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[Editorial] Concerns on election meddling

Suspicions mount about Cheong Wa Dae seeking police probe of candidate

Suspicions about Cheong Wa Dae’s election intervention are mounting.

On March 16, last year, about three months before the June 13 local elections, Ulsan Mayor Kim Gi-hyeon of the opposition Liberty Korea Party won nomination to seek reelection. On the same day, Ulsan Metropolitan Police Agency raided the city hall on tip-off about irregularities.

Before police launched investigations, Kim had led Song Cheol-ho, a candidate of the ruling Democratic Party, by more than 10 percentage points in opinion polls. Then the investigations drew attention, playing an instrumental role in turning the tide of public opinion against Kim. Eventually the opposition party candidate lost and Song was elected.

On May 11, about a month before the elections, police wrapped up the investigations and sent the case to the prosecutor’s office. Police suggested that Kim’s younger brother, his chief of staff, a senior official of the city government and a businessman must be indicted. However, on March 15, this year, the Ulsan District Prosecutor’s Office that conducted its own investigations dismissed the case, judging the suspicions raised by the police as unfounded.

Kim blamed the police investigations for his election loss and the Liberty Korea Party accused Hwang Un-ha, then commissioner of Ulsan Metropolitan Police Agency, on charges including abuse of power and violation of the election law.

The outcome of an election is influenced even by false propaganda, and much more by police investigations. If a law enforcement agency investigates those around a candidate on corruption suspicions for a few months before elections, not many of the voters would be willing to cast their ballots in the candidate’s favor.

It was customary for the prosecution and police to refrain from investigating allegations against rival candidates during the final stretch of a campaign period to avoid being misunderstood as political bias or motives. Investigations were launched usually by the prosecution after the election. Police stayed away from political cases. But the police under President Moon Jae-in’s administration broke the practice and investigated allegations surrounding an opposition party candidate in the middle of the campaign.

The prosecution found that police launched the investigations on a tip-off forwarded by the presidential office. Cheong Wa Dae took a step further. Moon’s chief of staff Noh Young-min told a parliamentary committee on Friday that the presidential office had received a progress report from the police about 20 minutes before it raided the Ulsan Metropolitan Government. He also said Cheong Wa Dae received police reports on nine occasions and that most of them were made after the elections.

But the prosecution’s judgment is different: Cheong Wa Dae received police reports on eight of nine occasions before the elections and most of them were made at the request of the presidential office.

Considering the number of reports is not small, it is questionable if Cheong Wa Dae gave no commands at all even covertly from first to last. It should have refused to receive reports if it had known it might come under suspicion afterward.

The informant is said to be the businessman, but it has not yet been clarified if the police received the same information that the informant gave. Reportedly police received more information than offered by the informant. This raises a possibility of someone in the presidential office increasing information intentionally.

One of the questions fanning suspicions about Cheong Wa Dae’s election meddling is related to Song. He is known to be among the very few figures who can call Moon by his first name in private. There is no way Cheong Wa Dae staff do not know this.

The prosecution is said to have secured allegations that two subordinates of Baek Won-woo, then presidential secretary for civil affairs, visited Ulsan before the elections to check the progress of the police investigations.

Mobilizing police to influence the outcome of elections is a dirty trick used by dictators. It is a serious crime that destroys democracy. Ahead of the April 15 general elections next year, concerns are rising along with suspicions.