The Koreas

Suspicions Grow in South Korea Over China’s Online Influence Operations

Claims about Chinese attempts to divide South Korean society are gaining increasing attention.

Tae-jun Kang
Suspicions Grow in South Korea Over China’s Online Influence Operations
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

In February, one post caught the eyes of online users in South Korea. The uploader, who claimed to be a Korean Chinese, said Chinese “agents” were playing a major role in manipulating online opinion and disseminating pro-government and pro-China content to encourage social division among South Koreans with different political views.

One of strategies is to flock to online communities with ongoing debates to promote ideas that could cause further friction among users, according to the post uploader, who claimed that the Chinese government is behind the operation.

In response, some online users conducted an experiment. They threw out “bait” by creating a fake online debate. They posted in prominent online communities in South Korea a link supposedly connected to a discussion board where the debate is happening. Instead, however, the link went to websites that are banned in China, such as Free Tibet or Free Hong Kong.

The idea behind this experiment was to catch Chinese people who pretend to be South Korean online users, since such websites are heavily censored in China.

The result was bizarre but interesting. A massive number of active online users who clicked the link began to give the same response. They all left a comment to say, “I am an individual” in Korean.

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That reaction raised further questions among South Korean online users. The phrase “I am an individual” sounds unnatural in Korean language and is not commonly used in the South.

Some theorized that it was a way for Chinese people to express that they are not associated with websites banned in China. They left such a comment to prove that they were tricked into connecting to those websites, and it was against their intention.

The post and following experiment went viral enough to catch attention from the country’s lawmakers. Citing the experiment, Park Sung-joong, a lawmaker of the conservative United Future Party, said in early March that he would push for a new bill to prevent online opinion rigging activities by non-Koreans in the future.

Among his proposals, the main idea is to make it mandatory for internet portal websites to reveal the location of users who leave comments on online communities.

He also cited media reports that raised suspicion over China’s online influence operations in foreign countries, saying that there is no guarantee South Korea could be an exception.

For instance, the Sydney Morning Herald reported in November last year that the Chinese government was seeking to “take over” Australia’s political system through its “insidious” foreign interference operations.

At the time, the paper quoted former intelligence chief Duncan Lewis as saying that the Chinese government was trying to place themselves in a position of advantage through such operations.

He added that Chinese authorities were working to win influence in social, business, and media circles as well as targeting politicians.

Back in 2015, Hong Kong-based daily Ming Pao also reported that China was recruiting “online agents” who specialized in online opinion-rigging activities, adding that there were about 10 million of them, including 4 million university students.

In response to finger-pointing from the political circle, Naver, the country’s largest internet portal website, dismissed the possibility of rigging activities, citing a new safeguard it introduced to prevent them.

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“We limit the number of comments or likes per user and closely monitor any illegal or unfair attempts for manipulation,” an unnamed official at Naver told local media.

In addition, the portal website decided to stop operating the “trending keyword” board on its front page during the upcoming legislative election. Naver’s trending keyword board is often cited by local media outlets and online users as a good barometer to gauge public sentiment.

It also will temporarily stop providing a “related keyword” from its search function. Naver users can see related keywords automatically when they search for something on the website.

Daum, the country’s second-largest portal website, also halted providing trending keywords and shut down the comment section on news reports.

Meanwhile, United Future Party members sued several notorious online users who are suspected to be non-Korean “agents” trained by China. They are currently being investigated by South Korean prosecutors.