Blogger Kim Dong-won, who writes under the alias “Druking,” is on trial in South Korea for the offense of “manipulating online opinion” against President Moon Jae-in and “obstructing business” by tinkering with a commercial website.
The charges against Kim involve manufacturing a few hundred phony “likes” for comments on a news site called Naver, which might seem like a trivial offense, but the case has blossomed into a scandal that might even involve the South Korean presidency.
Korea Joongang Daily lays out the charges against Kim and his situation in Seoul Central District Court:
According to police, on the night of Jan. 17 and into the next day, Kim and his accomplices used a program to increase the number of likes on comments critical of President Moon’s decision to field a joint hockey team with North Korea during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. The act was allegedly done as retaliation for the Moon administration denying a patronage post to one of Kim’s acquaintances.
Kim faces one charge of “obstructing business,” a punishable criminal offense in Korea. Two of Kim’s accomplices face the same charge of interfering with Naver’s operations. They, too, have admitted to the charge. Police arrested a third accomplice, but he has yet to stand trial.
Although Kim admitted to the charge, prosecutors requested the court proceed with his trial, saying they needed more time to sift through evidence. Their investigation could unearth more accomplices, they said, because Kim runs an online community with around 4,560 members.
The court set another trial date of May 16 but reminded prosecutors that Kim had the right to a speedy trial.
In other words, the meat of the charge against Kim Dong-won is that he used a software program to manipulate the popularity of posts on Naver, which is considered serious cyberattack under South Korean law.
The case gets really interesting when Kim’s ties to a prominent South Korean politician are considered:
From November 2016 to March this year, Kim allegedly exchanged text messages with Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo, a confidant of President Moon, on Telegram, a mobile messaging app.
Of particular interest to police is a string of messages sent between January and March last year, in the midst of a presidential election. The messages included links to websites and articles favorable toward Moon, who was then a presidential candidate. Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo frequently asked Kim Dong-won, the blogger, to share them, and the blogger usually replied that he would handle it, police said.
The relationship went deeper than Rep. Kim Kyong-soo enlisting Kim Dong-won to do a little astroturfing for his party and President Moon, and then it went sour, mutating the case into a full-blown corruption scandal that has opposition leaders calling for an independent counsel:
After Moon was elected, a member of Kim Dong-won’s online community allegedly asked the administration for a consul general post in Osaka, Japan.
One of Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo’s aides at the time, a man surnamed Han, then received 5 million won ($4,650) from a member of the community. Han claims the money was borrowed for personal use and that he returned it after Kim Dong-won was arrested.
However, police discovered that Kim Dong-won had sent a text message to Han in March mentioning the 5 million won transaction and threatening him after the alleged deal for the consular post fell through.
Mr. Han was hauled downtown by Seoul police and grilled for over ten hours about his role in the Druking scandal on Tuesday. He still maintains that the suspicious 5 million won payment was a personal loan that has nothing to do with politics. The police said they were able to verify that Han returned the money on March 26, which happens to be the day after Druking was arrested for his comment manipulation scheme.
Han, who no longer works for Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo, was booked for violating a South Korean anti-corruption law that forbids public officials from accepting sums of over 3 million won for any reason. The police are reportedly seeking to question Rep. Kim and might request a warrant to seize his bank records, telephone activity, and text messages.
The opposition smells blood in the political water, with Bareunmirae Party leader Kim Dong-cheol claiming that the Democratic Party of Korea fears a major scandal could emerge from a proper investigation. “Then the so-called Druking-Kim Kyoung-soo-gate may have to be called ‘Druking-Moon Jae-in-gate,’” he boldly predicted.
Some commentators in South Korea have sardonically observed that despite President Moon’s tremendous popularity, “Druking Gate” has become one of the most popular topics on Naver News … but since the charges against Druking concern artificially inflating “likes” to make certain stories appear more popular, is it possible to know how hot the Druking story really is?
Another Korea Joongang Daily article elaborates on the political scandal that could reach into South Korea’s presidential Blue House:
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 [Democratic Party of Korea].
This article mentions that police find it very suspicious that Druking has been able to keep a publishing company called Elm Tree running for eight years without ever publishing a single book, fueling suspicions that the company is a front used by Democratic Party officials to finance the blogger’s political shenanigans.
The last puzzling aspect of this bizarre scandal is why Druking would be tinkering with online comments to bring greater attention to a story critical of President Moon – remember that the Naver post he was manipulating castigated Moon for forming a joint Olympic hockey team with North Korea – if he was a digital hit man on the payroll of Moon’s party. There are theories the blogging group turned energetically against the DP after the promise of a political office failed to materialize, or even that they are still supporters who promoted an article critical of Moon in a false-flag operation intended to discredit his critics.
Indeed, the Blue House has rejected calls for an independent counsel by saying the Moon administration and Democratic Party of Korea were victims of Druking’s mischief.
Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo likewise rejected calls to drop his bid for the governorship of South Gyeongsang province in the next election because of the scandal, even after it was discovered that he has been communicating with Druking’s group during the police investigation, using the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Kim said he received one message from one of the defendants in the opinion-rigging case, but it had nothing to do with the case itself.
“The three volunteered to help Moon Jae-in and asked for too much of a reward. It is essential to know that they were bearing a grudge for being rejected, and criticized the government using a computer program called Macro on purpose,” Rep. Kim said of the defendants on Wednesday, referring to the program they alleged used to manufacture false approval on Never.
This seems like an endorsement of the theory that Druking and his associates are jilted supporters of the Democratic Party who turned against it while denying charges that their anger was provoked by the DP failing to live up to its end of a corrupt bargain.