16.03.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Run-up to the 2024 Parliamentary Elections in South Korea. What about the election commission?

As we know, what matters most in elections is not only how people vote, but also how the votes are counted. And that is why we need to talk about the South Korean election commission, especially since the National Election Commission (NEC) was involved in several scandals in 2022-23.

Scandal No. 1. Corruption, which appears to be total.

According to media reports, at least 11 officials of the ROK Election Commission (4 of them high-ranking officials, including Secretary General Park Chan Chin, his deputy Song Bong-sup, and former Secretary General Kim Se Hwan[1]) facilitated the improper employment of their children in government agencies affiliated with the Election Commission or its regional divisions: in an interview with his father’s colleagues, Kim Se Hwan’s son received near-perfect scores.

On May 30, 2023, Roh Tae-ak, head of the National Election Commission, apologized and promised to investigate all hiring cases to uncover any irregularities. Park and Son consistently denied the allegations, emphasizing that the hiring of their children was done in a fair and transparent manner, but offered to resign.

However, in June 2023, the Election Commission refused to investigate both the Bureau of Audit and Inspection (BAI) and the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, citing that it is an independent constitutional institution. Since its inception in 1963, the Election Commission has never been audited. Still, an internal investigation has been ordered, but a Yonhap News Agency poll showed that 73.3 percent of respondents believe Roh Tae-ak should step down.

On June 9, the State Anti-Corruption Agency announced that it would investigate all employment and promotions at the National Election Commission over the past seven years. At the same time, under pressure from the authorities and the public, the Election Commission approved an audit of the BAI – but only in relation to the incident, still refusing to audit its overall activities. But as early as June 14, the State Anti-Corruption Agency announced that the NEC was refusing to investigate the corruption scandal in the hiring process, calling for full cooperation.

By June 22, an internal investigation had uncovered 21 cases of alleged nepotism involving the hiring of officials’ families and their relatives, BAI announced in July 2023 that 128 Election Commission officials had violated the country’s law.

In August 2023, the State Anti-Corruption Agency said it had uncovered a total of 353 cases of hiring irregularities in the past seven years. 58 of the 384 “career employees” hired in the past seven years were hired for questionable reasons. The Anti-Corruption Commission eventually charged 28 of them with violating the Public Service Act. With only 41.1 percent of the NEC’s 3,000 employees agreeing to provide relevant data, this may be just the tip of the iceberg.

For example, some NEC committees did not pay non-permanent commissioners the required 60,000 won (US$46) to attend each meeting during the election period, and instead used the accumulated money for their own purposes. Twenty incumbents spent the illegally collected money on their own overseas trips to Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as golfing. Of the 249 local election commissions nationwide, 146 commissions kept contributions in a single account for illegal purposes instead of paying them to non-permanent commissioners, most of whom are civilians who work full-time elsewhere.

Here we must realize that any corruption in which an official of such a body is involved quickly becomes a reason to put pressure on him.

Scandal No. 2. Voting System Vulnerabilities

There were also specific questions about the voting procedure as it related to the alleged ease with which an electronic voting machine could be hacked.

According to ultraconservative media, citing intelligence, the National Election Commission of South Korea has been subjected to cyberattacks 8 times in the last 2 years. 7 of them were allegedly carried out by the Lazarus Group hacker organization, which the West links to the DPRK GRU.

In doing so, the National Election Commission refused to improve its security structure, not wanting any other government agency (including intelligence) to check its IT system, citing its “independence as a constitutional body” and the potential for “political controversy.”

Allegedly the NEC chose a Wi-Fi company that uses Huawei equipment to provide internet and Wi-Fi to polling stations to process ballots, and the voting equipment has multiple USB ports, meaning it can connect to flash drives, phone cables, keyboards or computer mice to send and receive information.

As a result, on March 3, 2023, members of the People’s Power Executive Committee issued a statement saying, “The irresponsible behavior of the National Election Commission, which neglects to take action against the serious threat from North Korea, is totally unacceptable.”

On May 11, 2023, conservative NGOs released a statement and held rallies calling for an investigation of the National Election Commission for endangering national security (for refusing to inspect its hacked system). According to former lawmaker Min Ken-wook, the civic group plans to sue the NEC for dereliction of duty.

In July 2023, after the NEC again claimed that foreign interference in elections using voter registration data was simply impossible, information surfaced that on March 21, 2021, the National Intelligence Service notified the National Election Commission that a North Korean hacker had hacked into an NEC official’s email account and looked at it for 10 minutes before logging out.

Cybersecurity expert Simon Choi said in this regard that the compromised email account indicates that the North Korean hacker was able to accomplish the first necessary step to break into NEC’s computer system. “If the victim was part of the staff responsible for maintaining NEC’s server or other critical infrastructure, the breach itself could have caused serious damage.”

On October 10, 2023, in announcing the results of the National Election Commission’s joint cybersecurity review, the National Intelligence Service said North Korea could penetrate the election observer network at any time because of its weak security system, although no such penetration has actually been detected.

The investigation revealed that the NEC had multiple cybersecurity vulnerabilities to hacking attempts in terms of voter registry management, ballot counting, and early voting systems. In the event of a hacker attack, voters who cast their ballots in early voting could be labeled as those who did not vote. It is also possible to manipulate voter registration and ballot counting, and to print ballots without authorization. The NEC has also failed to take adequate measures against attacks by North Korean hackers on the e-mail and other information of its officials.

In response to the spy agency’s statement, the National Election Commission said that even if it were technically possible to hack into the electoral system, it would not necessarily lead to election fraud because it is virtually impossible to manipulate election results without the organized help of insiders.

On November 14, Conservative lawmaker Yoo Sang Bom said that the National Election Commission is considering having counting staff manually check all ballots before using counting machines. In addition, the NEC plans to apply a specialized control program to the sorting machines that can only recognize authorized USB devices.

On December 27, the National Election Commission announced that it would introduce a manual system of counting ballots in the April general elections to ensure transparency and prevent possible electoral fraud. More precisely, the ballots will first be sorted by machines and then election commission officials will manually check all of them before placing them in the machines for counting. This will take more time, but integrity is more important.

In addition, the National Election Commission decided to broadcast 24-hour video from surveillance cameras installed in places where mail-in ballots and early voting ballots are stored, and access to the ballots will be granted exclusively to members of election commissions.

It remains to be seen how much this will help, given that the current government is actively promoting the topic of imminent attempts by the DPRK to interfere in the elections. In this author’s opinion, this situation is completely opportunistic, because there was no direct pandering to the North under Moon. However, the author is alarmed to see that both President Yoon Suk-Yeol and some other members of the conservative camp are “saddled” with the topic of impending “North Korean provocations,” which they consider imminent. Although North Korea has never supported the Democrats, conservatives are actively looking for a North Korean trail, and the topic of foreign interference in the election could prove to be a very lucrative card, regardless of whether the actual facts of interference are revealed or whether there is hype instead of evidence.

For example, on December 29, 2023, after the National Intelligence Service said that the North might carry out military provocations or launch a cyberattack before the election, Yoon Jae-ok, leader of the People Power Party’s parliamentary faction, said that South Korea should maintain a firm stance of preparedness for possible North Korean attempts to influence the general election. “It seems certain that North Korea planned to simultaneously carry out military provocations and covert operations against South Korea to interfere in our election… It is important how we respond.”

On February 13, 2024, Kim Song Han, former chief of the National Security Council of the South Korean presidential administration, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said that before the ROK’s parliamentary elections, the DPRK could engage in a military provocation that would not threaten the United States but would cause a reaction in the ROK. This could be tests of various types of missile weapons or cyberattacks.

Scandal No. 3. Censorship

The ultra-conservative media has consistently highlighted how, under Moon, Facebook restricted access to content based on requests from the National Election Commission. YouTube was also censored, with many popular channels, including GaroSero Yeonguso, deprived of monetization and several YouTubers also imprisoned for defamation. Of course, this case involved exclusively conservative speakers.

Therefore, there is an interesting question: in 2023, the attempts of conservative NGOs to purge the National Election Commission rather failed, but it is very likely that before the elections the new government will again try to use administrative resources.

All this makes the race even more interesting, the “coalition for all good things” in the person of the Reform Party split back after only 11 days, and the parties started nominating candidates. But about this — some other time.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences and Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

[1] Incidentally, Kim Se Hwan resigned in March 2022 after he mishandled early voting in the presidential election.
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