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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on July 23)

07:07 July 23, 2021

Fight on opinion rigging
Adopt zero tolerance toward manipulators

South Gyeongsang Province Governor Kim Kyoung-soo was finally convicted of online opinion manipulation Wednesday when the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's guilty verdict against him. Kim, one of the closest aides to President Moon Jae-in, was deprived of his governorship and has to spend two years in prison. The decision is not only a setback to Kim's political career, but also a blow to the legitimacy of the Moon administration.

Kim's conviction delivered a clear message that any attempts to distort or manipulate public opinion cannot and should not be condoned. Such an act is a serious crime that can shake the foundations of democracy to the core. It runs the risk of disrupting the fairness of elections by rigging public opinion to the advantage of a certain candidate. It is also tantamount to trampling on the Constitution.

In this sense, Kim deserves harsher punishment although he is still denying any illegalities. Disappointingly, he said the legal case was "insufficient" to reveal the truth. What nonsense! He went so far as to discredit the decision by the highest court. It is shameful that he was allowed to serve as governor despite his criminal act which affected the 2017 presidential poll and the 2018 local elections.

The top court recognized that Kim began to collude with a team of bloggers in November 2016 to illegally generate favorable opinions about Moon, the then-opposition's presidential candidate. The bloggers included Kim Dong-won, better known by his alias Druking, who led the manipulation scheme by jacking up the number of "likes" for online political comments using computer software to benefit Moon in the election. Such rigging continued until the end of the June 2018 local polls to help the candidates of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK).

Some critics question whether Moon knew about the opinion rigging in the lead-up to the previous election. They call for his apology, claiming the President might have been involved in the manipulation case, directly or indirectly. However, Moon and the presidential office have responded with no comment, further raising suspicions about the case.

The guilty verdict against Kim has significant implications as it came less than eight months before the next presidential election set for March 9. Local elections are also scheduled for June 1. So the decision is seen as a warning against those who are contemplating manipulating public opinion in cyberspace.

Now the government, the National Election Commission and law enforcement agencies should work together to prevent a recurrence of opinion rigging. Most of all, they need to adopt a policy of zero tolerance toward such a grave crime. To that end, the judiciary must enforce tougher sentencing guidelines to crack down on any violators. The two-year prison sentence for Governor Kim appears too light, given the serious nature of his crime.

It is necessary to speed up the trial process for those indicted for manipulating public opinion, particularly in cases related to elections. In Kim's case, he has already served two-thirds of his four-year term as governor, hiding behind the legal principle that one is innocent until proven guilty. Even law-breaking elected post holders can manage to serve out their term because of time-consuming trials. The authorities should also make use of advanced technology to fight against these increasingly sophisticated manipulators of public opinion.


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