South Korea's April 2020 Elections Rigged? The Answer Is a Clear No.

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South Korea's April 2020 Elections Rigged? The Answer Is a Clear No.

Groundless claims of hacking and fraud in South Korea’s April 2020 National Assembly election have made their way across the Pacific to the United States recently and been amplified by anti-China hawks. Simply put, the charges of conspiracy do not add up.

Groundless claims of hacking and fraud in South Korea’s April 2020 National Assembly election have made their way across the Pacific to the United States recently and been amplified by anti-China hawks.

On September 28, the New Institute held a conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, where a group of mostly conservative activists raised the conspiracy theory that China interfered in the election to favor the liberal Democratic Party, which won in a landslide. Among them, the most outspoken is Min Kyung-wook, a former Assembly-member for the conservative United Future Party who lost his reelection race and was rebuked by his own party’s leadership for pushing the theory.

The American who took part in the conference, Grant Newsham, a Senior Fellow with the Center for Security Policy, is a retired Marine Colonel who was stationed in Japan and an analyst with hawkish views on China. In his latest column for the Asia Times, he pushes the hacking theory in order to hype the threat of China.

Newsham wrote: 

“Some conservatives alleged the election was rigged, and with Chinese help.

Specifically, they claim that the National Election Commission’s electronic network was hacked and the vote manipulated. That’s the stuff of spy books. But it’s maybe not as hard as imagined. The network is basically a main server at the election commission that connects to each polling site. It’s not the decentralized system Americans are used to. And Chinese Huawei equipment is said to be installed in the hardware.”

Whether or not it’s possible, or easy, to hack the system—and Newsham did not even prove that—and whether or not it happened are two completely different questions. For someone to make such a bold claim, they should offer evidence to back it up.

Yes, Newsham is not the only one. Protesters have been holding up signs for months. Seoul gadflies have flocked to the theory. A statistics professor at the University of Michigan, Dr. Walter Mebane Jr., wrote a paper that, at first, seems to say “frauds” might have occurred. But a closer look shows that: first, his paper does not authoritatively assert election fraud and, second, the validity of the data input has been questioned.

Don Kirk wrote up the allegations for The Daily Beast earlier in October.

There are a few reasons why the conspiracy theory about election hacking is not plausible, starting with the fact that those pushing the theory can cite no credible evidence fraud occurred. There’s no plausible motive, either.

Start with the lack of evidence. Activists handing out fliers on the street have dozens of mini-arguments at their disposal, like the 9/11 conspiracy theorists who rattle off long lists to overwhelm their opponents. But there are three main arguments that are taken slightly more seriously than the rest:

1.) Huawei and hacking allegations.

2.) Walter Mebane’s paper suggests the possibility of “frauds.”

3.) The Democrats did noticeably better in early voting.

Each of these arguments falls apart upon simple scrutiny. 

First, there has been no evidence of hacking, and the default assumption for a stable democracy, in the absence of evidence of electoral interference, is no electoral interference. Newsham argues that Chinese Huawei equipment is “said to be installed in the [National Election Commission] hardware.” Even the claim about Huawei being installed is only a rumor.

There is fear among national security hawks in the U.S. and some European countries that Huawei might be used to spy on China’s adversaries. But there has been no hard evidence presented thus far of espionage devices being embedded in Huawei products, and British intelligence assesses that the risks are manageable. Huawei did help some dictators of African countries spy on opposition leaders, but only at the local governments’ requests. And China has hacked foreign countries for the purpose of spying, a common tactic among intelligence of all countries with the capabilities to do so, but hacking for the purposes of spying is an order of magnitude different than hacking to rig an election.

China also has no motive to rig Korea’s legislative election. President Moon’s critics accuse him of being “pro-China,” but that portrayal is really based on disagreements about policy. South Korea, being a smaller country stuck between Japan and China, has always and will always have to balance its relations out of necessity, not desire.

Moon did reassure China early on in his presidency that he would not accept any more THAAD deployments, and Moon kept Korea’s borders open to China—and to much of the rest of the world—throughout the coronavirus pandemic. But both decisions can be justified, even make sense, for Korea’s national interest, independent of any sympathies its president might have to China. No Korean president would want to enter an “Asian NATO” alliance with Japan, given that it could easily drag Korea into a war over an issue of no concern to Seoul for the benefit of Korea’s historic enemy. 

And despite Newsham’s mockery of Moon’s response to the coronavirus, the vast majority of Koreans would raise their hands if asked whether they approve of their country’s response. With just 100 or so cases a day and nearly zero percent GDP growth, Korea is doing better than almost any other country in the world.

Nonetheless, there’s a key point: All of the supposed pro-China policy choices Moon made before April 2020 were done with his party only having a plurality of the legislature. The fact is, he doesn’t need a majority, let alone a supermajority, to push a foreign policy agenda. Seoul’s foreign policy power is heavily concentrated in the executive office.

Now we get to the evidence presented in Professor Mebane’s paper. Mebane’s summary concludes, “The estimates and tests for 2020 all exhibit anomalies that suggest the election data were fraudulently manipulated, although the suggestion is stronger for single-member district voting than for proportional representation voting.”

But he also writes, “It is important to keep in mind that ‘frauds’ according to the eforensics model may or may not be results of malfeasance and bad actions. How much estimated “frauds” may be produced by normal political activity, and in particular by strategic behavior, is an open question that is the focus of current research.”

So, the statistical analysis shows results that look abnormal or unnatural, but those could be the result of strategic voting, get-out-the-vote efforts, or many other political actions. Mebane is a well-respected statistician and political scientist, but his statistical research cannot analyze the human factors of politics in Korea. The coronavirus, disruptions to polling places, and cultural and political motivations behind Korean people’s voting behavior were not the subject of his paper.

Korea’s April 2020 election was nothing if not abnormal. It was the first national election for a major country to be held under the conditions of the pandemic. It took place just more than a month after the local outbreak was detected in Daegu. It was also Korea’s first election to take place under the revised election laws that would allocate compensatory seats to minor parties on the proportional vote. 

The amount of political gamesmanship and strategic voting was off the charts. The two major parties set up satellite parties to compete for proportional seats to take advantage of the new compensatory formula. Both parties explicitly encouraged their voters to engage in strategic voting—to vote for one party in the constituency races and their satellite party on the party list ticket.

So that means that the “frauds” Mebane observed in the data could very well be explained by strategic behavior.

Other factors mentioned by Mebane in both his paper and interviews are that the pre-vote totals dramatically favored the Democratic Party, more so than election day voting, and overseas voter turnout was noticeably down from domestic voter turnout.

Newsham also mentions pre-voting in his article:

"The early votes heavily and uniformly favored Moon’s party – unlike election day voting. A former head of the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology noted: “Either God did it or it was rigged.”"

Or the demographics for pre-voting were different than the demographics for election day voting. This obvious possibility is one that is also at work in the United States, where President Trump is attacking absentee voting as “fraudulent,” while the Democratic Party is encouraging states to expand vote-by-mail. According to estimates by political scientist Michael McDonald and the demographics firm TargetSmart, registered Democrats are significantly outpacing Republicans in early voting in 2020. According to the logic of Newsham and other adherents to the theory, that would indicate fraud if the Democrats ultimately win a higher margin of the ballots cast early than they do on election day!

Meanwhile, overseas voting was down in Korea because the polling places in two dozen countries were shut down due to coronavirus.

Actually, Newsham inadvertently mentions why the Democrats did so well in the election earlier in the article: 

"Thanks to good timing, this year’s April 15 election was an unexpected and overwhelming victory for Moon’s Democratic Party."

What “good timing” might that be? Well, the election happened just after Korea staged an aggressive response to coronavirus and got the numbers down from 851 new cases on March 3 to 27 new cases on election day. Korea’s response was widely considered a success around the world and domestically—and the president reaps electoral benefits for national successes.