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Lawmaker ensnared in widening special counsel inquiry

July 19,2018
A special counsel investigation into Korea’s own “fake news” scandal has touched a prominent left-wing politician.

Roh Hoe-chan, a three-term lawmaker in the minority Justice Party, faces allegations of receiving illegal political funds worth 50 million won ($44,157) from a close associate of Kim Dong-won, a blogger and political operative at the center of a probe into a meticulously planned campaign to manipulate social media comments for partisan purposes.

The independent counsel believes Roh received the money from a lawyer surnamed Doh, who was arrested on Tuesday on suspicions of bribery and evidence tampering. The counsel team requested a pretrial detention warrant for Doh on Wednesday.

Doh allegedly gave Roh a total of 50 million won across two occasions in 2016. The special counsel believes the money came from donations by members of an online group led by Kim, who also goes by the alias Druking. Doh allegedly fabricated evidence to make it look like the 50 million won delivered to the lawmaker had been returned to a bank account that belonged to the online group.

Doh and Roh are high school classmates. Both have denied the charge.

The backlash from within the Justice Party is already strong against the lawmaker, who built a reputation for being a clean politician and eloquent orator.

“Can Roh be expelled from the party?,” read one post on the party’s online forum. “If the accusation that Roh had taken illegal funds turns out to be true, then the party must move right away to remove him from the party.”

Roh left for Washington on Wednesday with the floor leaders of four other political parties on a diplomatic trip. The special counsel expects to call him in for questioning when he returns on Monday.

The bribery suspicion is the latest development in a widening probe of the blogger known as Druking. In March, Kim was arrested along with three of his associates for using a piece of software called King Crab to manipulate the comments section on Naver, Korea’s most popular portal website. The group posted political comments under news articles and used the software to rig the number of “likes” on those comments to give the impression that one opinion dominated, according to prosecutors.

On Tuesday, the special counsel arrested Doh, who allegedly wanted the position of consul general in Osaka, Japan, in exchange for the group’s support of President Moon Jae-in during last year’s election. The group allegedly shared links favoring Moon and used the King Crab software to support the presidential candidate.

Kim Kyoung-soo, the current governor of South Gyeongsang and a close confidante of Moon who had contact with the group, said he sent Doh’s name to the Blue House, but when the office refused to grant the patronage position, the group allegedly turned on Moon by promoting comments critical of the president.

Roh’s alleged involvement with the Druking group is a sting for the Justice Party, which has six lawmakers in the 300-member National Assembly but an approval rating that is higher than the main opposition Liberty Korea Party.

According to a poll conducted over the weekend by the Korea Society Opinion Institute, the Justice Party’s approval rating stands at 8.3 percent, ahead of the conservative Liberty Korea Party’s 8.1 percent.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]