Intelligence scandals, Seoul-style
By Aidan Foster-Carter
Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency, Angela Merkel. Yawn. So last month already. For a really juicy intelligence scandal, with a knotty tangle of plot lines (five, so far) to rival John le Carre, South Korea wins hands down. Sneaky spooks, summit leaks, Red saboteurs, even a prosecutor's love-child: It's got the lot.
Buggers are boring. They churn the stomach, yet barely engage the mind. Seoul's saga by contrast is complex and contentious, which may be why it's gained so little wider publicity.
Fear not. Asia Times Online now offers you a handy paste-and-keep catch-up guide to what's bin did and what's bin hid,  as
the poet saith. So pay attention y'all - and add "allegedly" throughout.
1. Original sin. Did the ROK (Republic of Korea, South Korean) National Intelligence Service (NIS) try to sway last December's presidential election by having its agents, disguised as regular folks, post online smearing the liberal candidate Moon Jae-in - who lost fairly narrowly (a million votes) to the conservative, now president Park Geun-hye - as soft on North Korea?
Moon's Democratic Party (DP) cried foul at the time, but a police probe dismissed this. Then a female detective alleged a cover-up, and prosecutors took over. On June 14 they charged former NIS head Won Sei-hoon with organizing a smear campaign, and Seoul's ex-police chief Kim Yong-pan for covering it up. Won, now behind bars on a separate bribery charge, had his indictment widened on October 30 to include not only 1,970 comments on bulletin boards but also 55,689 tweets. Kim, still at liberty, on October 15 refused to take the oath when lawmakers quizzed him about all this. 
2. Cybercops too. Embarrassingly, just when Seoul was hosting a major global conference on cyberspace some of its own cyberwarriors 'fessed up to a little smearing on the side. Four members of the Cyber Warfare Command (CWC) told a National Assembly audit on October 17 that they too had posted against Moon online, but on their own initiative. Unlike the NIS's stonewalling and counter-punches (read on), the defense ministry moved quickly: on October 22 military prosecutors raided the CWC. No one there has yet been charged with anything.
3. Summit leak. Meanwhile, the NIS decided attack was the best form of defense. Days after Won and Kim's indictment, on June 20 a ruling party lawmaker claimed that Roh Moo-hyun, the last liberal president (2003-08), at his 2007 summit in Pyongyang with Kim Jong-il had offered to yield the Northern Limit Line (NLL) - the western inter-Korean sea border, scene of several fatal clashes - and even told Kim he supported the North's nuclear deterrent. Gulp.
On June 24, the NIS published a full transcript: astonishingly for top-secret diplomatic talks just six years ago. A rattled DP demanded to see the original: mysteriously missing from the National Archives, but found in part on Roh's computer. Roh can shed no light now: in May 2009, facing corruption allegations, he jumped off a cliff. Often loose-tongued, he may have talked so to put his host at ease. But really sell the farm? C'mon. He wouldn't, and couldn't.
4. Red saboteurs? Having thus wrong-footed the opposition, the NIS had a further ace to play. On August 28 its agents, plus police and prosecutors, raided seven homes and 11 offices - including in parliament - of the tiny hard-left Unified Progressive Party (UPP). One of the UPP's six lawmakers, Lee Seok-ki, briefly fled. On September 26 he and others were charged under the National Security Law with plotting insurrection. Again there is a transcript, first leaked then published, of a meeting in May where Lee et al appear to advocate securing weapons for a general strike, armed rebellion and sabotage "when the decisive time comes".
Doesn't look good, frankly. How any South Koreans can root for the North is another story. Lee's views are no secret: he's done time for them. The slimy UPP, which fiddled its internal elections so the pro-Pyongyang faction won, has no good answers: it even claimed this fiery talk was in jest. The DP, which last year had a pact with the UPP, was quick to distance itself.
5. Prosecutor's love-child? The NIS sub-text so far needs no spelling out. We told you leftist leaders can't be trusted. And there really are traitors in our midst. But just to make quite sure:
On September 6, the right-wing daily Chosun Ilbo claimed that Prosecutor-General Chae Dong-wook - appointed only in March to reform the prosecution service, which has problems of its own - had a secret love-child. Chae denied it, but the Justice Ministry began an investigation. Thus undermined, Chae resigned on September 16. He finally left with defiant comments on September 30 after President Park, who sometimes dithers, at last accepted his resignation. 
What has this to do with anything? The almost universal view in Seoul, freely aired in papers of right and left, is that Chae was targeted by the security establishment for excessive zeal in pursuing the charges of electoral meddling against the NIS. In other words, for doing his job.
That's it so far. A lot to digest, with plenty more to come when Won, Lee and their respective associates finally go on trial. Neither verdict should be prejudged, although "innocent until proven guilty" isn't a concept with much traction in South Korea's legal system or media.
But the whole thing reeks of politics. The DP, despite a summer of street agitation (its leader Kim Han-kill camped in a tent in Seoul Plaza, looking fairly silly) and boycotting parliament, has failed to whip up public anger. On October 30 two by-elections both gave Park's Saenuri Party thumping majorities, albeit on feeble (33%) turnouts. Opinion polls show most people want the opposition to go back to the National Assembly and do the job they were elected for. Claims that Park Geun-hye's election win was illegitimate don't convince, and could be risky.
Yet unease remains. About what, though, depends where you stand. The idea that any South Korean, let alone a lawmaker, could seriously consider sabotaging his own country to aid the ghastly Kim dictatorship is appalling. But such twisted nutcases are very few and very weak.
By contrast, the NIS has proved itself extremely powerful this year. Its roots lie in the former Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), founded by Park's dictator dad Park Chung-hee. It's a matter of record, and of subsequent official apologies, that the KCIA tortured and killed with impunity. It even abducted and framed Kim Dae-jung, later to become president.
Those dark days are gone. But should the intelligence agency publish sensitive state secrets? Why has the NIS gone on the attack? If Won is convicted, where does that leave democracy?
Won's defense is expected to argue that such psy-ops are legitimate: with Pyongyang agents allegedly active in the South's blogosphere, the NIS had a right and duty to enter the debate. Yet partisan intervention has ominous echoes of what Koreans thought was a vanished past.
The wider argument resonates elsewhere currently. Like former US vice president Dick Cheney before and now James Clapper, the Director of US National Intelligence, the NIS view boils down to this: in tough times you take no chances. But at least the US buggers only listened in to the conversation. Their Korean counterparts went further: they joined in - allegedly - and sneakily sought to sway the result. Frankly, that scares me more than the UPP.
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, UK, and a freelance writer, consultant and broadcaster on both Koreas. He has followed North Korea since 1968, and South Korea ever since his first of many visits in 1982.
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