A Seoul court on Wednesday sentenced South Gyeongsang Province Gov. Kim Kyoung-soo, a close associate of President Moon Jae-in, to two years in prison for colluding with a power blogger to rig online comments to benefit the ruling Democratic Party and Moon.
The Seoul Central District Court viewed the governor, once a presidential hopeful, as an accomplice of blogger Kim Dong-won, known as Druking, in swaying public opinion in favor of the party and presidential hopeful Moon ahead of the 2017 presidential election.
The court validated all the charges against him. He was sentenced to two years in prison for obstruction of business and to a 10-month jail term, suspended for two years, for violating the election law.
Gov. Kim, 52, was immediately taken to the Seoul Detention Center in Uiwang, Gyeonggi Province, from the courthouse.
The governor had been aware of the blogger’s use of the automated computer program to artificially manipulate online comments, and he had approved the illicit acts and received regular briefings on the list of articles about which Druking sought to manipulate public opinion, the court said.
The court also acknowledged that the governor had attempted to procure a consul general job in Japan for an associate of Druking’s in return for continuing the illicit cyber activities until the June 13 elections last year.
“The defendant did not only obstruct the normal business of portal sites but also seriously damaged online public opinion -- the transparent exchange of information and free discussion based on it,” the court said.
If the verdict is upheld by the Supreme Court, the governor, who won his post in 2018, could lose it and be stripped of his right to run for office for five years.
The governor has denied the charges.
“I cannot accept the verdict, which is a result of the judiciary having turned a blind eye to truth revealed in the trial process and unilaterally accepted the special counsel’s argument,” Gov. Kim said in a letter read by his lawyer in front of the courthouse. “The process to reveal the truth will continue, and I believe in the power of truth.”
Earlier in the day, blogger Kim Dong-won was sentenced to three years and six months in jail for carrying out the illicit cyber activities and for offering bribes to a lawmaker. The blogger said he would appeal, denouncing the ruling as the result of an “unfair, politically charged trial.”
In the ruling on the blogger, the court said Kim had “benefited” from Druking’s online rigging to influence public sentiment ahead of the 2017 presidential election
Moon, who represented what was at the time the main opposition Democratic Party, won the snap election in May after his predecessor Park Geun-hye was removed from office over a corruption scandal.
The sticking point was whether Gov. Kim had orchestrated or condoned the blogger’s use of the illegal automated software known as King Crab.
Kim Dong-won was accused of manipulating some 1.1 million comments on 76,000 news articles on internet portal sites between December 2016 and February 2018 to help his party and Moon. He used the software to add “likes” to political comments in favor of the party and Moon so that they would maintain their position higher up than other comments. In return, the blogger wanted his associate to be appointed to a consul general post in Japan, according to the counsel.
The special counsel suspected that Druking had introduced the computer program to Gov. Kim when he visited Druking’s team in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, in November 2016. Druking further developed the program and the governor started to send links to news articles to the blogger so that he too could conduct cyber activities to benefit the party, according to the counsel.
Gov. Kim had said he was unaware of Druking’s opinion-rigging or the computer program. He insisted that Druking held a grudge against him after the blogger’s acquaintance failed to obtain the desired consul general position.
Following the verdict, the ruling Democratic Party regretted the ruling, while opposition parties -- the Liberty Korea Party, the Bareunmirae Party and the Party for Democracy and Peace -- demanded that Kim step down, dismissing his act as “anti-democratic.”
“Gov. Kim must take responsibility for an illegal act of manipulating online comments and resign from his post. President Moon should clearly reveal whether he was aware of the manipulation of comments,” the main opposition Liberty Korea Party said in a statement.