China may try to influence South Korea’s general elections: experts

Wang Haijun, a Chinese national who operates the Chinese restaurant Dongpangmyeongju, which is suspected of being a front for a 'secret Chinese police station,' speaks during a press conference  held at the restaurant in Seoul. Dec. 31, 2022 file photo. Yonhap

Wang Haijun, a Chinese national who operates the Chinese restaurant Dongpangmyeongju, which is suspected of being a front for a “secret Chinese police station,” speaks during a press conference held at the restaurant in Seoul. Dec. 31, 2022 file photo. Yonhap

By Kwak Yeon-soo

In the lead-up to the April 10 general elections, concerns over possible interference by China are growing, spurred by a report by the U.S. conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation.

The report warns that China may utilize cyber operations to influence the outcome of the April 10 general elections, hoping to seat more Beijing-friendly politicians in the National Assembly.

“Beijing would see great benefit to covertly influencing South Korean public opinion in the run-up to the April 2024 National Assembly and 2027 presidential elections in favor of progressive candidates whose policies more closely align with Chinese objectives,” Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the foundation, said in his report titled “South Korea Must Counter Chinese Influence Operations—and the U.S. Should Provide Support.”

Klingner’s report is not overblown, according to experts who say South Korea should be aware of China’s potential attempts to interfere in the upcoming elections, given that Beijing has a history of using several methods to influence Korea’s public opinion through disinformation campaigns and covert Chinese police stations.

In 2022, a Chinese restaurant in Seoul was suspected of having functioned as a secret Chinese police station. In November last year, the National Intelligence Service identified 38 fake Korean-language news websites that allegedly tried to influence public opinion by distributing pro-China and anti-U.S. content. They were suspected of being operated by Chinese companies.

“Beijing has intervened in elections in Canada and Australia, so it’s possible for them to meddle in the April 10 general elections. They may use internet trolls or AI chatbots to stir public sentiment or inflate public support for a pro-China party or candidate,” said Kang Jun-young, professor of Chinese Studies at the Graduate School of International Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

“The Chinese government may also try to mobilize the participation of ethnically Chinese people to support pro-China candidates,” Kang added.

Fake news websites suspected of being operated by Chinese companies / Courtesy of National Intelligence Service

Fake news websites suspected of being operated by Chinese companies / Courtesy of National Intelligence Service

Kang said that the growing strength of the South Korean-U.S. alliance is negatively impacting China, which wants to play a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific region.

“The former Moon Jae-in government took a softer line with China compared to the Yoon Suk Yeol administration. It pushed for talks with North Korea and had relatively high expectations about China’s role in the region,” he said.

Lim Jong-in, professor of cyber security at Korea University and special cyber secretary to Yoon, agreed that Seoul-Beijing relations have been frozen for some time.

However, he said that not only China but also North Korea and other hostile forces may seek to influence Korea’s political landscape.

“The hostile forces can use deepfake technology, chatGPT and similar AI programs to interfere in elections. They are hard to detect because they use multiple [virtual private network] servers. Deleting disinformation posts on social media platforms can be a time-consuming process,” he said.

Lim added, “President Yoon asked Meta CEO Mark Zuckerburg to cooperate in countering AI-related and cybersecurity threats during their recent meeting in Seoul.”

“He also urged tech leaders to combat deceptive use of AI at the Munich Security Conference.”

Yoon called fake news and disinformation based on AI and digital technology serious threats to democracy at the third Summit for Democracy on Wednesday.

“Fake news manipulates citizens into making wrong judgments based on false information, thereby threatening elections, which constitute the very foundation of democracy,” Yoon said. “It is a clear provocation against democracy.”

Experts said there is a need to stay laser-focused and work together with allies to counter such threats that fuel political and social tensions.

“We are now able to detect cyber threats employed by North Korea because we have grown familiar with their patterns. But we are still unable to track down threats by China or Russia. We should work together with international partners as well as private sector and key government agencies to reduce risks,” Lim said.

Kang called for stronger enforcement and legislative measures against those who engage in disinformation campaigns, saying, “Our voting and ballot counting systems are vulnerable to hacking. The National Assembly has to adopt legislative measures to prevent foreign manipulation and enforce laws against electoral interference. We should expand the current espionage law beyond threats from North Korea.”

 

 

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