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PoliticsSouth Korea

South Korea battling deepfakes ahead of key election

April 1, 2024

The problem of disinformation could further overshadow an election campaign that is already fractious due to the two main parties' deep ideological differences.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol
Both North Korea and China are known to prefer the policies of the opposition Democratic Party over President Yoon Suk Yeol's conservative People Power PartyImage: KIM MIN-HEE/Reuters

Less than two weeks ahead of South Korea's April 10 parliamentary elections, authorities have vowed to take firm measures against anyone attempting to influence the outcome by peddling disinformation using artificial intelligence-driven deepfakes or carrying out cyberattacks against the electoral process.  

An assault by "bad actors" could further overshadow an election that is already fractious due to the two main parties' deep ideological differences.

Shortly before the official start of campaigning on March 28, the National Police Agency (NPA) warned that it was stepping up monitoring of actions that could constitute unfair efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the polls.

Even before campaigning officially got under way, police and election monitoring officials were busy. According to Yonhap news, 401 allegations of criminal activity in relation to the vote had been reported as of March 18, with 676 individuals named as suspects. Of the total number of cases, 352 involved spreading false information, 72 were bribery cases and 17 were linked to campaigning ahead of the legally set schedule.

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Deepfakes to manipulate public opinion

The large number of false information investigations underlines the authorities' concern, which came to the fore in the run-up to local elections in 2022 when a video was shared widely on social media apparently showing President Yoon Suk Yeol expressing his support for a candidate for his ruling party. The clip had been faked.

More recently, a YouTube channel attracted hundreds of thousands of hits after broadcasting a video purportedly showing Yoon giving a toast at the wedding of popular singer Lim Young-woong. Lim is not married and the wedding did not happen.

In early March, the NPA unveiled a deep learning program that utilizes 5.2 million pieces of data to analyze a video to determine whether it is real or a computer-generated deepfake. The process takes around five minutes, the police say, and has an accuracy rate of around 80%.

"South Korea is an early adopter of many information technologies and has a very high usage rate of social media and alternative news sources," said Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

"President Yoon has often warned that disinformation, including AI-generated deepfakes, poses an imminent threat to the integrity of public debate and fair elections," he said.

Seoul hosted this year's Summit for Democracy, a virtual gathering of leaders initiated by US President Joe Biden in 2021, and used the event to "call for the development of international legal and technological standards to counter disinformation campaigns, whether perpetrated by foreign or domestic actors," Easley added.

Hyobin Lee, an adjunct professor of politics and ethics at Chungnam National University, said this year's election is "notably more serious and critical" than previous votes.

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Potential for foreign influence in election 

"Most fake news ís propagated by the conservative camp, primarily because their supporters tend to be from the older generation," she told DW. "The conservatives employ negative strategies against their opponents to fortify their base," she added.

"In South Korea, there is a stark division between the left and the right, with a strong tendency to view the opposing side as 'the enemy,'" she said. "In this context, fake news is covertly generated and spread as part of negative strategies and it predominantly affects the older generation, those aged 60 and above."

There is also concern in South Korea about the potential influence of foreign governments that could try to tip the scales in favor of a party.

Both North Korea and China, for instance, are known to prefer the policies of the opposition Democratic Party over Yoon's conservative People Power Party.

The ChosunIlbo newspaper reported on March 18 that "Chinese media and influencers are systematically generating and disseminating negative content against the Yoon Suk Yeol administration" in connection with the dispute between the South Korean government and the nation's doctors, who are on strike over a new medical school plan.

Along with claiming that the Yoon administration had threatened to send doctors to the military if they continued to strike, YouTube channels and other media have highlighted cases of bullying in the armed forces.

Comment sections under media reports have been overwhelmingly pro Lee Jae-myung, the head of the opposition Democratic Party, with some claiming that Yoon's close military alliance with the US effectively makes it a "colony" of the US.

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"China can be considered pro-Lee, while Japan is pro-Yoon," said Professor Lee. "Unlike the previous administration, Yoon has been actively accommodating Japan's demands and, for example, the Korean government did not criticize Japan's release of contaminated water [from the Fukushima nuclear power plant]," she noted.

"Given that the Yoon administration is overwhelmingly favorable to Japan, it can be inferred that Tokyo wants Yoon to decisively win the elections, whereas China would prefer Lee and the opposition."

However, Kim Sang-woo, a former politician with the left-leaning South Korean Congress for New Politics and now a member of the board of the Kim Dae-jung Peace Foundation, believes the election will be won or lost on the rival parties' policies and the scandals that continue to dog their members as the election looms ever closer.

"This election is an opportunity for the average voter to pass judgment on the two years of the Yoon government to date and I do not believe that most people are worried about deepfakes or fake news," he said. "I think that people are really focused on the candidates and their policies."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea