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     Apr 5, 2012

Surveillance scandal deals Lee election blow
By Steven Borowiec

SEOUL - It wouldn't be an election in South Korea if there wasn't a scandal to go with it. South Korean voters will go to the polls for a general election on April 11, shortly after the announcement of evidence of an extensive system of illegal civilian monitoring maintained by the national government.

In this nation's fickle electoral contests, results can be affected by late developments.

Reporters from the Korean Broadcasting System's (KBS's) labor union say they have received 2,619 documents totaling more than 20,000 pages that detail illegal spying by the Office of the Prime

Minister. It is alleged that public resources were used to spy on as many as 2,600 figures from government, media, labor and other areas. The monitoring was apparently directed by the public ethics division of the office, a body meant to monitor the conduct of government officials. The KBS reporters haven't made the documents publicly available.

Though the alleged monitoring appears to have been directed by the Office of the Prime Minister, the Blue House (presidential office) may have also been involved. If it turns out that President Lee Myung-bak was involved or complicit, there could be serious consequences for him. Some are calling for Lee's resignation.

The scandal surfaced when Jang Jin-su, a former officer in the prime minister's public ethics office, gave a USB memory stick containing documentation of monitoring to striking workers at the KBS. Workers at the channel are calling for the resignation of president Kim In-gyu, who they say was put in his position by President Lee. KBS reporters contend that since Kim took over, they have been prevented from broadcasting material critical of the government.

After Jang leaked the documents, he was reportedly then given a bribe to keep quiet from that point on.

So far, the ruling party's only reaction has been to call for an investigation, a prime target of which is who gave Jang 100 million won (about US$88,000) to buy his silence. They have called for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the monitoring, which opposition parties dismissed, arguing that the establishment of such a body was a tactic to delay the investigation until after the elections.

The allegations have led to partisan squabbling typical of South Korean politics. The ruling party is saying that it isn't the only, or even the primary, suspect in illegally spying on civilians. Blue House spokesperson Choi Keum-nak stated on April 1 that 80% of the surveillance took place under the Roh Moo-hyun administration that ruled from 2003-2008. Chief of staff under Roh and possible Democratic United Party (DUP) presidential candidate, Moon Jae-in, called the claims "nonsense".

A photo appeared in the Seoul Shinmun newspaper on Friday of a DUP representative holding leaked documents that dated back to September 21, 2007, which indicated that some of the infractions took place under the Roh government. South Korea's presidency was transferred from Roh to Lee Myung-bak in February 2008.

The revelation comes just as campaigning for the April 11 general election is getting underway. Yet more rumbling of abuses of power by the ruling party could seriously damage the chances of the Saenuri Party, also known as the New Frontier Party (NFP), in the April 11 general elections, which the NFP were expected to struggle in anyway. (Until February, Saenuri was known as the Grand National Party.)

In a March 31 poll by the Korea Society Opinion Institute, 38.3% of voters said they planned to vote for the NFP. That figure likely wouldn't translate into enough seats for a parliamentary majority and could fall as details of the illegal surveillance scandal trickle out. Many of the first media reports on the scandal referred to it as "shocking" or "stunning". However, anyone who has followed the Lee administration throughout its tenure, and South Korean politics generally, probably wasn't so surprised.

This is the latest example of misconduct by the Lee administration, which has been plagued by corruption and illegal appointment scandals throughout its time in office. While the scale of this scandal appears unique, it is in line with patterns of behavior by this administration and many that came before it.

Lee's 2007 election victory came amid alleged involvement in a scam by an investment house called BBK. This year has seen a slew of corruption cases involving close associates. Last year, he canceled plans to buy an upscale retirement residence in Seoul after he was alleged to be improperly using public funds.

And it isn't just him. The government's National Intelligence Service admitted in 2005 to carrying out illegal wiretapping as recently as three years before that. Since the democracy movement of 1987 forced off the formal yoke of dictatorship, South Korea has struggled to fight off shifts towards anti-democratic practices. South Korea's democracy is the result of a prolonged battle against authoritarian instincts. It is still imperfect.

The finger-pointing by political parties is likely to continue. In a year with two elections and bitter partisan rivalry between liberal and conservative sides that are fairly evenly matched, the time is ripe for bickering.

Steven Borowiec is a South Korea-based writer.

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