An independent counsel team officially began its investigation Wednesday into allegations that a power blogger tied to ruling party officials manipulated internet comments for political purposes.
The team is expected to scrutinize close associates of President Moon Jae-in including former lawmaker Kim Kyoung-soo, who was elected governor of South Gyeongsang Province in local elections earlier this month.
The Cabinet approved a 3.14 billion-won ($2.82 million) budget Tuesday for the operation of the team led by special prosecutor Huh Ik-bum. The investigation can continue for up to 90 days including an extension by 30 days upon approval by the president.
The team consisting of 13 prosecutors will look into alleged illegal opinion rigging by Kim Dong-won, known by the alias Druking, and members of an online community that he led; illegal acts by people implicated in the opinion-rigging case; and acts related to Druking’s illegal funds.
The special probe will focus on finding out whether Kim Kyoung-soo was involved in Druking’s manipulation of online comments, and whether they discussed offering government positions in exchange for opinion rigging.
Police questioned Kim early last month and concluded their probe without unveiling the results so as not to affect the special probe.
In a letter Druking reportedly wrote from prison to a local newspaper last month, he alleged that in October 2016, Kim, then a ruling party lawmaker, visited his office, where he demonstrated a comment rigging program to Kim, suggesting Kim tacitly approved the opinion manipulation.
He also said Kim offered the position of consul general in Sendai, Japan, to Druking’s team.
The special counsel team is also expected to look into the role played by Presidential Secretary for Political Affairs Song In-bae who introduced Druking to Kim, and received 2 million won from Druking in return for attending “forums” organized by his online community from June 2016 to February 2017.
Some observers say the team may investigate Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Baek Won-woo for having interviewed a lawyer Druking asked Kim to appoint as consul general of Osaka, Japan.
Baek’s office said it looked into Song’s connections with Druking in April, and concluded that Song did nothing wrong by receiving money from the blogger’s group.
According to Baek’s office, Song met Druking through a couple who volunteered for Song’s campaign in the 2016 parliamentary elections and were members of Druking’s online community.
In June 2016, Druking and other members of the group visited the office of then-lawmaker Kim, where they briefly met with Song and Kim. Song met them again on three more occasions until February 2017, but did not know about the manipulation of comments online.
Song did not meet with members of the online community after Moon was elected president in May last year, according to Baek’s office.
Druking was detained and indicted in April for allegedly using software in January to jack up the number of “likes” for two online comments critical of the Moon administration on news stories carried by internet portal Naver.
Opposition parties have demanded an independent counsel probe into the opinion rigging scandal, suspecting that Druking, a former member of the Democratic Party, may have been involved in Moon’s election campaign.
By Kim So-hyun (email@example.com