One of the probable goals of the manipulation, for the CCP at least, is to nurture a political constellation in South Korea that is more likely to eventually move to expel US forces from the peninsula, changing the strategic calculus in the whole Indo-Pacific. This could be a problem for India.
Miami: So, as if we didn’t have enough to worry about, South Korea’s April 2020 National Assembly elections were likely rigged, with help from China. There may not be a smoking gun (yet), but there are a lot of empty shell casings scattered around and a seemingly severely wounded democracy.
A recently released independent report, Fraud in South Korea’s April 2020 Elections: It Probably Happened and is a Big Deal for the United States, by Grant Newsham, a retired Marine Colonel and former reserve head of intelligence for Marine Forces Pacific, details some of the alleged methods used as well as the indications of inconsistencies in results.
They include Electronic Counting Machines (ECM) and/or attached computers containing Huawei components; the National Election Commission server allegedly “protected” by a Huawei firewall; early voting ballots printed with QR codes, making them easy to manipulate which is why the practice is banned in some jurisdictions; serious chain of custody issues for early vote ballots; a large number of unexplained fires at election-related centres; and much more.
The combined outcome was a massive, surprising win for President Moon Jae-in’s party in an election with results that seemed so statistically improbable that the former head of the highly prestigious Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology said “either God did it or it was rigged”.
This is serious for at least three reasons. First, rigging elections is the cardinal sin of a democracy—it breaks the foundational social contract between the State and the people and can lead to a cascading collapse of all built upon it, including an independent judiciary and a free press. This is a tragedy for South Korea.
Second, if, as it seems, China is involved, this is a dramatic escalation in China’s attempts to interfere in the governance of sovereign states. It’s not surprising Beijing would try. It has a track record of attempting to manipulate elections in Taiwan, and buying influence with voter groups, politicians and political parties in countries from Australia to Zambia.
But this seems to involve direct technological infiltration. That’s not influencing heart and minds of voters and politicians through inducements or threats, that’s the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interposing itself between the voter and his or her ballot. The CCP hates democracy, and especially successful democracies, as it threatens the CCP’s very justification for being. By helping a favoured party or group subvert democracy in a third country, the CCP parasitically spreads its authoritarianism into a new, increasingly dependent host. It is a tragedy for freedom.
The third reason is that one of the probable goals of the manipulation, for the CCP at least, is to nurture a political constellation in South Korea that is more likely to eventually move to expel US forces from the peninsula—changing the strategic calculus in the whole Indo-Pacific. If that happens, the champagne corks will be popping in Beijing. This could be a problem for India, especially as it gets more engaged with maritime security in the Pacific part of the Indo-Pacific. It is a tragedy for all hoping to avoid war.
Within South Korea, some brave citizens are trying to save their national soul through court challenges, independent investigations and limited (by Covid regulations) demonstration. But there is little appetite from the South Korean judiciary to hear the cases. Previously, these sorts of allegations would have been investigated in around three months. This time, they haven’t even started yet and the election was in April. While at the same time, central election servers that might contain valuable data are being taken away for “maintenance”, demonstration leaders are being arrested and the South Korea media is largely quiet.
It is as if by the time the election rigging comes along, there has already been enough of a state capture to block off effective resistance. The manipulated vote is the checkmate of a game of chess the population didn’t even know it was playing, let alone losing.
Another disquieting element of these events is that South Korea is a major provider of electronic voting machines to other countries. According to the “Comprehensive Report on the Fraudulent Election” by Roy Kim, “[Korea’s] A-WEB exports the Korean electoral system overseas in conjunction with KOICA (Korea International Cooperation Agency) and its ODA (Official Development Assistance program). A-WEB formed MOUs with countries such as Bolivia, Fiji, Ecuador, Sri Lanka, Guinea Republic, Afghanistan, Tunis, Samoa, The Congo, Uzbekistan, Maldives […] Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kenya.” Many have seen problems, and the elections in Congo, in particular, were deeply controversial.
So, what does this all mean? We know the CCP uses all levers available to it to advance its comprehensive national power. We know the CCP has contempt (likely linked to fear) of democracy. We know the CCP happily works through proxies. We know the CCP isn’t going to stop doing something that seems to be working in its favour.
Put all that together and it is very likely the CCP will look for every opportunity to manipulate elections “at the source”. In early 2020, the US Congress held hearings into the security of US voting machines—an independent study found up to 20% of US voting machines contained components made in Russia or China. They didn’t know to ask about South Korean components. Which of India’s neighbours are using voting machines that are similarly potentially compromised?
The CCP will also likely learn from the mistakes that allowed it to be suspected in manipulating the South Korean elections, and it will be better at it next time. We need to be better at stopping it. As the South Korean demonstrators say, be aware, or be next. I’d add, and fight back. Now.
Cleo Paskal is Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.