South Korea spy agency admits attempting to rig election to help conservatives

South Korean President Moon Jae In presiding over a meeting with National Security Council members, on July 29, 2017.
South Korean President Moon Jae In presiding over a meeting with National Security Council members, on July 29, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's spy agency has admitted that it had engaged in a far-reaching attempt to manipulate voters as it sought to help conservatives win parliamentary and presidential elections.

In-house investigators from the National Intelligence Service (NIS) confirmed that the agency's cyber warfare unit organised and operated up to 30 teams for more than two years in the run-up to the 2012 elections, the agency said in a statement late Thursday.

They hired internet-savvy civilians and sought to sway voter opinions through postings on portals and Twitter.

"The teams were charged with spreading pro-government opinions and suppressing anti-government views, branding them as pro-North Korean forces' attempts to disturb state affairs", it said.

At the time the country was led by the conservative Lee Myung Bak, and in the event the December 2012 presidential election was won by his now-disgraced colleague Park Geun Hye, who defeated liberal Moon Jae In.

Mr Moon won South Korea's presidential vote in May this year (2017) after Park was impeached and dismissed over corruption and abuse of power, and ordered an investigation.

He has vowed to reform the NIS to prevent it meddling in elections and make it focus on collecting and analysing intelligence on North Korea and foreign affairs.

A spokesman for Park's party, now in opposition and renamed Liberty Korea, said on Friday (Aug 4) the inquiry was "politically motivated".

"The NIS says it will dissociate itself from politics but it is meddling in politics again by starting this probe," the spokesman Kang Hyo Sang said in a statement.

Former NIS chief Won Sei Hoon is being tried for the second time for leading an online smear campaign against Mr Moon, after his initial conviction was overturned on appeal.

But the NIS investigation results suggest the scale of the voter manipulation was far wider than previously thought.

The internal probe also found Won ordered the agency to muzzle the press, provide support for pro-government conservative civic groups and put some major opposition politicians under secret surveillance.

The modern-day NIS has been tainted by a series of scandals, including the forging of documents to build a false spying case against a former Seoul city official who had escaped to South Korea from the North in 2004.