[Viewpoint] A fatal flaw of blind devotion

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[Viewpoint] A fatal flaw of blind devotion

Lee In-kyu, former head of the civil service ethics division of the Prime Minister’s Office and Jin Gyoeng-rak, who had been in charge of planning at the same division, are currently on trial for illegal surveillance activities against a civilian. Choi Jong-seok, a former staffer at the Office of the Senior Secretary to the President for Employment and Social Welfare, and Jang Seok-myeong, a senior official at the presidential secretariat on civil affairs, are under investigation for attempting to cover up the case.

All three have one thing in common - they had once been promising elite bureaucrats. Lee passed the 29th state exam for civil service while Jin and Choi joined the civil service in the same year. They went through key posts at the Ministry of Employment and Labor. Jang, who joined the civil service a year after Lee, served under President Lee Myung-bak in the policy planning division when the latter was mayor of Seoul.

Why have these public officials with strong pride in civil work gotten involved in illegal activities? Jin, in one interview, said he did not even play golf to strictly uphold rules of civil service.

The civil service ethics division was established at the Prime Minister’s Office with 42 staff in July 2008 when candlelight protests of U.S. beef imports were slowly starting to die down. The conservative administration that came into office earlier in the year was shocked by the cascade of protesters dominating downtown streets. It was under pressure to put its foot down to reinforce law and social discipline.

The Lee Myung-bak administration, under the slogan of establishing justice and order, adopted a zero-tolerance stance against violent demonstrators, slapping strong punitive measures and fines on anyone who violated the law.

Its principle on justice and zero tolerance had been right. But it went too far in its application. Punishments on crime, corruption and illegal collective activities were employed excessively to freedom of expression and interfered with other areas beyond the legal boundary.

The illegal watch on civilians started about that time. The tip that a former banker who was heading a financial affiliate of a large bank posted a video mocking and criticizing the president and his policies must have been seen as intolerable for officials overseeing a civil ethics mission.

They monitored the blogger Kim Jong-ik, head of KB Hanmaum, and requested a police inquiry to enforce the law. But they failed to consider that their actions were against the law. The action of a government agency investigating a civilian and watching him without a court order was illegal.

When they came under investigation by prosecutors in July 2010, they began to eliminate evidence of their activities. They destroyed 45,000 pages worth of files. They resorted to wiping out the data storage in hard drives and magnetic tapes upon a higher order to eradicate all evidence by “using a hammer or throwing them into the Han River.” The team of investigators and auditors Lee once referred to as “hard nuts” moved as one organ to make it a perfect crime.

The erased data could have contained files and surveillance records on various politicians, businessmen, labor activists and journalists.

The incumbent government in pursuing its vision of justice failed to recognize that application of law and order must have legal and democratic grounds, that law enforcement also required communication, and that just procedures are equally important as efficacy in administrative works. Blind devotion and competence to their work by bureaucrats drove the engine. Political loyalists of the president and members of bureaucratic lineage from his Seoul mayoral days lost their sense of good ethics and justice to defend and win points from the president.

As a result, public officials who had once had bright bureaucratic careers face jail terms instead. But the biggest victims are the people whose lives had been under scrutiny as well as the entire civilian population who can no longer trust the state. Valuable tax money was spent to destroy the illegal data and cover up the action. Moreover, the officials were paid with tax money for their illegal work. This is why we demand a thorough investigation into the invisible hands that orchestrated the scheme and brought disgrace to the state. Otherwise, there is no future for justice in this country.

* The author is the social news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kwon Suk-chun
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