South Gyeongsang Governor Kim Kyoung-soo on Wednesday received a two-year prison term for his involvement in an online opinion rigging scandal.
Kim’s conviction is a blow to President Moon Jae-in. Both are members of the ruling Democratic Party, and Kim was a key aide to Moon during his election campaign in 2017.
The Seoul Central District Court said that Kim was immediately arrested after his conviction. He was to be held at a detention facility near Seoul, a court official said, requesting anonymity citing department rules.
Both Kim and prosecutors have one week to appeal. If Kim’s prison term is upheld in higher courts, he will be stripped of his governor post, the court official said.
For months, local media have reported on allegations that Kim allegedly colluded with a politics blogger, widely known by his online pseudonym Druking, to sway online public opinion to support Moon ahead of the 2017 presidential election.
According to media reports, Kim was suspected of conspiring with Druking to manipulate online opinion by artificially inflating the number of “likes” given to comments supporting Moon and (according to some reports) undertaking a negative campaign against rival candidate Ahn Cheol-soo. At an earlier court hearing, Druking admitted that “[f]rom 2016 to 2018, we did everything to make Moon president and Kim his second-in-command,” according to UPI.
After a special investigation into the case, Kim was found guilty of all charges. In a separate ruling earlier the same day, the Seoul Central District Court also found Druking (whose real name is Kim Dong-won, no relation) guilty of involvement in the campaign and sentenced him to three-and-a-half years in prison, The Korea Times reported.
“The court ruled that Governor Kim… was deeply involved in the rigging project, from devising ways to do it to actually carrying it out… Kim was regularly briefed by Druking on its progress and gave his team the final go-ahead for the operation,” Korea Times noted.
Moon isn’t directly involved in the scandal. His office called Kim’s conviction “totally unexpected.”
“We will calmly watch until the final verdict” by the highest court is issued, said presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom.
The 2017 election was held after Moon’s conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye was removed from office for corruption. It was unclear how much Kim’s opinion rigging helped Moon’s campaign. He won an easy victory while South Korean conservatives were badly hurt and split over the Park scandal.
The opinion rigging scandal is widely viewed as ironic as Moon was a victim of a smear online campaign launched by South Korea’s spy agency to help Park defeat him ahead of the 2012 election, when Park’s conservative predecessor Lee Myung-bak was in power.
High-profile corruption scandals are all-too-routine in South Korea, which achieved democracy in the late 1980s following decades of military-backed dictatorships. Nearly all South Korean presidents have been arrested or embroiled in scandals at the close of their terms or after leaving office. Both Park and Lee are serving lengthy prison terms over separate corruption scandals.
By Hyung-Jin Kim for the Associated Press with additional reporting by The Diplomat.