Former South Korean spy chief sentenced to 3 years in prison over 2012 election scandal

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SEOUL, South Korea — A former South Korean spy chief was sent to prison Monday after being found guilty of ordering an illicit online campaign to support then-ruling party candidate and current President Park Geun-hye ahead of the 2012 presidential election, court officials said.

The Seoul High Court sentenced Won Sei-hoon to three years in prison for violating an election law and another law banning the National Intelligence Service from engaging in local politics, said court spokesman Chae Dongsoo. Both Won and prosecutors have one week to appeal, Chae said.

The spy service has previously defended itself, saying its agents were trying to cope with North Korean cyberwarfare by posting comments meant to counter messages that praised the North and spread groundless rumors about South Korean government policies.

The NIS said Monday that it did not have an immediate comment on Won's sentencing.

A district court last year handed Won a suspended prison term when it convicted him of violating only the law banning spies from politicking. That ruling enabled Won to avoid prison.

But the Seoul High Court cited a sharp increase in the number of political online comments that NIS agents posted as the election neared as a reason for convicting Won of violating the election law, according to South Korean media reports.

Park, a conservative, beat liberal opposition candidate Moon Jae-in by a million votes and took office in early 2013 for a single five-year term.

It's not clear if or how the online campaigning affected the election. Moon's party issued a statement Monday urging former conservative President Lee Myung-bak to apologize and for Park to prevent government agencies from meddling in politics in the future. Park has not been accused of wrongdoing in the scandal, and it wasn't immediately clear how much Monday's ruling will hurt her politically.

The spy agency was founded in 1961 by Park's father, Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea as a dictator for 18 years until his 1979 assassination. Under his rule, agents detained, tortured and allegedly killed his political opponents.

In recent years, the agency was criticized after it failed to have timely intelligence on North Korea. Mostly notably, it learned about former North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il's death in December 2011 two days after it occurred, when Pyongyang's state TV announced it.

Past spy chiefs have also faced trouble. Kim Jae-kyu, who gunned down the elder Park during a 1979 drinking party, was later tried and hanged. Before that, another Park spy chief, Kim Hyung-wook, who criticized his leadership, mysteriously disappeared in France in 1979.

Two spy masters for the government of late President Kim Dae-jung, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, received suspended prison terms for wiretapping phone conversations of high-ranking officials.

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