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Police expand probe of opinion manipulation

Apr 18,2018
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Lawmakers of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party examine the office of a publishing company called Elm Tree in Paju, Gyeonggi, on Tuesday. The office is suspected to be a base for an online opinion manipulation campaign. [YONHAP]
Police on Tuesday expanded their probe into a possible operation to manipulate public opinion online by three expelled members of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), by looking into bank accounts of the trio to see if and how they were funded for the cyber operation.

The expansion came as opposition parties continue to cry foul over an unfolding scandal over online opinion manipulation that may have been carried out in last year’s presidential election campaign to favor candidate Moon Jae-in.

The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency is adding 17 additional investigators to the case.

“In light of growing public interest, we will get to the bottom of the case by thoroughly analyzing confiscated items,” said a police official involved in the case speaking on condition of anonymity.

The three suspects, including a 49-year-old power blogger who uses the ID Druking, were indicted on Tuesday on charges that they attempted to manipulate opinions online by running a program through which one is able to input multiple comments or likes for particular comments on news reports on Naver, Korea’s largest portal site. The police have so far determined the trio in recent weeks made 614 likes of remarks criticizing President Moon Jae-in’s decision to field a joint women’s hockey team with North Korea for the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games.

But the focus of the investigation into the trio led by Druking was online posts during the 2017 by-presidential election to help then-candidate Moon win the race.

The fact that Druking communicated with Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo of the DP, one of the closest aides to President Moon, has amplified suspicions that the blogger was linked to the party and even possibly to the Blue House, which Kim and the presidential office vehemently deny.

Rep. Kim said his relationship with the blogger was nothing more than what he has with any of his political supporters. But the fact that the lawmaker met the suspect multiple times and invited him to his National Assembly office has raised questions over the depth of their relationship. The police are planning to question Kim on details of his conversation with the suspect in the coming days.

The police said it would also look into how the blogger was able to maintain his publishing company called Elm Tree without publishing a single book since its founding eight years ago. The opposition suspects that Druking was funded by the DP for his covert cyber operations.

A revelation that Druking asked Kim to arrange for his acquaintance to get the consul general position in Osaka, and Kim in turn referred it to the Blue House, has added to suspicions over the relationship between the blogger, Kim and the ruling party.

The recommended acquaintance was vetted and deemed unfit to serve in the consul job by the presidential office, which insisted Tuesday no irregularity took place in the process.

After the person, a lawyer at a major law firm with a master’s degree from a renowned university in Japan, was turned down, Rep. Kim said the blogger complained about the failed appointment. A senior presidential official told reporters Tuesday that Baek Won-woo from the Blue House’s civil affairs office met with the recommended lawyer for an hour-long interview in late March to see why Druking was insisting that he be appointed to the Osaka position.

The revelations that the recommendation was referred to the Blue House and a civil affairs secretary met with the recommended person have led the opposition and critics to raise suspicions that the blogger was not simply a blogger but had surprising sway within the DP.

The opposition Liberty Korea Party on Tuesday proposed a motion to form an independent prosecutorial investigation into alleged online opinion rigging, saying, “Suspicions are mounting that there was a systemic effort by the Blue House and Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo to manipulate public opinion” with the help of Druking.

The centralist Bareunmirae Party called on prosecutors to uncover the truth of the case, alleging there was a “connection” between Druking and key members of the DP and the Blue House. “The fact that Rep. Kim was debriefed about Druking’s activity in detail and that he couldn’t turn down Druking’s job recommendation but referred it to the Blue House is strong circumstantial evidence for the connection,” said Rep. Kwon Eun-hee of the Bareunmirae Party.

BY KANG JIN-KYU, JANG JOO-YOUNG [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]