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[Editorial] Fake election news

Key figure in Daejang-dong scandal fabricated news unfavorable to Yoon

Sept. 8, 2023 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

Kim Man-bae, a key figure in the high-profile Daejang-dong development scandal, was found to have fabricated news stories unfavorable to the t​hen-People Power Party candidate Yoon Suk Yeol before the 2022 presidential election.

The scandal concerns a project to develop Daejang-dong in Seongnam City as apartment complexes. The project was planned and executed under then-Mayor Lee Jae-myung, who is leader of the Democratic Party of Korea.

Kim allegedly received astronomical returns on investment in the project. The city government is suspected of structuring the project to enable him and a few other speculators to reap enormous profits. Kim and Lee were indicted in connection with the case.

The scandal, which jolted the whole nation, was one of the biggest election issues and also a vulnerable point for Lee, the then-ruling Democratic Party presidential candidate. Yoon won over Lee by the smallest-ever margin -- 0.7 percentage point.

The prosecution reportedly found that Kim had met with Shin Hak-lim, a former leader of the National Union of Media Workers and a journalist affiliated with online news outlet Newstapa, on Sept. 19, 2021, about three weeks after suspicions were first raised about the Daejang-dong project.

Kim is said to have told a false news story to Shin. He alleged that President Yoon, a favorite presidential hopeful of the People Power Party at the time of their dialogue, had let a suspect off easy during an interrogation. The suspect, Cho Woo-hyeong, a mortgage broker and one of the few speculators in the Daejang-dong project, was accused of involvement in the Busan Savings Bank illegal loans case in 2011 when Yoon was a prosecutor and that Yoon had covered it up. Kim made the remarks to the effect that the Daejang-dong scandal dates back to Yoon's cover-up of the bank case.

After giving the false information to Shin, Kim paid him 165 million won ($123,500) apparently as an advance payment for disclosing the interview shortly before the presidential election. As media reported on the payment, Shin argued he sold three copies of his book to Kim for that amount. Few would buy his explanation.

Later Kim met Cho and said, "I will lead Daejang-dong allegations in the wrong direction. Just pretend to know nothing about what I am doing."

But Cho told the prosecution in November 2021 that he had been interviewed by a prosecutor surnamed Park, not by Prosecutor Yoon, over the savings bank case.

Nevertheless, the prosecution under President Moon Jae-in ignored Cho's words. Its investigation of Lee's close aides such as Jeong Jin-sang and Kim Yong seldom proceeded.

Three days before the presidential election, Newstapa disclosed Shin's interview with Kim without proper fact checking. Afterward, the interview was picked up by some media.

Lee and the Democratic Party stepped up the political offense that Yoon was the root of the Daejang-dong scandal.

An interesting point is that the party and Lee began to make the argument suddenly and groundlessly in October 2021 before the interview was disclosed. It is questionable if they knew about the interview beforehand.

Some media seem to have intentionally disregarded the basics of journalism -- factual and unbiased reporting. Cho, who became the source of the fake news regardless of his will, is said to have disclosed to the prosecution in July this year that he had explained to reporters that he had not been investigated by Prosecutor Yoon Suk Yeol but that some media had reported to the contrary. It is quite unthinkable for the press to ignore what a direct party to an issue denies and to report the exact opposite.

A reporter of a cable television network is said to have even replied, "I got it," about Cho's explanations, but Cho reportedly told the prosecution that the network had not reported his words at all. The network apologized on Wednesday for the "distorted" report. The reporter is said to have moved to Newstapa later.

Any attempt to change the results of the presidential election by distorting public opinion is a grave crime that destroys democracy. Even if fake news turns out to be exposed later, it is too late to reverse the election results. A thorough probe and severe punishment are needed so there is no room for fake election news to spread.