The bitter campaign between presidential candidates Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in turned uglier Friday after the country's election body filed a lawsuit with prosecutors against Park's Saenuri Party for employing dirty tricks online.
Park, the daughter of the authoritarian President Park Chung-hee and representing conservative hopes of retaining Korea's most powerful office, vehemently denied the accusations and declared a war against what she claimed as ''black campaigning.''
According to the National Election Commission (NEC), Yoon Jung-hoon, a Christian minister and Park supporter, led a team of eight people who camped at an apartment in Yeoudio, Seoul, to write and spread ''damaging'' posts about Moon, the Democratic United Party (DUP) nominee, on Twitter. The Election Law disallows political parties from conducting campaign activities in locations unregistered with the NEC.
According to NEC officials, Yoon and his employees regularly reported their activities to Ahn Sang-soo, who co-heads Park's election team and is in charge of her policies on household debt. The rent on the apartment was paid by an official from Park's campaign team. Ahn, a former Incheon mayor, strongly denied any involvement.
''We have detected the pseudo campaigning organization that appeared to be conducting activities on social networking sites (SNS). We investigated the people involved and the evidence we collected overnight and confirmed illegal activities.'' said Son Gwang-yoon, an official from the Seoul division of the NEC, earlier in the day.
''We will file a complaint against these people with the Seoul Southern District Prosecutors' Office on charges of violating the Election Law.''
The increasingly tight competition between Park and Moon had already been beset by smears and accusations of illegal campaigning that threaten to overshadow their agenda for politics, society and the economy.
On Thursday, police began investigating a 28-year-old National Intelligence Service (NIS) employee accused by the DUP of bashing Moon on social media and online message boards.
Moon's camp alleges that the spy agency has ordered dozens its employees to bombard the Internet with comments to reshape public opinions in favor of Park, a story that would look comfortable hanging on satire sites like Onion, while the Saenuri Party denies this.
Earlier in the day, a visibly antsy Park accused the Moon camp of smear campaigning and rumor mongering and said she is ready to fight an ''all out war'' to protect her candidacy from mudslinging. The DUP denounced Park's news conference as a diversion.
''If the incident is revealed as a ludicrous attempt to hurt my reputation and influence the outcome of the polls, Moon and the DUP should take the responsibility of throwing the public into confusion,'' Park said before heading to Busan and South Gyeongsang Province on a day of hectic campaigning.
''The DUP has been trying harder to shake the election through black campaigning since Moon declared a stop to all negative campaigning,'' she added.
While the investigation of the NIS employee had been getting more media coverage, the exposure of Yoon's Twitter team could be potentially more damaging to Park, especially if prosecutors confirm that the Saenuri Party did indeed finance his team, NEC officials said.
Lee Jung-hyun, Park's spokesman, claimed that Yoon and his team acted alone and the party had no knowledge of what they were doing, let alone giving them money.