Election cyber attack perplexes ruling party

The Grand National Party was in turmoil Monday following earlier allegations that an aide to one of its lawmakers was involved in a cyber attack against the national election watchdog during the election for Seoul mayor.

Last week, the National Police Agency's cyber investigation unit arrested a former assistant of GNP Rep. Choi Ku-shik, surnamed Gong, and three others for allegedly directing a cyber attack against the National Elections Committee's website. The attack paralyzed the website for about two hours in the early morning of Oct. 26 when by-elections took place across the nation, including for Seoul mayor.

Investigators began tracing bank accounts and phone records of Gong as suspicion grows that the four may have acted on behalf of someone else or some political group.

"We have secured search warrants to look into the suspects' bank accounts, phone records, emails and personal computer files," a police official told a press briefing.

The agency, however, said the main opposition Democratic Party's claim that Gong spoke with a third person several times over the phone in the hours leading up to the attack was "far from factual."

The DP had raised the suspicion that the legislator's aide may have discussed the attack with GNP officials on the phone, stepping up its offensive against the ruling camp.

"We have reason to believe that Gong spoke with others about 20 times over phone on the eve and the early morning of October 26," said Rep. Baek Won-woo of the DP, urging the police to thoroughly investigate phone records of Gong to see if any GNP officials are involved. The lawmaker made the remarks during a visit to police headquarters, leading a team of 7 DP legislators.

"It is hard to believe that the 20-something aide acted alone to pull off such an attack," he added.

Police chief Jo Hyun-oh vowed a fair and impartial probe.

"(Whoever's involved in this case) will be investigated in accordance with the law and principle, regardless of their political inclinations or social rank," he said.

Sensing the explosiveness of the case, GNP leaders stopped all discussions about how to reform the party and win back votes and decided to focus on their response.

"This is no time to discuss internal reforms," a party insider said.

The GNP, in a desperate effort to prevent a resurgent opposition in next year's parliamentary and presidential elections, has been discussing various measures to overhaul the party and discard its image as a party of the rich and powerful.

GNP chairman Rep. Hong Joon-pyo tried to distance his party from the attack, while calling for a thorough probe.

"We're willing to cooperate with the investigative agency on any request from it to help to unearth the truth," he said. The politician hinted Sunday he may agree to a parliamentary investigation or appointment of a special counsel once the police investigation is over.

Some DP members had called for the measures, calling the case one of the worst ever election rigging schemes.

They suspect that the attack may have been a deliberate attempt to influence the outcome of the elections in which the conservative ruling party suffered a crushing defeat.

In the Seoul mayoral by-election, Park Won-soon, a liberal opposition-backed maverick, beat Na Kyung-won of the GNP by a larger than expected margin.

Many younger voters who wanted to cast their ballots on their way to work had trouble finding their polling booth using smartphones or other wireless devices because of the cyber attack, DP officials said. Surveys showed that voters in their 30s and 40s gave overwhelming support to Park.

According to the police agency, Gong is suspected of asking the chief of an IT company, identified by the surname Kang, to attack the election body on the poll day. Kang and two of his employees mounted a distributed denial of service attack, or DDoS, on the website. The 27-year-old Gong denies his involvement in the attack, while the other three have pleaded guilty, investigators said.

They are also trying to ascertain whether the suspects were behind a similar attack on the same day against the home page of then-mayoral candidate Park.