Special counsel raids warehouse

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Special counsel raids warehouse

A special counsel investigation of Korea’s own “fake news” scandal made major headway on Monday night after investigators seized hard drives and laptops from a warehouse in Paju, Gyeonggi, that could contain crucial evidence in the case.

The team recovered eight hard drives, five laptops, eight SIM cards, a number of cell phones, USB drives and stacks of paper documents after a nearly seven-hour raid. It is now combing through their contents for evidence that a group of political operatives had engaged in a large-scale campaign to meddle with the comments section on Naver, Korea’s largest portal website, and give the appearance that one political opinion dominated on the forum.

Monday’s search is the latest in a series of raids conducted by an independent counsel that launched on June 27. The team has three months to get to the bottom of the case.

In March, blogger Kim Dong-won, better known by his online alias Druking, was arrested along with three of his associates for using a software called King Crab to manipulate online comments. Prosecutors believe the 165-square-meter warehouse in Paju was where Kim’s associates moved their bags and furniture last month from an office about 10 kilometers away. This office allegedly served as the base for Kim’s operations. Three earlier raids of the office - the latest on July 10 - uncovered dozens of SIM cards and over 170 cell phones among a pile of trash outside the building.

A spokesman for the special counsel said Monday’s raid also uncovered paper documents appearing to be ledgers of the group’s financial transactions. All the evidence was found inside dozens of cardboard boxes, the spokesman added.

On Tuesday, the special counsel arrested one of Kim’s close associates, a lawyer whom the special counsel would only identify by his surname. Mr. Doh, 60, allegedly wanted the position of consul general in Osaka, Japan, in exchange for the group’s support of President Moon Jae-in during last year’s election. The group allegedly shared links favoring Moon and used the King Crab software to increase the “likes” on comments supporting the presidential candidate.

Kim Kyoung-soo, the current governor of South Gyeongsang and a close confidante of Moon who had contact with the group, said he sent Doh’s name to the Blue House, but when the office refused to grant the patronage position, the group allegedly turned on Moon by promoting comments critical of the president.

In 2016, prosecutors indicted Doh for collecting funds worth 50 million won from members of the group. The money was allegedly part of an illegal political donation to Roh Hoe-chan, a prominent lawmaker of the left-leaning Justice Party. On paper, Roh never received the money.

Although Doh was acquitted of the charges, the special counsel spokesman said on Tuesday that Doh may have forged evidence to suggest most of the money never made it to Roh. Doh denied the charges in four meetings with the special counsel, according to the spokesman.

“We could see that Doh was psychologically anxious and became easily nervous during questioning,” the spokesman said, “and because the charges relate to tampering with evidence, we had no choice but to arrest him to continue the investigation.”

Also on Tuesday, special counsel investigators raided the home of a former aide to Kim Kyoung-soo, identified by his surname Han, over suspicions that he received 5 million won from the political operatives last September.

This rapid succession of raids and arrests by the special counsel in a matter of a few days indicates that they may be close to a breakthrough.

Analysts, however, are casting suspicion on the validity of these early findings, since suspects typically attempt to eliminate evidence of wrongdoing when faced with a probe by authorities.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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