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Is South Korea Prepared for Election Disinformation, Deepfakes, and Cyberattacks?

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Is South Korea Prepared for Election Disinformation, Deepfakes, and Cyberattacks?

The Summit for Democracy in Seoul highlighted the challenges posed by AI, disinformation, and outright hacking. How is South Korea preparing?

Is South Korea Prepared for Election Disinformation, Deepfakes, and Cyberattacks?
Credit: Depositphotos

The third iteration of the Summit for Democracy was hosted in Seoul on March 20, providing a crucial platform for global leaders to address challenges in strengthening democratic institutions, both at home and abroad. The event was particularly significant as it focused on the impact of disinformation, fake news, and digital threats to democratic practices, especially in light of the numerous elections worldwide to take place in 2024.

In this regard, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, during the plenary session, highlighted the detrimental impact of fake news on the integrity of elections, which are the foundation of democracy. The phenomenon of AI-generated fake images, videos, and audio content, as pointed out by Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, has also significantly blurred the lines between truth and falsehood, thereby impeding the electorate’s ability to make informed political decisions. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also elaborated on how authoritarian regimes exploit digital technologies to erode democratic values. 

Such remarks emphasized the critical nature of this issue in global politics. In 2024, over 40 national elections are set to occur in countries that collectively contribute to more than half of the world’s economic output, including India, the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Korea.

Global Trend: Cyber Threats to the Electoral Process

The concerns raised by global leaders at the Summit for Democracy are not far-fetched at all. Indeed, the increasing sophistication of artificial intelligence (AI) and deepfake technologies poses significant challenges to the integrity of democratic processes worldwide. These technologies enable the creation and dissemination of highly convincing but entirely fabricated audio and visual content, leading to misinformation and disinformation campaigns that can undermine public trust and influence election outcomes. We are already seeing real-world examples.

In the days leading up to Slovakia’s parliamentary elections in September 2023, deepfake audio clips generated by artificial intelligence, falsely portraying Slovakian leader Michal Šimečka discussing election rigging, spread across social media platforms. Although these statements were fabricated, the reach of these recordings across social media platforms was extensive, and it was not clear how many listeners were aware the video was fake, despite post-hoc efforts.

Similarly, in February 2023, the Nigerian press reported an incident involving an AI-generated audio clip that purported to feature a presidential candidate discussing vote rigging. This fake audio clip was designed to sound convincing, thereby potentially swaying public opinion and casting doubts on the integrity of the electoral process. 

Moldova also experienced a similar challenge when a deepfake video circulated online, falsely showing President Maia Sandu endorsing a Russian-friendly party and announcing her resignation. This deepfake aimed to erode trust in the electoral process, candidates, and institutions. Officials suspected the Russian government’s involvement.

In a more traditional example of the cyber threat to elections, in 2019, Australia experienced a cyberattack targeting its national Parliament and three major political parties before the general election. According to a Reuters report, Australian intelligence concluded that the attack was backed by China’s Ministry of State Security. 

Taken together, these incidents serve as a stark reminder that the threat of digital misinformation is a global challenge, not confined to any single election or country. The interconnectedness of digital and social media platforms enables bad actors to refine their tactics in one nation and swiftly escalate their campaigns across borders, potentially impacting democratic processes on a global scale. Meanwhile, vulnerabilities in national cybersecurity infrastructures also pose a potential threat to election security.

These cases should serve as a wake-up call for all nations preparing for elections in 2024. 

South Korea Is Not an Exception

South Korea, known for its advanced digital infrastructure, is still vulnerable to cyber threats, especially those concerning its elections. The continuous North Korean cyberattacks on Seoul underscore a critical challenge to the nation’s upcoming general election on April 10.

Pyongyang has historically employed “social disturbances, psychological warfare, and provocations” to influence the outcomes of South Korean elections. A North Korean defector and a former North Korean senior colonel from the Reconnaissance General Bureau, using the alias Kim Kuk Song, disclosed his involvement in a cyber campaign during the 2012 South Korean presidential election. According to Kim, North Korean cyber forces undertook operations to manipulate public opinion by posting comments critical of conservative candidate Park Geun-hye and centrist Ahn Cheol-soo in the comment sections of political news articles. This covert propaganda aimed to sway South Korean voters toward candidates perceived as more favorable to North Korea and to exacerbate internal divisions within South Korea’s political environment.

This trend is still evident in 2024. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) has warned about the increased likelihood of misinformation using advanced digital technology during election periods. An official from the NIS raised concerns that North Korea-supported hackers have started deploying AI to create fake images and text, stirring up political unrest and confusion in South Korea as the election on April 10 approaches.

Furthermore, South Korea should also be cautious about cybersecurity for its electronic electoral system. North Korea’s cyber capabilities continue to pose a significant threat, as demonstrated by a recent incident involving the breach of a South Korean presidential staff member’s personal emails. This cyber intrusion reminds us of the persistent nature of North Korean cyber operations. The South Korean electoral system could be a target in the future.

Indeed, in October 2023, a cybersecurity evaluation conducted jointly by the NIS and the National Election Commission (NEC) revealed significant vulnerabilities within the NEC’s cybersecurity infrastructure. The NIS warned that North Korean hackers could potentially exploit these weaknesses to access the NEC’s network, manipulate voter information, and affect the outcome of an election. The investigation highlighted several critical areas of concern, including the management of voter registers, ballot counting, and early voting systems, which were all susceptible to cyberattacks. 

In this respect, South Korea should put efforts to protect its national election in April against the dual threats of North Korean cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns in cyberspace. The digital realm has already become a key battlespace, with North Korea adept at deploying cyberattacks and pervasive disinformation tactics aimed at undermining political stability and public trust in democratic institutions. 

The stakes also extend beyond national boundaries; a successful breach or information operation against Seoul could serve as a blueprint for similar actions against other democracies, potentially destabilizing electoral processes globally. Therefore, South Korea’s efforts in cyberspace not only protect its own democratic institutions but also contribute to the broader defense of democracy worldwide against the rising tide of cyber and informational threats.