|Ex-spy chief Won Sei-hoon in handcuffs is about to board a van at the Seoul High Court in Seocho-gu, Seoul, Wednesday after he was sentenced to four years in prison for election-meddling. Yonhap|
Former President Lee Myung-bak faces questioning
By Lee Kyung-min
The Seoul High Court sentenced the nation's former top spy agency chief to four years in prison Wednesday for orchestrating cyberwarfare to meddle in the 2012 presidential election.
Former National Intelligence Service (NIS) chief Won Sei-hoon was imprisoned immediately after the ruling. Two former senior NIS officials indicted on the same charge were both sentenced to 30-month prison terms suspended for four years.
The court said the state agency under Won's direction engaged in wide-ranging organized efforts to control and manipulate public opinion.
Won, who headed the NIS from 2009 to 2013, was indicted in June 2013 for ordering his staff to conduct illegal online campaigning to help then-conservative candidate Park Geun-hye and hurt her then-major liberal opponent Moon Jae-in. Park narrowly won in the election at the time.
"The NIS failed to maintain political neutrality and about 70 officials there were deeply involved in domestic politics with the specific intention to sway public opinion to advance the preset agenda managed and delivered through Won. The officials that used fake online IDs to help or hurt certain politicians violated the law and betrayed the public trust," the court said in its ruling.
Won deserves harsh punishment for his methodical and careful execution of illicit activities that continued for a long period of time, the court added.
"Won was aware of the implications of his orders the entire time and was regularly briefed to more precisely control the cyber operation," it said.
The sentencing came more than two years after the Supreme Court returned the case to the appellate court in 2015, ordering a review of the latter's determination about recognizing evidence.
The top court said an email record, which the prosecution presented as critical evidence that led to his conviction, was inadmissible.
Before this, a district court found him guilty of violating the NIS Law but not the Election Law, sentencing him to a 30-month prison term suspended for four years, alongside a three-year suspension from official duty. It did not recognize the email evidence.
However, the appellate court said Won violated the Election Law as well, sentencing him to three years in prison.
The NIS Law bans its workers from engaging in any activities that could influence the outcome of a politically divisive issue.
The Election Law bans public officials from electioneering by abusing their power and authority using the nature of their posts.
Expectations were that Won would face harsher punishment following last-minute evidence submitted by the prosecution last month.
The evidence, written accounts of meeting minutes preserved between 2009 and 2012, was recovered by the NIS task force that is looking into past wrongdoings of the agency under the two former administrations.
In the meetings attended by managerial-level officers in the NIS, Won said the NIS should screen candidates before having them run in local elections. He also said news stories critical of government should not be run, or operations should be launched to shut down media outlets that run such stories, adding "it is the intelligence agency's job to beat up those who do something wrong."
Psychological warfare, he added, was not only limited to North Korea, but also was needed against the (South Korean) public.
Won also urged the meetings attendees to increase efforts to prevent liberals in the country from posing a nuisance against the then conservative government's initiative to push numerous policies.
Meanwhile, former President Lee Myung-bak, the predecessor of Park faces the increased possibility of being questioned over his involvement in such illegalities.
The ruling comes amid the prosecution's expanding investigation into wrongdoings of two former administrations with an NIS in-house task force continue to disclose many such activities, as part of Moon's initiative to eliminate "social ills."
Earlier, the task force concluded the NIS ran 30 extra-departmental teams to manipulate public opinion in the 2012 presidential election.
It said the agency ran such a campaign by hiring tech-savvy NIS officials and private citizens. Their ostensible task was cyberwarfare. The NIS spent 3 billion won ($2.6 million) on this in 2012 alone.
Early last week, the prosecution imposed a travel ban on the 30 leaders of the extra-departmental teams including former and incumbent NIS officials.
The prosecution also raided the homes and offices of these people and most of them were questioned over the next three days.
This week, the prosecution questioned a man who led a group comprised of Lee's supporters and another surnamed Yang who led a group of retired colonels.
The questioning was to look into whether the two maintained contact with, or were given directions, from NIS officials. It also reviewed whether any form of financial support was also given.