[Viewpoint] Snoops are needed

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[Viewpoint] Snoops are needed

The public ethics division of the Prime Minister’s Office has served as a clandestine equivalent of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Staff of the division act like agents perched on the rooftop of a downtown government building with walkie-talkies and binoculars on the lookout for suspicious movements among public officials. When they spy a public official in a suspicious act in a restaurant, they alert their colleagues on the ground. The agents raid the back room of the restaurant. In the past, such internal affairs work had been done by intelligence officers.

A while ago, employees of the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs, who were enjoying an extravagant party on the budget of a state organization, received an unexpected visit from the public ethics team. Twelve officials of the Ministry of Knowledge Economy were caught doing business in a so-called room salon, a bar with female companionship. Umbrella organizations had been extending loans to entertain the ministry officials. A director general at the Korea Food and Drug Administration was discovered to have millions of won stacked up in his office cabinet. A desk drawer of an administration official at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology was also packed with cash bundles. The discoveries were all the work of the public ethics team.

A director of the construction division at the Seocho District administration was stopped and searched by a undercover agent who discovered a manila envelope containing 5 million won ($4,450) in cash he received from a construction company chairman. The official had been entertained by construction company executives at fancy restaurants and bars. But a search warrant was denied. The official insisted he knew nothing of the contents of the envelope. The highly publicized scandal over diplomats’ love triangle with a Chinese woman at the Korean consulate general in Shanghai was also exposed by the public ethics team.

The team, generally known as the internal affairs team among government officials, worked around the clock, catching public servants playing golf on weekends and sneaking into offices after dark to check if there were confidential documents left on desks. The team naturally took most of its orders from the Blue House because most corruption tip-offs and reports arrive at the Blue House. But the presidential office lacks staff to confirm the specifics. The order instead is handed over to the Prime Minister’s Office team. But the problem is that counterintelligence and information to protect government power are usually mixed.

Of some 26,000 documents of surveillance reports drawn up by the team revealed to the public, the most sensational was the tagging of a senior official and his out-of-wedlock romantic relationship. His meetings with his female friend were described in minute detail. Spying on a non-civil servant is beyond the law. But the staff cannot serve as a watchdog over public officials without keeping tabs on some civilians as well. Public officials commit corruption mostly with civilians, after all. A court ruled that the office’s spying on Kim Jong-ik, a former head of a KB Financial Group unit who ridiculed the president with a video posted on the Internet, had been illegal while saying it wasn’t guilty on their watch over the wife of ruling party Representative Nam Kyung-pil. The court upheld Article 234 of the criminal law that says that anyone is free to report suspicious criminal acts.

The Blue House is at a loss on how to react to the heavy blow it has received for its spying record. It cannot escape the onus of operating a spy team and trying to cover up its activities. The main opposition Democratic United Party cannot hide its glee over its windfall. But the incident should be dealt with seriously and maturely, not just as a booby trap to sabotage an opponent in an election campaign. The opposition camp is not the winner. Many remember how powerful the prime minister’s investigation team was under the President Roh Moo-hyun government. It is the corrupt public officials who are laughing in the background because they now have more room to sneak their way around.

Integrity and discipline are important in public office. President Lee temporarily dismantled the public ethics surveillance team in 2008 as revenge for its searching his car when he was the Seoul mayor. Officials in charge of licensing pork barrel projects in local governments who are most prone to corruption may have been euphoric over the decision, which meant an end to the central government watching over their shoulders. The morale of the public ethics team has hit bottom with officials now mostly spending their time answering interrogations of prosecutors and judges. We may see a rise in corruption among public officials. They are not the enemy. They should continue to keep watch over public officials from the rooftops. If their role is weakened, our tax money will be wasted on corrupt public officials.

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

by Lee Chul-ho
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