What about the bugging?

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What about the bugging?

On the morning of Dec. 11, 1992, a week ahead of the presidential election, nine impeccably dressed men gathered at a restaurant serving a famous Busan delicacy, blowfish stew. They were Justice Minister Kim Ki-choon and local heavyweights of the country’s second-largest municipality, including the mayor, local branch chiefs from the offices of the prosecution, police, National Intelligence Service, Defense Security Command and municipal education office as well as executives of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The breakfast meeting in Busan had a specific purpose: to join forces, or more precisely, conspire, to muster votes for ruling party candidate Kim Young-sam. The men’s strategy was to whip up regional sentiment in Kim’s hometown. Their conversation - bugged and later released to the public by their opponents - included lines like these: “We have to stick together. If we lose, we should all jump off the Yeongdo Bridge [in Busan].” Another man said, “To make the campaign succeed, we should let the regional sentiments come from the grass roots and the civil sector.

The notorious meeting demonstrated a type of kleptocracy that existed in a country still unfamiliar with the real meaning of democracy and under the influence of an oligarchic legacy of a long period of military rule in which power is distributed, not earned at the ballot box. The heads of local government, law enforcement, spy and defense agencies, educational authority, and corporate organizations put their heads together to help a conservative party candidate win the presidency by using the most foul and cheap means of triggering and pleading regional loyalty from voters.

The conservative elite had already been blinded by political greed and arrogance. In 1990, President Roh Tae-woo, a military general who won the presidency in the first direct election in 1987 by a thin margin, suddenly announced that his party was forming a grand coalition with two of three opposition parties led by Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil. With a sitting president who was once a dictator, the people voted for the opposition in the legislative election of 1988. But the three leaders basically overturned that public verdict.

Their alienation of dissident leader Kim Dae-jung and his party deepened regional cleavage. The coalition redrew the political map with Chungcheong (Kim Jong-pil’s base) and Yeongnam, or Gyeongsang (Kim Young-sam’s base), in the southeast forming a block and further pushing Kim Dae-jung’s constituency of Honam, or Jeolla in the southwest, into political and geographical isolation. In ideological terms, the conservative bullies ganged up on the small liberals.

The three-party merger was contrived by Kim Young-sam, who wanted to secure ruling power whatever it took. He willingly joined forces with his oppressors of his dissident days and gave birth to a dishonorable political tradition of scheming, lying and even dancing with the devil in order to win elections. The merger of convenience destroyed political integrity and shook the values of politicians and bureaucrats. Ethical standards and conscience were thrown aside. Otherwise, the local leaders in Busan could not have planned their election scam over a blowfish breakfast. The infamous scene is still remembered as an exemplary case of ethical corruption of an elite group.

The plot, however, was unsuccessful, ending with a twist in favor of the conservative forces. The breakfast meeting became known to the public because it was recorded by a rival force: Chung Ju-yung, the business tycoon and founder of Hyundai Group who jumped into the presidential race as a third contender. He paid former employees of the national spy agency to place a bug in the room where the meeting took place. But the use of illegal means - bugging - was criticized more heavily than the conspiracy that was exposed. The scandal only ended up uniting the Yeongnam voters without the efforts of the elite group. The people behind the recording were arrested.

The incident highlighted the potential danger and abuse of illegal surveillance, and a law was created the following year to guarantee privacy in communications and protection from unauthorized surveillance. Under the law, no one is allowed to undertake an unwarranted search of the mail or access electronic communications. Eavesdropping and taping conversations of others are strictly banned by the law. Anyone who leaks taped material and private conversations will have to answer to the court.

Spy devices have been a feature of this year’s election, too. A conversation between the head of the Jeongsu Scholarship Foundation - established by former President Park Chung Hee and run by his daughter and now ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye - and executives of the MBC TV network was bugged and disclosed. Phone records of contacts between Park aides and the foundation staff were secretly photographed and released.

Of course, what has been exposed is scandalous. The foundation head discussed selling the group’s stake in MBC in an effort to help Park’s campaign. Park insists she no longer has anything to do with the foundation, yet her aides maintain contact with it.

What should be condemned is the act of illegal surveillance. Since the 1992 incident, we have reached a consensus that secret tapping is intolerable. Democratic United Party Representative Bae Jae-jeong, in exposing the phone records, insisted that taking photos of an object does not require consent and therefore is not illegal.

Communication devices today have become indispensable. Eavesdropping and unwarranted photo-taking threaten human dignity and rights. If taking photos of phone records is warranted, why not reveal e-mails and text messages? Our values are being shaken again.

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