The story of South Korean blogger Kim Dong-won, better known by his online alias “Druking,” is developing into a major scandal for President Moon Jae-in’s party, even as President Donald Trump’s historic summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un approaches.
As reported a few weeks ago, Druking is on trial for using malicious software to generate phony “likes” for comments posted to South Korea’s popular news portal Naver. In short, he hacked the site to make some posts look much more popular than they actually were, with the alleged goal of benefiting President Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea.
Later, when promised rewards for his activities failed to materialize, Druking and his hacker group used their skills to get revenge against the politicians who betrayed them. (The common term for Druking and his associates in South Korean media is “power bloggers.”)
One intriguing aspect of the case is that Druking has been charged with “obstruction of business.” Under South Korean law, his manipulation of Naver comments is tantamount to vandalism. The website is a commercial property, and his shenanigans interfered with the owners’ ability to provide services to their customers. The concept is food for thought as people around the world wrestle with the challenge of social media manipulation and the spread of disinformation online.
On Thursday, Drunking wrote a letter published by South Korean media in which he alleged the worst suspicions surrounding his case are all true. He claimed then-Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo, a close confidant of President Moon, approved his tactic of rigging “likes” on social media posts to assist Moon’s presidential campaign in 2017, became actively involved in the effort by pointing out comments favorable to Moon that should be getting more “likes,” and promised compensation to the hacker group for its efforts.
“In September 2016, when Kim Kyoung-soo visited my office in Paju, I told him how the winning parties in the 2007 and 2012 presidential elections used a certain program online to manipulate public opinion. So in October of that year, I briefed Rep. Kim about the so-called ‘King Crab’ program in my office,” the blogger wrote.
“King Crab” is the program Druking and his associates employed to manipulate online comments. According to Druking, Kim was fully briefed on exactly how the program functioned.
“I told him, ‘If we do not use the program we will lose in the election again. If something goes wrong, I will take responsibility and go to jail. But we cannot do this without your consent or agreement. So will you give your consent, even just by a nod, if you cannot say anything?’” Druking recalled.
Druking claims Kim gave exactly such a nod of consent, and even complained as he was departing that the blog manipulators should have carried out the plan without even asking him. He also claims there were multiple witnesses to this exchange.
Early reports of the scandal suggested that only a modest number of social media posts were manipulated with phony “likes,” but on Thursday the prosecution revised the charges against Druking to indicate he generated almost 24,000 “likes” on 50 different posts. According to Druking’s letter, Kim was kept in the loop every step of the way, with daily updates about which Moon-friendly articles the group was illicitly promoting. He said Kim occasionally responded by asking why some comments favorable to Moon were not promoted more heavily.
Druking’s group wanted political favors as compensation for their efforts, rather than money. In fact, at one point he says they received a text message on the encrypted Telegram app from one of Moon’s aides complaining about a shortage of funds that was evidently intended for the aide’s wife. The bloggers misinterpreted it as a coded request for political financial support and sent 5 million won (about $4600) to the aide.
According to Druking, what his group really wanted was plum political appointments for two of its members. One of them got what he wanted, but the other did not, leading to a bitter breakup between Druking and Kim. In a darkly comedic note, Druking claims that Kim called him and offered his jilted associate a job as consul general in Sendai, which Druking took as an insult because Sendai is “a place that diplomats did not like to go because it’s close to Fukushima, where they had the nuclear disaster.”
Druking’s final allegation is that the government is going soft on Kim and scapegoating him to minimize political fallout from the scandal. The prosecution has dismissed many of his claims as false, and on Friday announced that he would be subject to legal action for making them.
Kim Kyoung-soo dismissed Druking’s tell-all letter as “a story worse than a third-rate novel.” One prosecution official theorized that he wrote the letter to get revenge against officials for refusing a deal he offered them.
In his letter, Druking accused the prosecution of seeking to “minimize the investigation” and claimed he overheard a prosecutor telling another suspect in the case to “leave out the details on Kim Kyoung-soo.”
Supporting Druking’s allegations is the inconvenient fact that Kim initially denied having any contact with the blogger, but the authorities discovered dozens of text messages he sent to Druking between January and March 2017, including some in which he explicitly asked for articles favorable to Moon to be promoted.
The Druking affair has become a significant partisan struggle in the National Assembly, as Yonhap News reported on Thursday:
Partisan wrangling has deepened after a minor opposition party demanded a special investigation be expanded to include President Moon Jae-in and the ruling party, citing Druking’s suspected online comment rigging linked to last year’s presidential election.
The LKP and other opposition parties are demanding that the probe be conducted in a similar manner and scope to a 2016 special counsel investigation into a corruption scandal involving then-President Park Geun-hye and her confidante. But the DP has called for the probe to be on a smaller scale.
Moon achieved the presidency in a special election held after his predecessor Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed from office, so his party might have some trouble selling Korean voters on the notion that a political corruption investigation into his own administration should be artificially limited.
After reporting on the latest developments in the Druking case, Korea Joongang Daily wrote an editorial pointing out that either the blogger Kim Dong-wan or the politician Kim Kyoung-soo must be lying, and the question of which is urgent, because Kim Kyoung-soo is currently running for a provincial governorship.
The editors found Kim Dong-wan’s allegations about a politically biased prosecution disturbing enough to merit a broader and deeper investigation:
The blogger also raised suspicions about the prosecution. In the letter, he said he heard from another person also under questioning in the case that a prosecutor ordered testimonies related to the former lawmaker removed from the records. He said prosecutors did not answer when he asked if they had the will to bring in Kim, the former lawmaker. The prosecution claimed the blogger was making up stories after they turned down his offer to cut a deal by testifying against the former lawmaker. Since the questioning is fully recorded, it won’t be difficult to find out who is telling the truth.
A special counsel team can be assembled. The law enforcement authorities must do their work properly in the meantime. They must do their utmost to recover as much evidence as possible.
Moon Jae-in’s soaring popularity, with approval numbers around 83 percent, would seem like enough to insulate him from a scandal about a “power blogger” cranking out “likes” on some news website posts, especially since Moon’s popularity derives from encouraging negotiations with North Korea which voters probably do not want to disrupt. On the other hand, Shinzo Abe looked to be floating far above a minor cronyism scandal in Japan, until he suddenly wasn’t.