Police admit to having evidence linking ruling party lawmaker to Internet comment rigger

SEOUL, Police on Friday revealed fresh evidence linking a ruling party lawmaker to alleged online opinion rigging amid criticism that the authorities held back information related to the politically sensitive probe.

Police are investigating the suspected massive manipulation of Internet comments on news articles, which was allegedly led by an influential blogger nicknamed Druking.

The former member of the ruling Democratic Party and his two accomplices allegedly used a software program to jack up the number of clicks in support of critical comments about the liberal Moon Jae-in government.

They were arrested last week and indicted Tuesday on the charge of obstruction of business. The party revoked his membership in the wake of the scandal.

The incident has sparked a fierce political dispute ahead of June 13 local elections, as Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo of the ruling party, a close aide to President Moon Jae-in, is known to have been in contact with Druking for years.

The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency on Friday said Kim had sent Druking messages that contained the web addresses, or URLs, of certain news articles related to the president.

The announcement came after a media report that the lawmaker communicated with the blogger.

Local broadcaster SBS reported the previous day that they shared at least 10 messages containing web links to news articles related to the president from November 2016 until last month.

The report contradicted the earlier statement by the Seoul police chief Lee Ju-min that Kim barely read messages Druking sent via the messaging service Telegram.

The news report immediately sparked criticism that police hid key information about the case. It also raised concerns that they are trying to tone down the whole investigation and protect the lawmaker because he is one of Moon's confidants. Kim is running for a provincial governor post in the June elections.

In Friday's briefing, police said some of the messages Kim sent to Druking read, "Please promote (this article)." They also confirmed Druking replied to Kim by saying things like, "Yes, I am on it."

Police said they have tracked down dozens of other online chats between the two over the messaging app Signal, though they declined to give further details as the verification process is still ongoing.

They are also looking into six other news articles with online comments suspected of being manipulated, as the Internet portal Naver notified the police and sent over the details, the police added.

They said the previous statement by its chief was "a mistake from confusion."

The police mishap is likely to add fuel to the opposition parties' calls for the launch of a special counsel investigation into the case. The main opposition Liberty Korea Party submitted bills on Tuesday for an independent probe, raising suspicions that Druking could have also led a similar scheme to sway voters in favor of Moon ahead of the presidential election in May of last year.

Druking, once known as an ardent supporter of Moon, is suspected of carrying out the comment rigging in a way unfavorable to him after the lawmaker Kim refused his requests related to government posts. He has denied the suspicion, saying he wanted to make it look like conservatives were manipulating Internet comments.

Source: Yonhap News Agency