[Perspective] Preparing for the best and the worst in the face of the Chinese influence campaign

By Kuksung Nam, The Readable
Jan. 24, 2024 8:48PM GMT+9

“Lousy” was the first word that came to mind after encountering Seoul Press, one of the growing number of Chinese-forged fake news sites targeting South Korea. Although at first glance the websites appeared to be the work of an authentic South Korean news organization, its operators left a trail of breadcrumbs that were enough to plant a seed of doubt to those with watchful eyes. The front page of the website featured articles written both in Korean and English. This is not common practice for South Korean news outlets, which maintain separate pages for foreign audiences. What’s more, a number of articles lacked a name attributing authorship, an unimaginable exclusion, not practiced by any reputable news organization around the globe. It was obvious to someone who has been in the journalism industry for more than four years. Something was wrong.

However, the perception changed drastically after looking into the articles in detail. Although there were awkward expressions that would stand out as odd to a native speaker, the writer used credible facts—details found in articles put out by credible news organizations—to camouflage their true intentions: to cloud the eyes of uncritical readers and mislead them into believing lies. In some cases, discerning the truth and falsity of even a single sentence was close to impossible, even if one were to compare it to a credible news article covering the same topic. The misleading statements bore such a close similarity to the facts that distinguishing true from false would require verification from an authority, such as the government, the foreign media, or experts from diverse related backgrounds. Without the knowledge that these articles were produced by Chinese influence operators, there is a strong possibility that even a journalist, one whose sole job is to deliver the truth, could be hoodwinked.

Kuksung Nam, a journalist at The Readable

From January 2 to 12, The Readable analyzed forty-two purported news stories that the country’s intelligence service along with its partners declared deceptive in November of last year. These articles were uploaded onto the eighteen bogus websites as part of the Chinese influence campaign. During the process of reviewing these articles, The Readable discovered that a writer created a fake government official from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries whom the writer directly cited in an article that was written to denounce Japan for their decision to discharge treated radioactive water into the sea. The Readable discovered evidence of disinformation involving the United States forces stationed in the country. The purpose of the article was to criticize the U.S.

Separating truth from falsehood in the writing coming out of the Chinese influence operation is not a job that can be conducted by a single journalist or a single news organization. Experts explained that, in some cases, more than a few months is needed to make such determinations conclusively, even when the investigators are seasoned professionals. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) and the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) are working with the appropriate authorities to block all deceptive websites from being accessed. A work that needs to be done to prevent the misleading articles from further exposing their presence in the southern part of the Korean peninsula.

Even after these fake news sites have been blocked from being accessed by the public, questions remain to be answered, as experts expect the Chinese influence campaign will continue to target South Korean citizens. How will the authorities prevent fake news sites from taking root from the start? How will they prevent the articles from spreading through social media channels or mobile messaging applications? How will the authorities respond after the influence campaign has already impacted South Korean citizens? There needs to be answers—from the best-case scenario to the worst.

nam@thereadable.co

The cover image of this article was designed by Areum Hwang. This article was copyedited by Arthur Gregory Willers.


Kuksung Nam is a journalist for The Readable. She has extensively traversed the globe to cover the latest stories on the cyber threat landscape and has been producing in-depth stories on security and privacy by engaging with industry giants, foreign government officials and experts. Before joining The Readable, Kuksung reported on politics for one of South Korea’s top-five local newspapers, The Kyeongin Ilbo. Her journalistic skills and reportage earned her the coveted Journalists Association of Korea award in 2021 for her essay detailing exclusive stories about the misconduct of a former government official. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in French from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, a testament to her linguistic capabilities.