In a blow to South Korean President Park Geun-hye, a former head of the country's national spy agency has been sentenced today to three years in jail on charges of interfering with the 2012 vote that swept her into office.
The Seoul High Court found Won Sei-hoon, who served as the director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) from 2009 to 2013, guilty of violating election laws.
In the lead up to the 2012 presidential election, members of the NIS according to the court carried out an online smear campaign against Park's political rivals, including her closest contender, Moon Jae-in, often depicting them as North Korea sympathizers.
"The agency's cyber activity interfered in the public's decision-making, while neglecting its duty to keep political impartiality, which is required by law," Judge Kim Sang-hwan ruled. "(The NIS) cannot avoid the fundamental criticism that it harmed democracy."
NIS staff posted an alleged total of 270,000 messages on online bulletin boards and social media, operating 716 Twitter accounts, in the run-up to the election.
"The accused [Won] used the valuable function and organization of the National Intelligence Service in opposing specific political parties and politicians," Kim said in his ruling. "The state agency directly intervened in online forums, systematically spreading opinions on key election issues while pretending to be ordinary citizens."
Reports as to whether Won actively directed the campaign or just "willfully neglected" it are mixed, but it's clear that he acted with the intention to influence the election.
"It is fair to say Won had the intention to intervene in the election," Judge Kim said.
Park defeated Moon by a margin of 3.5 percent. Some opposition politicians have said the smear campaign undermined the legitimacy of her victory by illegally swaying votes in her favor.
Park has said that she did not order or benefit from the spy agency's activities in the election year.
"Even though it's the NIS's duty to collect intelligence for our country, it should strive to remain politically neutral in the process," Ms. Park's Saenuri Party spokesman Kim Young-woo said in a statement.
For its part, the NIS has denied trying to discredit politicians and claimed the online messages were part of a legitimate psychological warfare campaign against pro-North Korea content.
The court alleges that agents posting on Twitter had called Park "the only answer" to North Korean threats, and praised her "solid and right views on national security." In contrast, the agents mocked Moon as "an ex-convict" for being arrested when protesting the military dictatorship in the 1970s. The called him "childish" and said there was "zero chance" that he would follow through on campaign promises.
The court did not comment on whether the campaign had influenced the vote.
Before being taken away by the authorities, Won told the court that the ruling was unfair. "I thought I was working for the good of the country and the people," he said.
Won's attorney said they would consider appealing against the ruling.
Since leaving office, Won has already served 14 months in prison after being convicted on bribery charges made on June 5, 2013. It's alleged that he accepted cash, gold, and other gifts totaling 150 million won, or US $137,000, from Hwang Bo-yeon, the head of a construction company.
The position of head of the NIS is one of the country's most influential positions. The agency has repeatedly been accused of meddling in political affairs, and Won is not the first director to be charged with criminal activity after leaving office.
A former director of the agency assassinated President Park's father, former President Park Chung-hee, in 1979. The agency has subsequently undergone reform and changed its name.
The agency was first set up to spy on North Korea, which South Korea is technically still at war with. The current director, Lee Byung-kee, has pledged to keep the agency out of domestic politics.