Continuing the series of the material dedicated to the “great purge of the new President of the RK”, we shall now proceed to the strong pressure being put on the intelligence agencies. The biggest news here is related to the new turn in the criminal case against the Ex-Head of National Intelligence Service Won Sei-hoon. In connection with this, the author considers it necessary to recall some details for the audience, as we have previously more than once written about this person and the scandal surrounding him.
During his term in office, Lee Myung-bak appointed his confidant, who had been in charge of his election campaign, as the Head of the National Intelligence Service, and for a long time, Won was believed to be “unsinkable”, notwithstanding the jaw-dropping scandals, like the detention of a group of secret service agents by the hotel security, when the latter had discovered those agents in the room of an Indonesian diplomat. One of the delegation members who accidentally returned to his hotel room discovered that there were three people in his room who were trying to copy some information related to Jakarta’s position on military and technical cooperation with Seoul from his work computer. When the diplomat made a din, the intruders hid on the balcony, and, when a special investigation police team arrived, they produced their NIS identity documents.
The case of Yu U Son who, according to the Intelligence Service, had repeatedly visited North Korea (arriving there via China) and had been given spying tasks, was equally sensational. The testimony of his sister, together with the registration documents issued by the Chinese authorities confirming that Yu had visited the DPRK more times than he told, were submitted as evidence. However, at first, Yu’s sister retracted her statement, citing intimidation. Afterwards, the Embassy of China produced an official statement to the effect that the documents were fake. The other witnesses also began giving confusing statements on the facts and finally, the intelligence informer confessed that he had provided fake data “on instruction of the Center”, and the intelligence officer who worked under the cover of the Korean General Consulate in Shenyang (the PRC) had granted admittance to the falsification “due to excessive pressure from his superiors”.
Generally speaking, it was during Won’s term that the intelligence definitively switched from real opposition to the DPRK to notorious yet feigned cases or to combating the adversaries of the regime. Thus, the division that was engaged in the fight against “negative propaganda” (primarily in the digital media) significantly increased its staff. When Kim Jong-un’s spouse, Ri Sol-ju, became so popular in South Korea that the idea emerged on the Internet to create a fan club for her, “the psychological war division” defended their Motherland with their own lives. Intelligence officers going online under false accounts (and this given the fact that access to the Internet is allowed in the RK “on producing passport”, especially if it concerns a political discussion) did everything possible to “prevent her praise”.
Won got fried when he created an “Internet brigade” and thus the myth about “trolls with shoulder straps” (security service officers who, instructed by the Center, take part in political Internet activity promoting the ruling party’s candidate and demonizing his/her adversaries), wide-spread among the democratic community, became a reality in the “democratic Republic of Korea”. “The leftist elements supporting North Korea are trying again to grab power, and are maintaining contact with the DPRK. If we do not provide a decisive response thereto, our agency may be liquidated,” Won openly stated.
Won personally initiated the work to fight the opposition at the elections, and on his instruction, investigation officers created about 400 accounts on Twitter to post messages on presidential elections or share messages with other users. The intelligence staff pressed the ‘for’ and ‘against’ buttons on various portals, and posted comments on social networks and forums where they criticized the opposition candidates and supported the representative of the ruling camp – Park Geun-hye.
The violation of the Elections Law and the separate Law on neutrality of the intelligence (the latter was adopted immediately following the end of the military dictatorship, and was aimed at preventing the security agencies from interfering with politics), prohibiting intelligence service representatives from participating in political activity of whatever form, was evident.
Park Geun-hye won the election on December 19, 2012. But on April 1, 2013 the oppositional Democratic Party filed a claim against Won Sei-hoon with the Prosecutor’s Office. The new President was not the least pleased with such developments. First, she belonged to a different, more moderate conservative group. Secondly, such a scandal could put into question the legitimacy of her coming to power. That is why Won was put on the dock and, additionally, proceedings were initiated against him based on corruption allegations.
The conflict was worsened by the statement of the former head of the special investigation team in the case of the National Intelligence Service, Yun Sok Yol, who was formally dismissed due to exceeding his official powers. As Yun asserted, all the data on the investigation was submitted to the Head of the Central District Prosecutor’s Office of Seoul, Cho Yon Gon, so that there was no question of unlawfully obtained evidence. In this regard, the Democratic Party leader Kim Han Gil demanded an apology from the President for the attempt to conceal the truth on the part of the Prosecutor’s Office. The opposition forces again criticized Park Geun-hye’s government, pointing to the fact that the situation with Yun Sok Yol demonstrated the government’s ambition to control the Prosecutor’s Office, and even the South Korean media began openly writing that the passive position of the Presidential Administration on that issue was damaging to Park Geun-hye’s image.
In September 2014, the Court of the Central District of Seoul found Won Sei-hoon guilty and sentenced him to a 2.5-year deprivation of liberty with a 3-year prohibition to hold public office and a 4-year suspension of the sentence execution. This is the term given to a suspended sentence.
The decision demonstrated the desire to bypass sharp corners. On the one hand, Won was found guilty of violation of the Law on the neutrality of the intelligence. The fact that during the elections, he distributed letters on the active opposition to pro-North Korean forces via the inner network of the intelligence service was regarded as providing support to, or opposing, a certain political party. However, Won was not imputed with the violation of the Elections Law under the pretext that the campaign was conducted not so much in favor of Park Geun-hye as against the leftists. In its final statement, the court pointed out that “Won did not give any explicit instructions directly aimed at hindering or assisting any of the candidates.” This can be understood as, had the fact of the violation of the Elections Law been acknowledged, the opposition could have taken advantage of this to put the election results under doubt.
As far as the corruption allegations are concerned, as the investigation had continued for a long time – for taking bribes totaling over USD 170,000 for assisting a construction company in obtaining advantageous contracts – Won was sentenced to a 14-month imprisonment, which he had served while in custody on charges on interference with the elections.
Concurrent to this, there was a big scandal with the Prosecutor General of Korea who started an active investigation into the actions of the intelligence service. The conservative paper Chosun Ilbo accused the Prosecutor General of moral dishonesty and having an illegitimate child. This was in fact true, but it was followed by serious doubts that compromising material on the obstinate prosecutor had been provided to the journalists by the intelligence. Actually, it was at this time that the “war” between the intelligence service officers and the prosecution service officials, which played a role in the further investigation of the ex-President’s case, began.
It was also discovered that not only the intelligence had been involved in the interference with the elections; the “cyber command” of the Ministry of Defense was also involved. Its staff had also tried to influence the results of the elections via social networks, posting political comments online. However, at that moment, the employees of the Prosecutor’s Office could not get access of the military command. Once it became clear that not only Won, but also his successor, Nam Jae-joon, was involved in the interference with the elections, a reorganization in the intelligence service was begun, and the group that was in charge of the management of the psychological war with the North was closed for it had been mostly “spotted” in the scandal, as was announced: “In the absence of clear instruction, there were some cases of abuse.” After that, the so-called Third Division (the First Division deals with collection of information on the DPRK and foreign countries, the Second Division with fighting espionage and terrorism, and the Third Division with communications issues and cyber issues in all their manifestations), that included a psychological war group, got the name Science and Information Division and was “re-targeted” at preventing North Korean cyber-attacks.
However, the prosecution filed an appeal, and on February 9, 2015, the Supreme Court of Seoul extended Won’s term of imprisonment to three years, and quashed the suspension. However, against the background of the “conservative offensive” that began, in July 2015, the Supreme Court nullified the sentence delivered by the second-instance court, referring to lack of proof of the guilt.
The case was again referred to the Supreme Court of Seoul, which continued its examination against the increasing politicization. While the opposition deputies started speaking not only of the 55,000 comments on the past elections but also of the fact that the intelligence was faking the results of the public opinion survey in the social networks forming the public opinion against the opposition candidate, the Saenuri Party, which was in power at the period, emphasized that the Prosecutor’s Office had provided the evidence only in respect of 2,200 comments. The figure cited by the opposition was excessively large, while the information provided by the Prosecutor’s Office had been received unlawfully, and therefore, the ruling party did not intend to bring any accusations against the National Intelligence Service. Saenuri called on the opposition to immediately stop heightening the scandal and make unsubstantiated statements of suspicion that an insignificant number of comments on social networks had influenced the results of the presidential elections.
A new round of the investigations began when Moon became president of the country, and the state machine, with its inherent high degree of servility, began thoroughly digging out the scandal – as thoroughly as it had been silencing the scandal earlier. The new Intelligence Head, Suh Hoon, immediately initiated the limiting of the authority of the intelligence service in the sphere of counter-intelligence so that the intelligence could deal with its own scope of responsibility rather than meddle in politics (http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170601000976). The abolition of the practice of the “seconded curators” from the Intelligence to various ministries and agencies, and the prohibition to collect information aimed at studying the work of the media or state authorities, should be regarded from this point of view.
As Suh noted in his inauguration speech, the NIS would become a completely different entity and be reborn as an agency for the nation and the citizens, promising zero tolerance to those sticking to the old rules. Within the framework of this policy, the so-called Committee for the Reform of the National Intelligence Service began its own investigations, and on August 4, 2017, the NIS Internal Security Division officially confirmed the facts of the interference of the intelligence with the 2012 presidential election campaign. Apart from the story of the trolls in shoulder straps, it was also discovered that from 2009 to 2012, the National Intelligence Service had engaged several dozens of people who were opposed to the government for distribution of negative statements concerning the activities of the government of that time via social networks. Those people included former military servicemen, office clerks, housewives, students and businessmen, and they were paid money for their “work”.
Apart from that, the fact is that prior to the 2012 presidential elections, the secret services of the Republic of Korea supported the candidate to the presidency, Park Geun-hyee, by disseminating online slanderous statements about her rival Moon Jae-in, as officially recognized, and after that, as a result of the new round of the investigations, Won Sei-hoon was found guilty of interference with the elections and sentenced to 4 years in prison.
However the new leadership did not limit itself to that. Recently, almost every day, Korean newspapers have exploded with a new portion of revelations regarding the intrigues of the intelligence service. It has been found out that, among other things, Won Sei-hoon supervised the activities related to the attempts of political pressure on leftist politicians. In particular, Won Sei-hoon gave the following order in respect of the current Mayor of the [South Korean] capital Park Won-soon: “Crush him down until he falls.” This is fraught with new criminal proceedings.
Following this, the Prosecutor’s Office again started investigating the activity of the armed forces’ cyber command, and even imposed a ban on the former head of the presidential national security division, Kim Kwan-jin, who was the then Minister of Defense and who (allegedly) gave instructions on counteracting the opposition by order of President Lee Myung-bak, from leaving the country.
And although the decision to summon the former president for questioning will be taken after reviewing the results of the investigation against Kim Kwan-jin and Won Sei-hoon, many people believe that, taking into account the factional struggles, initiating proceedings against Lee Myung-bak is merely a question of time. Allegedly, two secret services could not be doing such things without the President being aware!
Lee Myung-bak could not leave this fact unnoticed. On September 28, the former president stated that he was monitoring the situation that was unfolding under the pretext of combating corruption, and labelled the situation as “a regressive attempt” that would not only fail but would also cause damage to the interests of the State. Having labelled the anti-corruption activities of the new government as a form of “political vengeance”, Lee stated that many suspicions that have been unveiled are far from reality, as “at the right time, [he] will have the opportunity to tell the people everything they need to know.” Thus, the ex-president noted the possibility of taking additional response measures in case of intensified pressure. Persons close to the ex-president also made it clear that, if summoned for questioning, they would tell no-less unpleasant facts about the activity of Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung (for example, the fact that blacklists existed not only under the conservative rule), and that Moon Jae-in and co. should think about the possible consequences thereof.
We will follow the development of the scandal. Nevertheless, the next material on the purges will be dedicated to Moon’s policy on the military.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (History), leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.