News Analysis: SKorea rattled by spy agency's political interference
Rosalinda L. Orosa (The Philippine Star) - August 11, 2013 - 3:00pm

SEOUL (Xinhua) - South Korean police announced an interim investigation result that it failed to find any evidence of negative comments posted online by a female spy agent about Moon Jae-in, then main opposition party's presidential candidate.

The unusual Sunday-night disclosure came just three days before the Dec. 19, 2012 presidential election, and one hour after Moon finished the last TV debate with his archrival Park Geun-hye, then ruling party candidate who won the election and took office in February.

To the astonishment, the police reversed its initial ruling four months later, saying that two spy agents, including the female agent, intervened in politics by posting more than 120 political comments on the Internet in violation of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) act, which bans agents from participating in political activities.


After two months of probe into the alleged election meddling, the prosecution concluded in mid-June that Won Sei-hoon, former NIS chief who headed the spy agency for around four years under former President Lee Myung-bak, ordered agents to conduct online smear campaign against opposition presidential candidates.

The special investigation drew a conclusion that spy agents systemically intervened in domestic politics by writing around 1, 900 postings on politics in cyberspace through hundreds of different user IDs. Among them were 73 online posts, which directly tampered with last year's presidential election.

Prosecutors believed that Won tried to prevent opposition candidates, who he viewed as "leftist followers" of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), from seizing power. The prosecution indicted the former spy chief without physical detention on charges of violations of the NIS act as well as the Public Official Election Act.

Kim Yong-pan, former head of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA), was prosecuted without physical detention as well on charges of abusing his authority to hamper police investigation into the case.

Opposition lawmakers and civic groups lambasted the spy agency, demanding President Park state her position on the scandal.

On June 24, Park gave her first word on it through her press secretary, saying that she had no knowledge about the incident nor did she benefit from it. Park said suspicions should be cleared for the public, noting that ruling and opposition parties can discuss a procedure for the clear-up.


Around one and a half hours after Park's remarks, the NIS made a counterattack by declassifying and releasing a 2007 inter-Korean summit transcript that should not have been made public for decades. NIS officials handed out the 100-page transcript to lawmakers on the parliamentary intelligence committee.

The copies of the transcript, which showed conversation between late South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and late DPRK leader Kim Jong-il during the 2007 summit meeting, argued that Roh undermined the legitimacy of the western sea border or the Northern Limit Line (NLL).

The revelation rekindled controversy over Roh's remarks that was first triggered in October 2012 by a ruling party lawmaker who claimed that Roh abandoned the maritime border, which Pyongyang has never recognized because the NLL was drawn unilaterally by the US-led United Nations Command after the 1950-53 Korean War.

Opposition lawmakers rose up. Moon, former chief of staff to Roh and a Democratic Party lawmaker, said that the incumbent NIS chief Nam Jae-joon would deserve being sacked if the agency disclosed the minutes without any order or approval by the presidential office because he directly reports to President Park.

Amid an escalating controversy, President Park gave her first word about the NIS reform on July 8, saying that the spy agency, which has been a subject of lots of controversies, should be newly reborn. Park instructed the agency to reform itself, stressing that it should devote itself to its original duties such as collecting DPRK intelligence, responding to cyber terrorism and protecting economic security.


Only two days after Park's call for reform, the NIS sought to intervene in politics once again by interpreting Roh's 2007 remarks to the effect that Roh surrendered parts of South Korean territorial waters.

The agency said in an unusual statement that the records showed the two deceased leaders talking several times about "withdrawing both troops from the waters" between the NLL and the West Sea Maritime Military Boundary Line claimed by the DPRK to turn these waters into a peace zone, or a joint fishing area, monitored by police.

The spy agency argued that Roh's suggestion was like giving up the NLL or the abandonment of maritime territory.

The statement said that the agency disclosed the transcript in its will to defend national security.

Even some ruling party lawmakers criticized the statement. Ha Tae-kyung said that  President Park proposed ending the wasting row over the NLL that the spy agency reignited, urging Nam to resign as the spy chief who defied instructions by President Park.

The rival parties began a parliamentary probe in early July into the alleged election meddling by the spy agency. Former NIS chief and Seoul police head will be summoned on Aug. 14 for parliamentary hearings, but it is not mandatory for them to testify before lawmakers.


Six opposition party lawmakers held a press conference for foreign correspondents on Aug. 2 to champion the street protest launched in the previous day with a slogan of "restoring democracy and reforming the NIS." The Democratic Party set up its makeshift headquarters in Seoul City Hall Plaza.

"It is time to talk to foreign media about it," said Shin Kyoung-min, a supreme council member of the Democratic Party. " The recent series of incidents showed (the NIS' political interference) organized, systemic and multifarious. Democracy in Korea is standing at a crossroad."

Last Saturday, the party held a mass rally with participants totaling some 15,000, including 112 party lawmakers. A number of progressive civic groups said that they planned to hold candle- light vigils for two days Saturday nationwide, targeting a total of 100,000 participants.

The public, however, appeared increasingly indifferent to the issue due to its complicatedness and rising disbelief toward the opposition party. "The issue is so convoluted. The (ruling) Saenuri Party succeeded in diluting the NIS scandal with the NLL issue," said Bean Woon-Cheol, a 36-year-old office worker. "The Saenuri Party is doing politics better than the Democratic Party. I think disenchantment toward politicians remains."

Some said the alleged election tampering would not endanger democracy. "Online comments by the female spy agent cannot shake our democracy. I even haven't read it before," said Yun Byeong- gak, a 65-year-old taxi driver. "As for the NLL issue, Roh should have defined his clear stance on it because he was President. A vague position can be seen as sympathizing with (the DPRK's stance)."

Those public disinterest and disenchantment were reflected in President Park's approval rating that jumped to 59 percent in the second week of August from 42 percent in her early period of presidency, according to a poll by Gallup Korea. Some surveys showed that more than 70 percent of respondents agreed that Park is managing state affairs well.

Some gave high scores to Park's diplomacy and DPRK policy. " Park made good appearances during her summit meeting with US and Chinese presidents," said a bank officer in his 40s who declined to be identified. "Park does not seem to be dragged in relations with North Korea (DPRK)."

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