South Korea’s political cyber war

Since last year’s presidential elections, rivalry in politics has been played out on the internet.

Exactly a year ago, South Koreans were watching a hard-to-call presidential election unfold.

A close race between the liberal opposition candidate, Moon Jae-in, and the daughter of a former dictator, Park Geun-hye, was at last playing out, with Ms Park appearing to have pulled away slightly in the final days.

She had risen above accusations by her opponent’s supporters that she had benefited from dirty tricks carried out by the country’s intelligence agency.

Police had cleared the National Intelligence Service of an attempt to smear Mr Moon online – an act that would have broken its constitutionally-defined role, the terms of  which bar it from meddling in politics.

When the polls closed, Ms Park had won with 51.5 per cent of the vote, to Mr Moon’s 48 per cent.

How different things look 12 months later. Since the summer, South Korea’s national politics have been seized, in every sense, by the row over the last election.

On the anniversary of Park Geun-hye’s victory, a military investigation into one arm of the establishment – the military’s Cyber Command set up to counter North Korean internet attacks – has delivered its interim verdict.

Eleven officials, including the head of the psychological warfare unit, are to be handed over to prosecutors for indictment. They’re accused of posting nearly 300,000 comments on social networking sites, criticising Mr Moon and his Democratic United Party.

The senior man is alleged to have ordered his juniors to spread his anti-Moon writings, and to disregard political neutrality in their own online postings.

But in announcing all this the lead military investigator also cleared the present and former chiefs of Cyber Command of ordering the online activity, adding that nobody, the 11 accused included, had meddled in the election.

‘Shameless and absurd’

More than enough for opposition politicians to cry foul. The renamed Democratic Party has called the interim conclusion “shameless and absurd”.

The party wants an independent inquiry into the whole matter – covering the actions of Cyber Command, and the National Intelligence Service.

The NIS has for months been under investigation again, after a police chief was charged with withholding evidence in order to squash the initial claims against the agency.

Prosecutors say the service sent some 1.2 million tweets, either attacking Mr Moon, or praising Ms Park.

The President has consistently said that she did not ask for any such assistance, and has called on the opposition to allow the investigators to do their work.

It hasn’t stopped some opposition MPs from questioning the legitimacy of the election one recently called on President Park to resign.

Last week the NIS submitted plans to reform itself to the National Assembly: its new chief reportedly offering regrets to the politicians for the trouble that his agency had caused.

The plan includes less domestic spying, more severe punishment for agents guilty of political interference, and a ban on former spies joining any political party within three years of leaving the service.

But questions remain over a system where military and government agents are charged not just with defending the state from physical and cyber attack, but challenging “anti-state” North Korean propaganda online.

It leaves the line between legitimate activity and political meddling blurred at best.

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