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Druking special counsel agrees to call it quits

Aug 23,2018
A special counsel investigating a political influence campaign during last year’s presidential election announced Wednesday it would not seek an extension for its probe and will wrap up after a public disclosure of its findings next Monday.

“We have decided not to ask for an extension because a further investigation was deemed inappropriate,” said the independent counsel’s spokesman Park Sang-yoong at its office in southern Seoul. “We have reached this decision based on a comprehensive assessment of the investigation, including the level of truth uncovered, amount of evidence collected and the necessity of further inquiry.”

The independent counsel, headed by a former prosecutor recommended by opposition parties, was launched on June 27 to look into an alleged online manipulation campaign used to generate support for President Moon Jae-in before the presidential elections last year.

It had a sixty-day mandate that expires this Saturday. The counsel was mulling whether to ask Moon for a 30-day extension.

Its decision not to extend the probe however, suggests the counsel was unable to withstand the pressure lined up against it after its request for the arrest of South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Kyoung-soo was rejected by a court last Saturday.

The governor is accused of collaborating with Kim Dong-won, a power blogger known by his online alias Druking, to mount a manipulation campaign on Naver to generate support for President Moon Jae-in during last year’s election campaign.

The blogger and his associates posted comments on news articles that were complimentary of Moon and used software to artificially inflate the number of “likes” on the comments. At the time, Kim Kyoung-soo was an aide to Moon, and the counsel believes he may have promised favors to the group in return for their help.

Despite its early successes in uncovering evidence pertaining to the blogger that the police and regular prosecutors failed to unearth in previous investigations, the counsel faced mounting accusations by the ruling Democratic Party of being politically motivated after it focused on Kim Kyoung-soo and other political figures with ties to the blogger.

In particular, its pursuit of a Druking-associated lawyer ended in tragedy after Rep. Roh Hoe-chan, an influential figure in Korea’s progressive circles, committed suicide after he was accused of receiving money from the lawyer. Roh took his own life on July 23 and admitted in a suicide note that he had taken money from Kim Dong-won and his group, though he said they received no favors from him.

Investigators continued to pursue their case against Kim Kyoung-soo however, and filed for his arrest with the Seoul Central District Court last Friday. But the court deemed the charges to be disputable and turned down the warrant request the following day.

Analysts say the investigation’s momentum fizzled out with this setback, eroding the counsel’s legitimacy in pursuing a politically sensitive case used by the opposition to attack the Moon administration.

This is the first time an independent counsel investigation has not sought an extension of its original mandate since the special prosecutor system was implemented in 1999 based on the U.S. model. Every one of the eleven independent investigations launched before this has asked for more time.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]