|Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok speaks during a news briefing on Tuesday. (Yonhap News)|
In an interim report after a week of inquiry into the case, the ministry confirmed that three civilian employees and one non-commissioned military officer registered “private” comments on their blogs and Twitter.
Based on their statements, the four employees were not directed by higher authorities to make the online postings, officials said.
The ministry turned a fact-finding survey into a full-scale investigation to see if the employees violated the military criminal law and ministry regulations that mandate service members maintain political neutrality.
“We have so far confirmed four social networking service accounts, which were reported in the media. The four (members of the command) admitted that they were their accounts,” ministry spokesperson Kim Min-seok told reporters.
“To ensure that there would be no suspicions left at all about the case, we will exhaustively investigate.”
The survey began last Tuesday after some opposition lawmakers and media raised suspicions that the cyber command might have mobilized some of its members to post election-related comments online to help then-candidate Park Geun-hye.
The suspicions came amid persisting bickering over the allegations that former National Intelligence Service chief Won Sei-hoon directed his operatives to post political comments online to help tip the scale in favor of Park.
During the expanded probe, ministry officials and civilian cyber experts will investigate whether there are additional suspects and if the suspects made political postings with directives from higher authorities.
Amid the growing criticism over the case, ministry spokesperson Kim called on the public to continue to support the cyber warfare command, which was established in 2010 to counter increasing cyber attacks from North Korea.
“The command is the current operational unit to counter relentless cyber threats from North Korea. If there is any leak as to their operations (during the investigation), it could incur enormous damage to national security,” he said.
Kim also repudiated a series of allegations regarding the escalating political scandal.
He denied that the National Intelligence Service controlled the operations of the cyber command with some of its budget flowing into the unit. He argued that there was no budget from the NIS to support the command.
The main opposition Democratic Party, for its part, criticized the Defense Ministry’s decision saying that the preliminary probe has achieved little that was not already made known.
“Is the interviews with the four agents all there is to the probe that was conducted for a week?” the DP said in a statement.
“It cannot but be described as a time-buying probe to allow evidence to be destroyed.”
Citing Saenuri Party’s deputy floor leader Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun’s earlier comments, the DP also accused the Defense Ministry of following the ruling party’s “guidelines.”
On Sunday, Yoon said that the postings were “private actions” claiming that he verified the issue “through many routes.”
The main opposition also accused the military’s investigative branches as being fundamentally unable to conduct a fair investigation, and that the party will step up its own efforts for revealing the “actual truth.”
By Choi He-suk and Song Sang-ho