[VIEWPOINT]Pendulums in opposite directionsRecent parallel scandals involving government wiretapping of American and South Korean citizens, respectively, highlight the shared challenges democracies face in balancing governmental power to preserve national security interests against protection of civil liberties. These cases illustrate the differing preferences embedded in the American and South Korean systems.
These scandals also highlight the challenge of managing bilateral relations when domestic political and social forces between allies move in contradictory directions.
The administration of President George W. Bush, which has emphasized the preservation and expansion of executive power especially post-9/11, may have stepped over the line in bypassing a special court set up in response to past abuses of executive power. It requires judicial warrants in order to implement intelligence operations involving American citizens, including the use of wiretapping to identify suspected terrorists.
The administration argues that the executive can bypass procedural constraints on national security grounds as part of the war on terror.
Also at issue is the use of new “data mining” technologies to “connect the dots” and identify potential terrorist threats. Those could not be used if intelligence agencies are required to seek warrants in each individual case.
The dispute came up as part of Senate hearings this month to confirm U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito.
Even in a Republican-dominated Congress hesitant to challenge a president from their own party, Senate hearings are scheduled to investigate this matter. Two suits challenging the federal wiretapping of American citizens were filed last week in federal district courts, raising the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court may rule on the constitutionality of the Bush administration’s actions.
This case and others involving the alleged torture and trials of “enemy combatants” illustrate how far the pendulum has swung under the post-9/11 Bush administration toward national security over civil liberties. But the tone of the national debate in early 2006 suggests the American public is rebalancing the relative priority of national security and civil liberties concerns.
As small signals of such a shift, the Transportation Security Administration eased domestic travel restrictions last month, and the Washington, D.C. Metro has reintroduced portable garbage cans on subway platforms.
Under the Roh administration, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, toward protection of civil liberties as a priority over national security. The end of the Cold War along with the weakness of North Korea coincided with South Korean democratization, the “normalization” of South Korean politics and the development of a full political spectrum to replace the “conservatives only” politics of the authoritarian period.
The South Korean wiretapping scandal involves an intelligence agency that had been a special instrument of executive power in Korea’s domestic politics during the authoritarian days, and continued despite South Korea’s democratic transition.
South Korea’s recent debates over revision of the National Security Law and freedoms of expression by certain provocative professors represent a backlash against the authoritarian past. Eventually, the South Korean pendulum between preserving national security and protecting civil liberties will correct and find a sustainable balance. But the wiretapping case is a reminder of the danger of a strong South Korean executive unfettered by effective checks and balances in the National Assembly and the judiciary.
The peculiar contributions of the Roh administration to balancing the power of the South Korean presidency against legislative and judicial checks and balances have come as much from restraint and weakness as from an impulse for reform. President Roh’s acquiescence to prosecutorial investigations of illegal campaign financing within the ruling party was a positive contribution to establishing a precedent for investigating executive branch excesses.
The impeachment of President Roh and his vindication by the Constitutional Court provided an excellent civics lesson in the capacity, roles and limits of the branches of government to check and balance each other’s power, but at great cost to unified national leadership, vision and direction.
These events carry their own lessons for reform, but tell us little about how Korean legislative and judicial institutions would perform under a president that maximizes executive power.
Perhaps the most vexing question for U.S.-ROK relations (not to mention U.S. relations with many European countries) is how to manage alliance relations when the pendulum between national security and civil liberties is moving in opposite directions within our two countries.
Despite the convergence in political values from Korean democratization, does such a mismatch reflect a core disconnect in the alliance, or is the contradiction simply a reflection of a particular political moment that, in time, will be corrected?
Formerly incidental to national interests and international security concerns, domestic politics has become a potentially decisive and volatile element in shaping the future of the U.S.-ROK relationship.
* The writer is a Senior Associate with The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS.
by Scott Snyder