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[Editorial] Not enough time

Special prosecutor should be given enough time to probe online opinion-rigging case

The team of special counsel Huh Ik-bum investigating a high-profile online opinion-rigging case has made the right decision to seek a warrant to detain a key figure in the case -- South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Kyoung-soo.

Half a dozen people suspected of collaborating with Kim for the alleged massive manipulation of online posts are in detention. Therefore, it is only fair that the special counsel team seek custody of the governor who had allegedly maintained relationships with the suspects since late 2016.

The problem is that the special investigation mandated by the National Assembly is running out of time. Huh’s team can interrogate Kim while detaining him for 20 days before indictment, but its 60-day investigation is to end on Aug. 25. These and other circumstances point to the need to extend the investigation.

Whether to extend the special investigation has already become a political issue pitting the ruling party against opposition parties.

However, political parties should not try to influence the special investigation. The decision whether to seek extension of the special investigation -- for another 30 days -- should be left to the special counsel.

In seeking a court warrant, Huh’s team made it clear that they believe Kim and suspects led by a power blogger who goes by the name “Druking” conspired to manipulate about 1 million posts to tens of thousands of online news stories between December 2016 and February this year. In short, Kim is accused of being an accomplice in the case.

As things stand, the interrogation of Kim and two other associates of President Moon Jae-in -- an important part of the investigation -- only took place last week and this week.

Huh’s team questioned Kim twice last week over allegations that the governor maintained a close relationship with Druking and his online community, which were engaged in illegal online activities supporting the Democratic Party and its candidates in major elections.

Also implicated in the case is Song In-bae, another key aide to Moon. Now a secretary for political affairs at Cheong Wa Dae, Song is suspected of having introduced Druking to Kim. Investigators also said Song received 2 million won ($1,770) from Druking’s group for attending events.

Song was only interrogated by Huh’s team last Sunday. He had avoided questioning during the police investigation, even after Druking was arrested in March.

Furthermore, a new allegation emerged that Song received monthly payments from a golf club that had been owned by a major financial contributor of the late President Roh Moo-hyun. The money -- 3 million won each month -- was given to Song from 2011 to 2016. Song ran for a parliamentary seat in the 2012 and 2016 elections. This raises the possibility that Song violated the Political Fund Law.

Huh’s team said it found the payments by tracking Song’s bank accounts, which suggests that police who investigated the case before the appointment of the special counsel did not do their job faithfully.

That Huh’s team summoned a third key Moon aide for questioning as late as Wednesday shows that it certainly is racing against time. Baek Won-woo, the civil affairs secretary who is in charge of vetting candidates for government posts, allegedly interviewed an attorney Druking wanted to get appointed to a consul general’s position.

All these point to the high possibility that Kim, Baek and Druking worked together in rewarding the blogger and his online community for helping the Democratic Party in elections.

There are two main reasons Huh’s team should get to the bottom of the case and bring justice to anyone who violated the law. Firstly, the case followed online opinion manipulation operations conducted by government agencies during the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations. This means illegal online activities are rampant across the ideological spectrum. The Druking case should alert the nation and the political community to the need to terminate the practice.

Another reason is that the case involves the three closest associates of the president. Police were heavily under fire for going easy on the three. That was the prime reason a special counsel was appointed, and it is simply logical that the counsel should be given enough time to fulfil its mandate.