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Ex-spy chief to face court ruling

Prosecution continues probe on Won’s case as new evidence is found
Aug 30,2017
An appeals court will announce its decision today for the retrial of the country’s former spy chief, who is accused of meddling in the 2012 presidential election campaign to help the ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye.

On Monday, the Seoul High Court rejected the prosecution’s request for make further arguments against Won Sei-hoon, who headed the National Intelligence Service (NIS) from 2009 to 2013, during the presidency of Lee Myung-bak, for his retrial. The verdict and sentencing are scheduled to be announced today, as planned.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office made the request last week, based on newly discovered evidence. The closing arguments were made on July 24 and the prosecution already asked the court to punish Won with a four-year prison term. The court said Monday it sees no reason to resume the arguments because the trial has already proceeded significantly.

The court also said it will not allow the live broadcast of the session, citing the defendant’s wishes.

Won was prosecuted in June 2013 on charges of running an online smear campaign against Moon Jae-in, the main rival of Park in the 2012 presidential election. Park won by a slim margin, triggering questions about the fairness of the outcome.

Over the past four years, Won’s case went through the Seoul Central District Court, Seoul High Court, Supreme Court and then returned to the high court. The Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s conviction in July 2015, questioning the validity of some of the prosecution’s evidence and said the previous ruling should be reconsidered accordingly.

The retrial continued for two years and the Seoul High Court was to announce its verdict and sentencing on July 10. The prosecution, however, submitted transcripts of meetings at the agency discussing political operations as new evidence and the court accepted them. The announcement of the verdict and sentencing was rescheduled for today.

In the initial trial, Won was convicted of violating the law governing the NIS, but acquitted of the election law violation. In the appeals trial, he was convicted of both charges and sentenced to a three-year jail term.

While the trial was proceeding, Park was impeached and removed from office. Moon was elected and took office in May, and the NIS, under new leadership, is conducting internal probes into 13 cases of its own domestic political interference as part of a campaign to clean up its act. All 13 cases selected took place during the tenures of the last two conservative presidents, Lee and Park. The NIS’s cyber smear campaign against Moon during the 2012 presidential election was the top priority of the internal probes.

The internal investigation concluded earlier this month that Won led a group of civilians from 2009 to 2012 who were ordered to post online comments slandering liberal politicians and presidential candidates. The so-called “public opinion brigades” were paid through state coffers, according to the NIS. Around the 2012 presidential election, the NIS had about 3,500 members and some 200 million won ($177,746) was collectively paid to them every month, the probe said.

Following the conclusion, the NIS handed over the case to the prosecution, asking a formal investigation into the commentary troupe. About 30 people were particularly identified as suspects, and many of them were members of non-governmental organizations that received funding under the Lee administration.

The prosecution formed an investigation team on Aug. 23 and raided more than 30 homes and offices the next day. The suspects were accused of interfering in the 2012 presidential race in violation of the election law and the law governing the NIS. Among the offices raided was the office of the Yangji Association, a group created by retired NIS agents.

While the election law violation has a statute of limitations of six months, suspects can be labeled as Won’s accomplices, the prosecution said, and can face similar charges. Suspects were being summoned throughout last week for questioning and other raids took place on Monday.

According to sources of the prosecution, the suspects are making confessions one after another. “We thought they would deny the charges, but surprisingly many team leaders of the commentary troupes are admitting the charges,” a prosecution source told the JoongAng Ilbo on Tuesday.

“I participated in the online smear campaign at the order of the NIS,” one suspect was quoted as telling the prosecution. “I received the payment in cash, not through bank transfer, and spent it,” another was quoted as saying.

The situation is a complete change from the earlier investigation, during which many questioned by the prosecution after Won’s indictment in 2013 refused to cooperate. At the time, they denied the existence of the civilian opinion brigades or exercised their right to remain silent. “Some suspects are still denying their ties to the NIS,” the source said, “but most admitted it.”

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]