The third point is unequivocally linked to the overall situation around the National Intelligence Service of the RK. Its former head Won Sei-hoon has been under arrest since 10 July 2013. There are a few reasons for that, including bribes in the form of money and valuables from construction companies. But the most high-profile one is the story of how one of the closest associates of the ex-president used the administrative resource to fight the left.
From the very beginning of his leadership, Won started to direct the NIS towards suppressing opposition criticism. “If you’re against the government policy, you are a communist and a pro-North-Korean element.” On Won Sei-hoon’s instructions, the division that was engaged in the fight against “negative propaganda” (in the first place, in the digital media) significantly increased the number of its staff. Any criticism against the government was perceived as “negative propaganda”, and that became particularly obvious during the pre-electoral period.
Won fought against the opposition tooth and nail. “The leftist elements supporting North Korea are trying again to grab power and are maintaining contact with the DPRK. If we do not respond to this decisively, our service may be abolished,” this is how the instructions were given to start an Internet propaganda war. Following these instructions, the division staff pressed the ‘for’ and ‘against’ buttons on various portals, left comments in social networks and forums where they criticised the opposition candidates and supported the representative of the ruling camp – Park Geun-hye. There is an obvious violation of both the Law on Elections and a separate Law on the NIS, requiring that the intelligence service should observe strict political neutrality.
The situation acquired particular “charm” due to the fact that, in South Korea, anonyms are not allowed. Every major website or forum requires registration, with the indication of the identity document number. And there is no other way to post comments. This was done following a few cases when people committed suicide because of harassment on the Internet. Formally, the aim was to make everyone on the Internet “responsible for their words”, although there are many who see in this policy serious violations of freedom of speech. This is clearly seen in the reaction of the Russian audience to the attempts to restrict the Russian Internet in the South-Korean style. But the intelligence officers, of course, had an opportunity to use the administrative resource and leave comments on the Internet under somebody else’s name.
However, the intelligence service also had those who decided that their leadership’s policy was not correct. The information on the NIS’s interference in the elections landed in the hands of the opposition, and a police officer told journalists later on that there had been instructions from his bosses to “shock-absorb” the whole story. Park Geun-hye also thought of it as a disservice to her, and Won Sei-hoon became the first representative of ex-president Lee Myung-bak’s administration to be arrested after the election of the new government . It is not clear what is going to happen next – on the one hand, the investigation into Won Sei-hoon’s abuse of power can trigger carrying out checks and a major staff purging, which will allow Park to get rid of Lee’s legacy; on the other hand, many believe that the prosecutor’s office is going to reduce the scandal to a bribe case and hide the extent of the role (which, in the author’s opinion, was not significant) that the assistance of “commentators in epaulettes” played in Park Geun-hye’s victory. That is why the leftists are very actively and seriously protesting against the fact that the investigation has not been going actively and quickly enough, and the right-wing press is deliberately ignoring their rallies.
The South-Korean intelligence service actually became proverbial in certain circles during the rule of Lee Myung-bak’s administration. Experts (including those on Russia) were squeezed out in favour of those who were less competent but more loyal, and there was an impression that the only thing that the NIS was capable of was to create, at a large-scale level, fast-falling “canards” dedicated to the horrors of North Korea.
Here is only one example, though it is not about the North. The incident occurred during a visit to Seoul by the President of Indonesia. One of the delegation members who accidentally returned to his hotel room discovered that there were three people in his room – two men and a woman – who were trying to copy some information, from his work computer, relating to Jakarta’s position on military and technical cooperation with Seoul. When the diplomat raised a din, the intruders tried to hide on the balcony, and, when a special investigation police team arrived, produced their NIS identity documents. In addition to that, those three had been recorded by the CCTV at the hotel, and their fingerprints were found at the scene of the incident.
After that, everyone in South Korea criticised the intelligence service. There were demands of Won Sei-hoon’s resignation even then because it had also been soon revealed that he had actually never had anything to do with intelligence services and that he had managed to get this important post only through good personal relations with Lee Myung-bak. In 2003-2006, Won served as assistant to Lee when the latter was the mayor of Seoul, and later he helped Lee during the pre-electoral campaign. There was also talk that Won’s staff would hardly have dared to intrude into the room of Indonesia’s official on their own: there had been a permission to do that either from Won or one of his immediate deputies. But such a valuable staff member retained his post.
By the way, the fact that the conspirators had been plotting something since as early as 2004 but the intelligence service has just found out about it quite fits in the overall picture. It even learnt about the changes in the North-Korean Constitution and widely heralded them only about half a year later.
It is obvious that, in this situation and in the background of possible reorganisation, the intelligence officials have to prove in a colourful way that they deserve their salaries and they are capable of serious stuff. Exposing an attempted coup is a convenient opportunity to show how good they are, although changes seem to be inevitable. The new head of the intelligence service is a former military man. At a meeting on 26 August 2013, Park Geun-hye pointed out that the structural reforms of the national intelligence service have already begun, and she expressed determination to carry out the NIS reforms aimed at increasing the efficiency of this department.
Responding to the opposition’s statements about possible interference on the part of the intelligence service in the course of the latest presidential elections, Park Geun-hye emphasised that nothing like that happened or could have happened.
Another internal political aspect of the problem lies in the contradictions between the supporters of Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak. Although both politicians belong to the right-wing camp, Ms. Park is acting in a far more constructive manner and her course is aimed at restoring trust between the North and the South. This did not imply unilateral concessions, but she does not perceive the North as a regime which has to be destroyed as soon as possible, despite the consequences. However, there are still many supporters of Lee Myung-bak in the power structures, especially in the security forces, both at the highest and medium levels. A further straining of relations between the countries or a high-profile case such as the exposed conspiracy of the leftists are grist to their mill because thus the President is forced to be more rigorous towards the DPRK. This does not mean, of course, that here we can see a 100-percent provocation, but, bearing in mind what these people were doing during the time of Lee Myung-bak, I believe that this probability is quite high.
The fact of the use of audio recordings as the piece of evidence that was announced first seems a bit strange as well. It looks good in the eyes of the mass readership of the news, but this sort of discussions are not normally stored on a recorder and they would be hidden. Hence, the only version which excludes fabrication is that the recordings were made secretly and by those who were connected with the intelligence service. This raises another question. Are we dealing here with an analogue of a special operation where a secret officer, say, of the FBI, penetrates, say, into a group of skinheads and suggests that they should commit some offence? If they agree, the instigator reports them to the relevant authorities because the investigation will be interested in the fact of consent, intent and preparation and not in the fact who initiated the idea because law-abiding citizens could have declined it.
The Korean political culture has, of course, advanced towards democracy since the rule of the military, but the authoritarian component is still very strong there. The first civilian president Kim Young-sam adopted laws which had a retroactive effect, and he openly announced in his speeches where else bribetakers and the corrupt should be disclosed. And the late Roh Moo-Hyun, who belonged to a totally different camp, was notorious not only for organising the harassment of his opponents which led to their suicide, but also for attempting to create lustration lists which included not only pro-Japanese collaborationists or odious figures of the military regime, but their descendants as well (in particular, Park Geun-hye). Therefore, the author has no confidence that the further investigation of this high-profile case will be crystally honest.
It is most likely that we can expect something similar to the investigation of the sinking of the Cheonan corvette in 2010. Let me remind you that, back then, the decisive evidence was considered to be the recovered “parts of the wrecked North-Korean torpedo”, which were covered with shells and were corroded to such an extent that it is not clear whether the torpedo could have accumulated all that within one month. Besides, the recovered pieces resembled not only the schematics of the North-Korean torpedo, but the South-Korean version as well, and actually (according to an official statement, due to a mistake of the technical support personnel) the scheme “matching” the recovered pieces was established only from the second or third attempt.
The notorious “North-Korean marking”, to be more exact, the ‘No.1’ written on one of the parts with a purple marker gave rise to even more doubts. In fact, the conclusions of the commission were based only on the arbitrary interpretation of where the torpedo fragment belonged to, based only on its external marking, without conducting any typological expert assessment.
One member of the investigation commission Shin Sang-cheol even wrote an open letter in which he expressed his disagreement and dwelt at length on the reasons. Besides, Shin hinted at the fabrication of the evidence and said that the marking “number one” seemed to have been made in South Korea. However, soon it proved to be dangerous to have doubts in the official version. The military turned to the prosecutor’s office and accused Shin Sang-cheol of the fact that he “has been spreading malicious rumours and has damaged the image of the armed forces”. When one of Korea’s very well-known social organisations wrote a letter in which they raised a few questions pertaining to the results of the investigation and transferred it to the ambassadors of UN Security Council member states, the former were threatened with prosecution under the same NSL: questions pertaining to the results of the investigation undermine the diplomatic efforts of the Republic of Korea, which is trying to get Pyongyang punished, and, therefore, they are for the benefit of the enemy. In order to disavow the opinion of the significant part of ordinary citizens, intelligence service representatives have started talking about some horrible North-Korean hackers, who, supposedly, steal passwords from law-abiding students and housewives and, under their names, write in various forums that the official version is thread-bare.
So we will look forward to the development of events, bearing in mind all their variants, but taking into account all of the above.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in Historical Sciences, senior research fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies, Institute of the Far East RAS – exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook.