Investigation says military overstepped its bounds, but didn’t interfere in politics

Posted on : 2013-12-20 12:50 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Interim findings reach a suspicious conclusion, while larger-scale analysis is ongoing
 director of the Ministry of National Defense’s investigative office
director of the Ministry of National Defense’s investigative office

By Ha Eo-young, staff reporter

The Ministry of National Defense released interim findings on Dec. 19 from an investigation into alleged political interference by the military’s Cyber Command.

In its report, the ministry’s investigative office concluded that agents in the unit’s psychological operations division did violate the requirement for the military to maintain political neutrality, but that they did not interfere with the 2012 presidential election.

It also reported that the violations were the result of independent actions by 10 staff members and the division’s chief - a Level 3 government official - who were not acting on orders from above. It went on to say no evidence had been found of involvement by any current or former Cyber Command directors, the immediate supervisors of the division, or by the Minister of National Defense.

Critics are already blasting the investigative office for scapegoating.

Baek Nak-jong, the investigative office’s director, delivered interim findings from the investigation into the Cyber Command’s alleged election interference. Speaking about a message from one staffer calling then Democratic Party candidate Moon Jae-in “not fit to be commander-in-chief,” Baek said, “There was a violation of the military’s obligation to remain politically neutral, but [the agent] did not interfere with the election.”

The confusing argument is that while violations did occur with respect to the two candidates, Moon and the ruling Saenuri Party’s (NFP) Park Geun-hye, those violations do not constitute election interference.

Responding to reporters’ questions about their basis for this conclusion, the investigative office said it had “accurately determined that [the staff members] had no political objective and no intention to interfere with politics.”

This suggests that the investigative office made a subjective assessment of the “intent and purpose” behind the posts to conclude that they did not constitute election interference, without offering facts as support.

The facts that the office did announce were more than enough to show the division’s staff interfered with the election. The charges against the eleven Cyber Command staff members, including the division’s chief, include political involvement, violation of the ban on political activity by the military, abuse of authority, and destruction of evidence or incitement to destroy evidence. All told, staff members posted some 286,000 messages. Around 15,000 of those were of a political nature, while 2,100 explicitly expressed support or criticism for a particular party or politician. Even if the 15,000 generally political messages are ignored, interference charges do apply to those in the second group. In dismissing the charges, the investigative office contradicted the very findings it announced.

The investigative office pointed to the division’s chief, identified only by the surname Lee, as the individual who ordered staff members to write Internet messages and Twitter posts. But it opted not have to Lee detained, saying there was “no risk of destruction of evidence or flight” - even though incitement to destroy evidence was one of the charges leveled against Lee, who reportedly ordered data deleted just after the investigation began. The office’s counterintuitive conclusion was that he could be charged with inciting others to destroy evidence, but that he should not be detained because there was no risk of him doing so.

A number of different takes were offered on why Lee was not detained despite ordering interference during the most sensitive period of a presidential election. Up until the announcement, most believed he would be arrested. Some news outlets even reported on plans to apply for an arrest warrant.

Now that the investigative office has opted not to detain him, some are speculating that the decision was made in order to hush things up. The investigative office could have opted not to have him detained because of his awareness of all the particulars about the division‘s activities could result in things spiraling out of control - including the possible implications of figures further up the ladder. The office was reportedly taking Lee’s arrest for granted as recently as last week, while focusing on how far to go up the ladder.

According to the office, the division addressed topics such as the naval base being built on Jeju Island, the Northern Limit Line in the West (Yellow) Sea, the 2010 sinking of the ROKS Cheonan warship, North Korea‘s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island that same year, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, the Kim Jong-un dictatorship, and the military command‘s readiness posture.

The Cyber Command reported operations in which staff members would post online messages in response to reports on these topics from North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper and Korean Central News Agency, as well as sympathetic opinions posted on South Korean websites. The violations of political neutrality reportedly took place on Lee’s orders.

One of the key questions about the activities is the connection to similar allegations about the National Intelligence Service (NIS). Baek dismissed the possibility, saying the investigation uncovered “no evidence whatsoever” of NIS orders.

At the same time, he acknowledged that NIS had “supported the Cyber Command’s referencing ‘state psychological intelligence guidelines’ since 2010,” adding that there were yearly and monthly guidelines “produced in accordance with the relative regulations.”

Another of the office’s more questionable conclusions had to with the issue of possible orders or involvement from higher organizations, including the Blue House.

“We investigated thoroughly through searches, seizures, and questioning of parties involved, but we could find no evidence of election interference orders from within or outside the military,” the office said.

The office stressed that these were only interim announcements and that the investigation would continue.

“Right now, we’re running a ‘big data’ analysis,” said Baek. “We plan to analyze an enormous amount of data from portal sites and other sources.”

“We’ve already begun the analysis,” he added.

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