[Viewpoint] MB’s surveillance vs. DJ’s bugging

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[Viewpoint] MB’s surveillance vs. DJ’s bugging

Organized spying on civilians is a secret police tactic usually employed by a dictatorship and banned in a democratic society. But Korea’s presidential office, the Blue House, is suspected of being involved in surveillance. The prosecution must delve into the case, and if it discovers President Lee Myung-bak has been behind the illegal act and cover-up attempt, he must stand trial. An apology won’t do.

The main opposition Democratic United Party has full ammunition to attack the government. Park Young-sun, chairwoman of the party’s committee to evaluate the government and the Saenuri Party, is demanding the president step down ahead of his tenure that ends in February of next year.

But the opposition party, having committed a similar sin, is hardly in a position to judge the incumbent government. The Kim Dae-jung administration was notorious for its spying activities. Instead of the Prime Minister’s Office, its National Intelligence Service led the operation that involved tapping telephone lines. The attack against the current government cannot gain consensus unless it comes clean on its past deeds first.

Since the authoritarian rule by President Park Chung Hee, Korean administrations have secretly employed intelligence and police agencies to protect their political power. The early military government mostly used spy agents. Then, bugging devices were introduced in the later stage of the Roh Tae-woo administration in order to obtain more “specific” information. The experts of audio surveillance brought devices from the United States and practiced in the secret house within the Blue House compound. After many trials, they gained headway in audio surveillance capabilities. But the team was dismantled in February 1992, three months before President Roh stepped down.

However, the following Kim Young-sam government, despite it being the first non-military ruling power, maintained the clandestine spy team. It bugged politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, religious activists and journalists. It is estimated to have amassed 1,000 tapes within three years. Kim’s team also stopped activities toward the end of the term.

But wiretapping peaked during the administration led by dissident-turned-president Kim Dae-jung. The National Intelligence Service even developed high-technology devices using the fixed-line telephone communications network. The system only needed telephone numbers. It also came up with technology to wiretap mobile phones. A prosecution probe in 2005 estimated that more than 1,000 people had been bugged during the Kim Dae-jung administration.

Intelligence agency directors Lim Dong-won and Shin Kuhn who orchestrated the spying activities were all arrested. Those in the Roh Tae-woo and Kim Young-sam administrations were not indicted because the statute of limitations on their criminal acts expired. Lim and Shin were sentenced to three years in prison, but were pardoned later.

The DUP selected Shin to head a special team demanding investigation into the Lee Myung-bak administration’s surveillance on a civilian in July 2010. In other words, the person who masterminded the biggest eavesdropping operation to date was named to lead the investigation. Fortunately, Shin had the conscience to leave the post.

Liberal human rights activist-turned-president Roh Moo-hyun could also not wave off such temptation for enhancing political pressure the easy way. An official of the intelligence agency was found guilty for keeping tabs on a formidable presidential candidate for four months. His Prime Minister’s Office is suspected of having monitored numerous civilians.

Just because the scale of illegal surveillance and organized wiretapping was smaller than others, the Lee Myung-bak government cannot be pardoned for its acts. It comes under stricter scrutiny because the society’s democratic level and public awareness is more mature than before. These days, embezzlement of just a few million won, instead of billions of won, can send a person to prison.

Still the yardstick on punishment should be fair. The 50 million Koreans can criticize the government, but the DUP is unqualified to do so. The people and press remember what it did before. It conducted an unprecedented scope of surveillance and eavesdropping on other lives during its five years of rule. Intelligence chiefs under the government were all prosecuted. If it were the U.S., it would mean two Central Intelligence Agency chiefs receiving a jail sentence. Such an administration could not have been forgiven by Americans.

The DUP has a knack for erasing its past. It killed its former endorsements of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement and the naval base on Jeju. Now it attempts to hide its secret intelligence activities. But history always remembers and comes back to haunt you.

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

by Kim Jin
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