South Korea’s election systems in turmoil after spy agency raised security concerns

By Dain Oh, The Readable
Nov. 2, 2023 10:30PM GMT+9 Updated Nov. 2, 2023 10:35PM GMT+9

Controversy over election security in South Korea is intensifying, with only six months remaining until the next general election. As more facts about a security investigation of election systems emerge from a government audit undertaken by the National Assembly, the power struggle between South Korea’s electoral regulator and the national security watchdog continues to escalate.

The conflict between the two authorities is sowing seeds of doubt about the reliability of the election system among voters, raising questions even over the intelligence agency’s possible motives for raising such hot-button issues so close to voting day.

On November 1, members of the Intelligence Committee of the National Assembly debated the clamorous and high-profile security inspection of the National Election Commission, which was conducted by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) during an annual audit of state affairs held in a closed meeting at the NIS office.

Specifically, the national representatives argued over the legitimacy of the security inspection tools the NIS had applied to the internal systems of the National Election Commission in order to conduct their inspection. Yoo Sang-bum of the ruling party spoke on behalf of the NIS and explained that the tools are nothing nefarious but are merely devices commonly used to conduct such inspections.

Conversely, Youn Kun-young of the opposition party asserted that, of the 84 security tools confirmed to have been installed by the NIS, a number of them currently remain operational in the internal systems of the National Election Commission. Referring to the remaining devices as “hacking tools,” Youn refuted the claim made by the NIS that the election authority was “uncooperative” in complying with their request for inspections.

Following an audit briefing, the NIS informed the press that their security inspection tools were neither malicious nor even unusual. Rather, they explained that they were software of the kind typically employed by cybersecurity firms and white-hat hackers.

The National Election Security Commission faced severe criticism earlier this year after it was revealed that, over the past two years, they ignored eight security warnings from the intelligence agency regarding seven hacking attempts out of North Korea. In response, the NIS launched an investigation of the commission, a probe which lasted from July 17 to September 22. In a briefing on the results of the investigation, the NIS remarked that the internal systems of the National Election Commission were indeed vulnerable to cyberattacks.

South Korea’s general election, which allocates 300 national representatives to four-year-terms, is scheduled to occur in April of next year.

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

Dain Oh is a distinguished journalist based in South Korea, recognized for her exceptional contributions to the field. As the founder and editor-in-chief of The Readable, she has demonstrated her expertise in leading media outlets to success. Prior to establishing The Readable, Dain was a journalist for The Electronic Times, a prestigious IT newspaper in Korea. During her tenure, she extensively covered the cybersecurity industry, delivering groundbreaking reports. Her work included exclusive stories, such as the revelation of incident response information sharing by the National Intelligence Service. These accomplishments led to her receiving the Journalist of the Year Award in 2021 by the Korea Institute of Information Security and Cryptology, a well-deserved accolade bestowed upon her through a unanimous decision. Dain has been invited to speak at several global conferences, including the APEC Women in STEM Principles and Actions, which was funded by the U.S. State Department. Additionally, she is an active member of the Asian American Journalists Association, further exhibiting her commitment to journalism.