abuse of power, charges she denies.

After winning election in May, Mr Moon appointed a new head to the NIS who vowed to end the agency’s decades-long involvement in domestic politics. 

“We are dropping involvement in politics and strengthening our core intelligence capabilities by focusing on our traditional role in national security and handling operations regarding overseas affairs,” Suh Hoon, the NIS chief, told parliament last month. 

Ms Park has denied she benefited from the agency’s activities. The New Korea party, the main conservative party, said the NIS probe was a “politically motivated” reprisal against former presidents.

Investigators also found that NIS psychological warfare units ran a smear campaign to influence parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2012 when Lee Myung-bak, Ms Park’s rightwing predecessor, was in power.

“The teams were charged with spreading pro-government opinions and suppressing anti-government views, branding them as attempts by pro-North Korean forces to disrupt state affairs,” the NIS’s report said. 

The online teams were created in 2009, soon after Won Sei-hoon became head of the spy agency. The report said he orchestrated the clandestine campaign to support Ms Park and other conservatives.

A court sentenced Won to three years in prison in 2015 for his role in the campaign. But the Supreme Court ordered his retrial citing a lack of evidence, and the NIS report was released on Friday, the final stage of his trial. The court has yet to reach a verdict.

The report said Won ordered intelligence officials to intervene in elections, likening the importance of the online battle against “anti-government forces” to the agency’s activities against North Korea.

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