Hankyoreh reports on the civilian prosecution of a former South Korean Cyber Command senior officer for interfering with the 2012 election. Excerpts:
Lee Tae-ha, 62, had been charged with political interference and incitement to destroy evidence under the Military Criminal Act for enlisting the organization’s commanders in a systematic operation to spread internet and social media posts slandering opposition candidates and politicians and supporting ruling party candidates and policies during the election.
The judgment comes after a previous military court ruling handing down suspended and deferred sentences, respectively, against former commanders Yeon Je-wook and Ok Do-gyeong, who were prosecuted on the same charges. Both Yeon and Ok were found guilty of political interference, but the court accepted the “need to execute cyber warfare duties” as an extenuating circumstance.
The latest civilian court ruling, which found the Cyber Command’s activities to constitute active election interference and included a jail sentence, is now raising questions about whether the military court went too easy in its punishment.
The eleventh criminal division of Seoul Eastern District Court, under judge Ha Hyeon-guk, took Lee into court custody on May 15 after handing down a two-year sentence for ordering members of the Cyber Command’s psychological operations division (Unit 530) to distribute 12,844 politically biased posts online between Nov. 11 and Oct. 2013, as well as the destruction of evidence after the investigation began. Lee had previously been indicted without detention.
In Aug. 2014, the Ministry of National Defense investigation headquarters rebutted allegations of Cyber Command manipulation of public opinion during the 2012 presidential election.
“There were acts that violated the military’s duty to remain politically neutral, but it is not true that they acted systematically to interfere in the election,” the ministry said at the time.
But the civilian court’s guilty verdict against Lee on May 15 referred to numerous examples of evidence that the military’s behavior before the election crossed the line from simple defense of administration policies to active interference.
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Evidence and testimony that Lee effectively ordered the division to interference in the election were included in a report drafted by military prosecutors for division member and victim accounts. The Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors’ Office and Seoul Eastern District Court proceeded with their trial after acquiring all investigation records for Lee, Yeon, and Ok from the military prosecution team, with the court ultimately finding evidence of conspiracy.Every country of course has its own political culture and modus vivendi between the military and civilian spheres. These prosecutions -- all concerning similar misconduct -- highlight the fact that there are cases that ought to be tried in the civilian courts even if, on paper, they can also be tried in a military court, where the impartiality of the military court is open to question. Compare the "false positives" issue in Colombia.
But the evidence of election interference was absent from the general military court’s first trial ruling for Yeon and Ok. The absence lends weight to critics’ charges that military prosecutors and the military court deliberately ignored it in order to deliver a softer sentence. The military court eventually handed down a suspended sentence on Yeon and a deferred sentence - essentially an exoneration - on Ok.