SEOUL -- South Korea's government is busy distancing itself from a contorted scandal involving an online campaign against President Moon Jae-in that was promoted by people from his own party.
When it was announced that the two Koreas would field a unified women's hockey team for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, comments appeared on the Naver internet site criticizing the presidential Blue House for a decision that would exclude some South Koreans from spots on the national team.
The number of "agrees" -- equivalent to "likes" on Facebook -- those postings got shot up exponentially, enough for Moon's Democratic Party to file a legal complaint alleging unlawful manipulation by operatives from the conservative opposition. Authorities later arrested three suspects, but it turns out that all were Democratic Party members.
According to the Hankyoreh, a progressive newspaper that broke the story Friday, the suspects used a program to automatically click on the "agree" button for the critical comments and bring attention to the postings. The suspects reportedly told investigators they wanted to expose the ways conservatives artificially shape public opinion, thus sounding the alarm within the ruling ranks.
The suspects also communicated though instant messages with Kim Kyoung-soo, a Democratic Party legislator in Moon's inner circle. Kim owned up to the contacts, but denied any involvement in the social media rigging. He said the messages only concerned activities surrounding last year's snap presidential election, and that the communication was one-sided without any active exchange of messages on his part.
Kim also said the suspected ringleader sought a government position for an acquaintance after the election, which was refused. Kim tied that turn of events to the suspects' social media malfeasance, but said he "couldn't understand" why they would attack the president for that reason. He categorically denied any government or party involvement in the smear campaign.
The suspect who asked for the political favor is a prominent blogger, also named Kim, who once gave a lecture to leading progressive politicians, according to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper. The person reportedly sought a reward for supporting Moon in the presidential election.
Liberty Korea, the conservative main opposition party, calls the scandal an "extraordinary" case of opinion manipulation by the ruling bloc. Democratic Party Chairwoman Choo Mi-ae hit back Monday, saying her party will "respond strongly" to any charge that inaccurately places responsibility on the government. Choo also said the party will form a panel to investigate the case.