[Viewpoint] What ‘national interest’?

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[Viewpoint] What ‘national interest’?

The term “state violence” is often used by Korean protesters to describe police action against their demonstrations. Most times, this is linguistic fallacy, an attempt to brand legitimate law enforcement as a crime, and the intent is to disempower public authorities.

In fact, the state can use lawful violence. What is the limit? The standard for that is the law. It can be found in the spirit of the Constitution and the values this country has advanced. Those values are a code of ethics preserved by our collective conscience, and they have taken material form in the liberal democratic order we live in.

The embarrassing allegation that National Intelligence Service agents broke into a hotel room of an Indonesian delegation to steal data and a computer makes us wonder if we are losing those national values for the sake of pragmatism. The government and some politicians described the NIS’ alleged botched operation as if the agents were simply working in the national interest.

This is stunning. Does our intelligence agency regard such a break-in as an ordinary part of their job?

The top priority going forward will be to minimize any international repercussions from the incident. But from the start, we have to weigh the immediate gains from such behavior against the ethical damage it has already inflicted.

When we use the term “national interest,” it often refers to economic or mercantile gains. The visiting Indonesians were being wooed to buy Korean T-50 trainer jets. The aircraft carries a price tag of 24 billion won ($21.4 million). Export of 50 jets would be worth 1.2 trillion won, and more money can be made through equipment support, training of pilots and maintenance. Because of the potential for great gains, President Lee Myung-bak has paid special attention to T-50 exports as one of the country’s two key export programs, in addition to nuclear power plant sales. If the potential gains are very big, is it tolerable to do anything to achieve them?

No matter what logic is used to defend the NIS’ alleged operation, it is illegal to break into a hotel room to steal a laptop. It is an illegal act committed by the government.

For the sake of the defense industry and an important export project, is it okay for the government to break the law? How is that different from an individual breaking the law for his or her individual gain?

Intelligence authorities of Korea have had an often shameful past. In the authoritarian days, they infringed on human rights through torture and wiretapping. After Korea became a democracy, they were reformed. It is good that they are cutting back on domestic spying while focusing on overseas industrial intelligence. And yet, it does not mean that they can cross the line of the law.

When the CIA’s illegal actions against terrorism suspects became an issue, U.S. President Barack Obama said, “This is a time for reflection, not retribution. We must be careful not to spend so much time and energy in laying blame for the past that it interferes with our ability to focus on the fundamental mission we have for today and for tomorrow, that of defeating our enemy and keeping our nation safe.”

He was right, but in the United States, many supported the argument that the ethos of the country would be destroyed if authorities turned a blind eye to human rights violations that they were fully aware of.

We must not use the slippery argument that the break-in was an ordinary intelligence activity for the national interest, because the country’s dignity and trust are the basic values of a community that should never be treated lightly just because they can’t be measured. They are no less substantial than the potential gains from T-50 exports.

Some argue that breaking the law to a certain degree is inevitable to defend national security, but that is not convincing. Strictly, the latest incident was not directly linked to national security. Indonesia is not a hostile country or terrorist group. The only issues involved were the sales conditions for the T-50s.

Furthermore, what the NIS was allegedly after was not even information that would seal the deal. They apparently attempted to go after the conditions of the negotiations. This was no different from a construction company stealing information about a competitor’s bidding price on a deal. The sloppy operation is now causing serious problems for the sale.

An obsession with the national interest, ignoring basic values of the community, is dangerous. Abandoning law and morals is an abandonment of Koreans’ pride, and it shakes the basic order of society. We may never know when Koreans will become the target of the very same illegal activity.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jin-kook
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