South Korea’s National Intelligence Service has confirmed that it successfully influenced the country’s 2012 presidential election with tactically disseminated disinformation using “fake news” and social media bots. 

The agency confirmed as part of an internal investigation that it used “extra-departmental” teams — as many as 30 — in a two-year project leading up to the election, which saw conservative Park Geun-hye narrowly defeat liberal opponent Moon Jae-in. The results of the probe were revealed during the second trial of former NIS director Won Sei-hoon for his efforts to influence that election.

According to the NIS report, Won directed both agency officials and civilians adept at using the Internet to spread “pro-government opinions” in support of conservative candidates and politicians. Under Won’s order, opposing viewpoints were labeled as “attempts by pro-North Korean forces to disrupt state affairs.”

The probe found that the same tactics were used to influence elections for the South Korean National Assembly in 2010 and 2011.

Won reportedly said during a meeting eight months before the December 2012 contest between Park and Moon:

Our psychological operations against North Korea are important, but our psychological operations against the South Korean public are pretty important, too.

Using information to influence elections is against South Korean law; Won was indicted seven months later for violating the law barring the NIS from that exact type of political involvement. He was first convicted on 11 September 2014, and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison with a suspended sentence (because he had already been jailed for 14 months in connection with a separate corruption conviction). Won was also acquitted on charges of violating a law barring public officials at large from meddling in elections.

On 16 July 2015, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Won after saying there was no explicit link between his pro-conservative directive and “work-related writings and hundreds of Twitter accounts” used to drum up opposition against Moon’s 2012 candidacy. Park defeated Moon to become the country’s first female president on 19 December 2012, capturing 51.6 percent of the vote to his 48 percent, but she was impeached just under four years later in a 234-56 vote by lawmakers amid allegations of corruption.

South Korea’s Constitutional Court upheld the vote in a March 2017 decision. Moon went on to capture the presidency in a special election held on 9 May 2017.

Sources:

McCurry, Justin.   “South Korea Spy Agency Admits Trying to Rig 2012 Presidential Election.”
    The Guardian.   4 August 2017.

Kim, Sam.   “SKorea’s Ex-Spy Chief Indicted in Election Scandal.”
    San Diego Union-Tribune.   13 June 2013.

Kim, Hyung-jin.   “South Korea’s Top Court Orders New Trial for Ex-Spy Chief Convicted of Online Campaign Smears.”
    U.S. News & World Report.   16 July 2015.

Hu, Elise.   “South Korean Judges Uphold President Park Geun-hye’s Impeachment.”
    NPR.   9 March 2017.

BBC News.   “Park Geun-hye: South Korea Lawmakers Vote to Impeach Leader.”
    9 December 2016.

Phippen, J. Westen.   “Moon Jae in Wins South Korea’s Presidential Election.”
    The Atlantic.   9 May 2017.