South Korea’s April 15, 2020 election to select members of the National Assembly produced an overwhelming victory for the incumbent Democratic Party (DP). In fact, the DP’s super-majority (180 of 300 seats in the National Assembly) allows it to pass legislation at will, and with a few more votes to potentially revise South Korea’s constitution.
The election outcome surprised many people, and dismayed the opposition. But convincing, even lop-sided, election outcomes are commonplace worldwide. And South Korea had a 30-year record of democratic elections and orderly changes of government.
However, the election was accompanied by allegations of electoral misconduct and even fraud committed on behalf of the Democratic Party. The alleged irregularities involved nearly all phases of the South Korean electoral process; including National Election Commission malfeasance in overseeing the election, problems with ballot sorting machines, polling station irregularities and suspicious ballot papers, and ballot counting and ballot chain-of-custody discrepancies.
Statistical analysis of voting results and patterns revealed anomalies that raised suspicions of fraud; to include claims of digital manipulation of votes. Foreign interference in the electoral process was also alleged.
Not surprisingly, the election produced an unprecedented number of lawsuits challenging the election process. Yet, the South Korean judiciary has still not heard the vast majority of cases – nine months after the election – despite the statutory requirement to promptly resolve such cases.
Moreover, the South Korean media that should play a vital role in ensuring electoral fairness and ‘good conduct’ has been comparatively silent. The incumbent administration is accused of pressuring the media – even before the election – by means of libel suits, tax audits, and threats to revoke licenses.
The widespread allegations necessarily involve violations of South Korean domestic electoral law, and also breach international human rights law and treaties by which South Korean governments are bound.
Importantly, a ‘grass-roots’ citizen’s movement has led the drive to uncover evidence of electoral wrongdoing. And it did so not only without government cooperation, but also in the face of apparent official interference.
Proving electoral fraud is, of course, always difficult. However, the volume and scope of the alleged irregularities and the supporting evidence obtained by these ‘concerned citizens’ are substantial and compelling. They deserve to be taken seriously – both domestically and by the international community and organizations that promote electoral integrity worldwide.
This report is a compilation of key documents that provide background into the April 15, 2020 election and the allegations arising therefrom. In addition to reports written by South Korean observers, four of the assessments are written by foreign observers, including two international election experts who reviewed the election and available evidence. Both experts concluded irregularities did occur during the electoral process and that further review – including by international election watch organizations – is in order.
The materials are intended to serve as a reference for understanding – and further examining – the South Korean election and attendant allegations of electoral misconduct. The ultimate objective in publishing this report is to highlight the alleged electoral irregularities and to serve as an impetus for improving the South Korean electoral process that underpins the nation’s hard-won democracy. At the same time, other countries may find useful lessons to be applied to their own electoral systems.
The following documents are included and introduce South Korea’s April 15, 2020 election and the allegations arising from the election:
Doe Tae Woo is a South Korean attorney who is active in the legal efforts seeking redress for alleged irregularities in the April 2020 national assembly election. He provides a detailed introduction to the widespread allegations and offers a useful outline of the claims and the basis of the charges. The unprecedented scale of the allegations erode confidence in what was heretofore an electoral system that enjoyed general public support and trust in South Korea.
This study examines the April 15th election from the perspective of international law governing the conduct of elections and identifies 15 potential violations of international legal standards and requirements by which South Korea is bound. The possible violations touch on nearly every phase of the electoral process. The assessment matches the law with the evidence and determines that individually and collectively the apparent violations raise suspicions about the ‘genuineness’ of the election and cast doubts on the election as representing the will of the electorate.
This assessment concludes that the South Korean electoral process – in practice during the April 15, 2020 election – was flawed to the point that further inquiry and international attention and observation is warranted, particularly for future South Korean elections.
International election expert, Justin Nettmann reviewed the April 15, 2020 South Korean election and available reports and information. In addition to providing a useful outline of the entire South Korean electoral system that non-specialists in South Korean affairs will find of interest, he identifies inconsistencies and irregularities in the April 2020 elections. And he concludes the international election watch community should observe future elections.
Mr. Nettmann’s assessment particularly examines allegations of irregularities involving the introduction and use of electoral hardware – including electronic ballot sorting and counting machines – as well as the attendant systems, software, and processes. He also considers the structural and data composition of the QR codes printed on early voting ballots, as well as the statistical electorate data that was reviewed by other experts. Mr. Nettmann’s review notes potential violations of South Korean electoral law in relation to counting machine capabilities and the use of QR codes. Moreover, the broader lack of National Election Commission transparency and responsiveness to requests to observe and examine various equipment and materials is also cited.
Mr. Nettmann concludes that “Indications are that certain inconsistencies were noted which have laid the foundation for further investigations to take place in South Korea.” Towards this end, future dispatch of election specialists and observers to examine electoral processes in South Korea – with special attention to the introduction and use of technology – is recommended.
Mr. Sanadiki, an experienced international election expert, examined the April 2020 South Korean election and the evidence uncovered, and a noted a number of irregularities that call into question the genuineness and credibility of the election.
As several examples, he cites the electoral reform bill hurriedly passed within too close a time to election day (i.e. 110 days before). He states that this violated international principles that changes to the electoral system and process should be done with adequate time for all parties to debate and adjust to the new system.
Additionally, Mr. Sanadiki notes that holding the election during the Covid-19 pandemic – while highly praised for the fact the election was held – worked to the advantage of the incumbent 5 party; and distorted the international standard that all parties are able to compete on an equal basis.
The Covid-19 pandemic also distracted attention of the international community and observers – that otherwise would have been focused on potential irregularities in the electoral process – such as the effective disenfranchisement of overseas voters, and the drastic expansion of ‘early voting’ – that is considered more vulnerable to manipulation. Mr. Sanadiki also cites the use of QR codes on early voting ballots as another irregularity threatening the security of ballots and the voting process, and taking on particular importance given the expansion of early voting in the 2020 election – and the potential for affecting the election outcome.
Lack of transparency and care in the implementation and use of electronic electoral hardware is also cited, along with the evidence of numerous other irregularities in the entire electoral process. Mr. Sanadiki concludes that the international community should show interest in South Korea’s elections – not just April 15, 2020 election, but upcoming elections as well.
A South Korean attorney involved in the legal effort to challenge electoral irregularities lays out the main areas of contention – to include particular vulnerability to fraud and manipulation posed by ROK’s early voting system that provides two days of ‘early voting’ starting five days before ‘election day.’ Attorney Doe argues that both digital (electronic) manipulation and other irregularities occurred that shaped the election outcome in favor of the incumbent administration. Doe ends with a call for neutral, international examination of the South Korean electoral process, even if there is domestic opposition to such a step.
This report offers an overview of the April 15, 2020 elections. Besides synthesizing the allegations and evidence – and the South Korean government’s response – the report provides the domestic political context, as well as the regional and international contexts in which the election took place. Also included is a discussion of the allegations of foreign (i.e. Chinese) interference in the electoral process.
The author started off skeptical about the electoral misconduct allegations. However, he concludes that the diverse and credible group of ‘concerned’ South Korean citizens has made a compelling case in support of their claims, and that further examination, particularly by international organizations and the media is warranted.
Another respected South Korean attorney made a detailed assessment of South Korean Post Office ‘postal tracking records’ for over 2 million ‘mail-in’ ballots cast during the ‘early voting’ period and concluded that upwards of 1 million votes cast were of questionable provenance and potentially fraudulent. Attorney Park’s report also depicts alleged efforts by the Moon Jae-in administration to interfere with the electoral process – by clamping down on dissent and muzzling freedom of speech and using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover for such efforts.
Other allegations with supporting evidence include charges of foreign involvement in manipulating the election to include via Chinese-made technology in the electoral system that was allegedly introduced without proper oversight or transparency. Park also describes the curious discovery of 18,000 counterfeit South Korean passports that were found along with improperly disposed of electoral materials in a local junkyard – and that added to suspicions over the electoral process. The Moon administration’s apparent attempts to obstruct citizens to seeking redress for electoral misconduct are also covered, and the international community’s help to address the alleged irregularities is specifically sought.
The South Korean election allegedly was manipulated electronically. Mr. Roy Kim lays out his case alleging that ‘digital manipulation’ – so called- ‘digital gerrymandering’ occurred and illegally moved votes from one candidate to another. The report outlines the alleged methodologies used and provides detailed background information to support the author’s analyses. Mr. Kim’s arguments are based on a hypothesis. However, he ‘shows his work’ and places his assessment in the public domain where it can be examined – and challenged.
Several statistics experts examined the April 15th election results and concluded that manipulation likely occurred. One of them, Professor Park Sung Hyun, Honorary Statistics Professor, Seoul National University, and former Dean of the Korea Academy of Science and Technology, presents his assessment of ‘pre-vote’ (early voting) patterns – based on government provided information – and finds irregularities and statistical anomalies. Professor Park concludes that the election outcome is ‘hard to understand’ from a statistical analysis standpoint. Professor Park has also referred to the election results as ‘artistic’ – and are likely the result of manipulation.
Also studying the election statistics, University of Michigan Professor, Walter Mebane conducted a statistical examination and comparison of the results of the 2020 ROK election and the earlier 2016 South Korean election. He concludes the 2020 election had an unusually high number of ‘fraud’ votes, particularly centered on the ‘early voting’ phase.
Professor Mebane notes that ‘fraud’ does not necessarily mean ‘illegal’ and such statistical anomalies may result from ‘strategic behavior’ – such as one party successfully drawing its supporters out for ‘early voting’ in large numbers. Notably, professor Park Sung Hyun’s analysis of National Election Commission statistics indicates that ‘conservative leaning’ voters were as likely to ‘vote early’ as were ‘left leaning’ voters. Thus, undercutting government claims that its supporters just happened to vote early and en masse.
Professor Mebane’s report raises issues and anomalies deserving further investigation, and examination of the broader electoral process as well.
Of note, Professor Mebane is not a ‘Korea expert’ nor a partisan analyst. Rather, he applies statistical analysis objectively – as he has done with hundreds of elections worldwide in reaching his conclusions.
The electoral hardware – particularly the electronic ballot counting machines – used in the election is a source of controversy. Notably, South Korean electoral and government officials have not opened the electoral hardware to forensic examination by candidates, parties, and appropriate parties. However, one technical expert, Benjamin Wilkerson, was able to examine a ballot counting machine in enough detail to raise concerns over the capabilities of the machines. Mr. Wilkerson makes the case that the machines have excessive capabilities – far beyond simple ‘ballot sorting’ machines, and that in fact they violate South Korean electoral law and that the machines themselves are vulnerable to manipulation, thus raising concerns about electoral integrity.
At a minimum, evidence suggests the machines were introduced and operated without proper ‘transparency’ required by both domestic and international law and practice.
Another South Korean technical expert provided a detailed explanation of the issues of concern with the ballot sorting/counting devices used in the April 15th election – as well the attached control computer and printer. He concludes that irregularities and vulnerabilities exist owing the specific chipsets and the potential for external communication. Mr. Cho also claims that one of the NEC’s rare post-election attempts to explain the machine and its functions to the media was a ‘staged event’ – rather than an effort at real transparency.
Indeed, a common thread throughout these reports is the rather terse nature of NEC responses to specific allegations, instead of detailed refutations.
A number of challenges raised during the April 15th election involved the use of QR codes on ballots – that pose a potential risk to voter secrecy among other concerns. Curiously, QR codes were only used on ‘early vote’ ballots – and not on ‘election day’ ballots. Mr. Cho discusses the issues surrounding the use of QR codes and argues the use of QR codes is illegal under South Korean electoral law as well as potentially allowing for improper manipulation of votes.
The South Korean electoral system allows early voting as described earlier. Mr. Cho discusses the potential risks and vulnerabilities posed by the early voting system – to include potential manipulation of the votes. He also presents apparent government efforts to destroy evidence of electoral improprieties and the attendant loss of public confidence in the electoral process.
The April 15, 2020 election saw an unprecedented number of lawsuits filed alleging irregularities and seeking relief. Attorney Seok describes the status of the litigation and allegations made of misconduct centering on the early voting process, as well as allegations claiming a sophisticated effort to manipulate ballot-counting equipment. Attorney Seok raises particular concerns over the ROK judiciary’s delay in addressing the vast majority of the cases, and he questions wither political considerations to prevent exposure of illegal activities are the reasons for the delays.
In order to provide the reader with a close-up look at a range of specific allegations, evidence, and legal arguments being made to challenge the electoral process, the report includes translations of three separate legal filings (listed above) prepared by plaintiffs’ lawyers following the April 15, 2020 election. The allegations implicate nearly every phase of the electoral process – before, during, and after the election.
A detailed listing of the nature and status of 126 lawsuits as of September 2020 – five months after the election is also included in this report’s supporting materials under the heading: List of Lawsuits Filed. The vast majority of lawsuits have not had an initial hearing – despite challenges following previous elections typically being resolved in a matter of weeks.
Mr. Yoon addresses specific allegations claiming that the improper removal and modifying of election system servers despite ongoing litigation constituted improper destruction of evidence. Mr. Yoon reviews this issue and other key legal aspects involving the election litigation and allegation electoral violations by the National Election Commission. International assistance to examine ROK election computing equipment and records is specifically requested.
This consolidated report reflects a grassroot, citizens’-based effort to defend South Korea’s democracy and the electoral process that is its lynchpin. The fundamental issues that are raised in the various reports should be of interest well beyond South Korea’s borders. Indeed, all democratic-minded people concerned with preserving (or even restoring or establishing) their own democracies and consensually governed societies can learn from the Republic of Korea and the April 15, 2020 election.