The prosecution announced Thursday that National Intelligence Service agents posted around 1.21 million tweets with the intention of swaying last year’s parliamentary and presidential elections.
The additional findings are expected to intensify the on-going political clash over the state agencies’ suspected illegal electioneering in favor of then-ruling Saenuri Party candidate, President Park Geun-hye.
A special investigation team of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office said that all the newly discovered posts were in violation of the election law and the NIS law that bans agents from intervening in politics.
A total of 26,550 original tweets were posted and spread by being retweeted, they said.
The prosecutors have requested a local court to allow new charges to be added in the indictment against former NIS chief Won Sei-hoon, whose hearing is scheduled for Monday next week. The court decided to review the prosecution’s request on Friday.
The investigation into the NIS had slowed down after the indictment of Won, accused of masterminding the online smear campaign on major Internet bulletin boards.
The probe later took center stage in political debate upon the removal of head prosecutor Yoon Seok-yeol from the special investigation team in October. Yoon claimed to have been pressured by his superiors to play down the investigation, and a month later, received a reprimand for not following due investigation process.
According to the prosecution, of the 1.21 million tweets, 647,000 were about the election and 562,000 were about politics in general.
They are now looking into how many of the original 26,550 tweets were directly composed by the spy agency officials and how many twitter accounts were mobilized to spread them.
“Propagation (of messages) is important in an election. And that is why all 1.21 million are deemed illegal,” said Lee Jin-han, leading investigator of the team.
The prosecution believes that the agents used a “Twitter bot,” a computer program that automatically produces a mass number of retweets, possibly through fake Twitter accounts.
This is the second revision to the indictment sought by the prosecution following the first made last month, when prosecutors said they found 55,689 tweets allegedly posted by the NIS agents. The prosecution explained on Thursday that they withdrew their charges for some 27,000 of the 55,689 tweets as they were not considered to have been written by NIS members.
The main opposition Democratic Party, however, held a press conference in the afternoon, and claimed that the 27,000 tweets were actually spread by “external forces helping the NIS.”
It also argued, citing unnamed sources, that Lee Jin-han had tried to water down the additional findings, and that there was internal conflict between Lee and the other investigators of the team.
With regard to seeking help with U.S. authorities to verify the postings at Twitter’s headquarters, the prosecution said they will use the information as evidence once they receive a response.
Rival political parties showed contradicting reactions to the prosecution’s new charges.
The Saenuri Party said they should further wait and see the results of the prosecutorial investigation and the court’s decision, remaining adamant against the opposition’s calls for a special probe into the case.
“Any political party discussing the case currently being investigated by the prosecution is an act that interferes with the investigation. The opposition party’s demand for a special probe, in particular, is a political maneuver,” said Saenuri spokeswoman Rep. Min Hyun-joo.
Saenuri Party lawmakers belonging to the Judiciary Committee criticized the prosecution’s investigation, contending that while the amount of purported evidence increased, its implications had been exaggerated.
“Essentially, this case is about the online postings by the NIS, and not about tweets. It must be examined whether a tweet has any impact on an election and whether it violates the law,” the members said in a press conference.
The DP, on the other hand, inveighed that the new findings proved organized election intervention by the government, and stepped up its calls for a special probe and the dismissal of Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn.
“One thing is certain is that the organized illegal interference into the election by the state institutions like the NIS was carried out extensively. Minister Hwang, who has been pointed out as the source of the pressure, must be dismissed immediately,” said DP chairman Rep. Kim Han-gil.
Lee Jeong-mi, spokeswoman of the minor opposition Progressive Justice Party, said, “This clearly shows that the NIS employees were mobilized to post comments during their working hours … At this rate President Park Geun-hye and the Saenuri Party should be asking for a special probe.”
By Lee Joo-hee