[WHY] Phone recordings take center stage in presidential election
Strange questions like these are befuddling the public in Korea with less than a month to go until they cast their ballots for the next president who will have to steer the country through a formidable list of tasks as the country juggles skyrocketing real estate prices, U.S.-China rivalry and, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic.
The public scrutiny over the candidates’ private lives and personal beliefs is not unusual, given the heightened attention to both fronts of the presidential contenders during the election cycle.
But there is something else feeding the amplified interest in the lives they lead behind the scenes — hours of phone calls with various individuals, released to the public last month.
“I hate clubs, period. I am a spiritual person, I like to read books and talk to dosa [shamans],” said Kim Kun-hee, wife of Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential contender of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP).
She was speaking over the phone with a YouTuber, a man by the name of Lee Myung-soo, who appears frequently on a liberal YouTube channel. Lee released some seven hours worth of conversations with Kim last month. Soon, media reports were picking them apart.
In turn, as things are usually done in political mudslinging, a lawyer released 160 minutes of phone conversations made between the ruling Democratic Party (DP) candidate Lee Jae-myung and his late brother and other relatives.
Lee’s rows with his older brother, who died of lung cancer in 2017, were well known to the public before, but the extent to which the presidential contender hurled expletives in his calls with his late brother shocked the nation nonetheless.
As strange as the circumstances are, this is not the first time recorded phone conversations have been at the center of Korean politics. The act of recording phone calls, in fact, has become a norm for some Koreans, including PPP Chairman Lee Jun-seok who said he automatically records all his calls.
The Korea JoongAng Daily is taking a closer look at the roots of these political scandals to try to understand what it may say about Korean society.
Recorded conversations over the years have been at the center of small and large scandals in Korea.」
First things first, walk us through what these conversations were about.
One of the main presidential contenders, Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), and his wife Kim Kun-hee have been questioned for their possible ties to Shamanism after phone call recordings were leaked to the public.
Seven hours of recorded phone conversations between Kim and a liberal YouTuber, which took place over several different occasions last year, were released by the YouTuber on Jan. 16.
During a call, Kim asks the YouTuber to take charge in the election campaign for Yoon, and says she can give him 100 million won ($83,000) if he “does the job well.”
She also mentions Me Too scandals surrounding former members of the ruling DP, including that of former South Chungcheong Gov. An Hee-jung, and says that the conservatives didn’t get embroiled in Me Too scandals because “we pay people well.” She also says she thinks An and his personal assistant were “in love,” though An was convicted in 2019 of raping and sexually assaulting the assistant.
When the YouTuber asks about the allegation that she once worked at a bar in Gangnam, Kim says, “I hate clubs, period. I am a spiritual person, I like to read books and talk to dosa [shamans].”
This statement became problematic in particular because Yoon had already received some media spotlight for allegations of being tied to Shamanism.
Last October, Yoon appeared in a TV debate with the Chinese character for “king” written on his palm. His campaign spokesman said one of Yoon’s local supporters wrote the character on Yoon's hand. Skeptics, including the head of the ruling DP Song Young-gil, called it a type of shamanic talisman.
The release of Kim's conversations was followed two days later by the release of 160 minutes of recorded phone conversations between DP candidate Lee Jae-myung and his family members, including his late brother, many of them filled with expletives, by a lawyer.
In these, the brother asks Lee, several times, “Why are you trying to put me in a psychiatric ward?” Lee was accused to have forcefully admitted his older brother to a psychiatric ward, an allegation Lee denied publicly.
Lee also mentions in a call the name Yoo Dong-gyu, former head of the Seongnam Development Corporation, who was indicted last year for breach of trust and is a key figure in a land development scandal that took place while Lee was the mayor. Lee has denied direct involvement in the scandal. Several suspects in the scandal have committed suicide since the probe began last year.
The voice recordings of Lee swearing at his brother are not new — they’ve appeared multiple times throughout his political career, including while he ran for Seongnam mayor and Gyeonggi governor. After the latest release of his phone conversations, Lee apologized to the public for his “past wrongdoings.”
Recording a conversation without the other’s consent can be legal in extraordinary circumstances, which can include a situation where the act of recording is intended to prove an illegality, or is for the public’s right to know.」
Did the YouTuber or lawyer have legal grounds to be able to release these records to the public?
Concerning the seven hours of phone conversations between Kim and the YouTuber, a local court ruled the release of some parts of the recorded conversations legitimate, citing the public’s right to know what the presidential candidate’s wife thinks about some of the recent political controversies and scandals, including the resignation of former Minister of Justice Cho Kuk and some Me Too scandals of former DP members.
The DP campaign committee said they will report to authorities the lawyer who released the recorded conversations between Lee and his brother and other relatives.
Isn't the act of recording phone calls illegal in the first place?
It is illegal in Korea to record conversations in which the recorder does not take part, and violators can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. The Protection of Communications Secrets Act states recorded conversations where the recorder does not take part cannot be used as evidence in courts.
Even in a case where the recorder does take part in the conversation, the act is illegal if the recorder does so without the consent of the other party, because it can violate the “human worth and dignity” assured by the Constitution.
But courts have ruled in several precedents that recording a conversation without the other’s consent can be legal in extraordinary circumstances, which can include a situation where the act of recording is intended to prove an illegality, or is for the public’s right to know.
Apart from the recent instances, when else were such exceptions made?
Recorded conversations over the years have been at the center of small and large scandals in Korea.
Recall the power abuse scandal of former President Park Geun-hye. When Choi Soon-sil, the close confidante of Park, denied allegations that she was the puppet master of the president in 2016, evidence to refute her claim surfaced in the form of a tablet PC she was alleged to have used to receive presidential documents. She denied owning the tablet PC, but a recorded phone conversation between her and Park’s assistant proved she was lying.
It’s not difficult to record calls made on Samsung Galaxy or LG phones.」
Is recording phone conversations a widely shared practice among ordinary Koreans?
Some Koreans do record their phone calls or private conversations on a day-to-day basis, for various reasons.
“I have friends who stick with Samsung Galaxy phones because they want to record all their phone calls,” said Park, a designer in her 30s in Seoul.
It’s not difficult to record calls made on Samsung Galaxy or LG phones. After dialing, the user can tap the "record" button on the screen at any time. The user can also adjust the settings so that the phone records all calls automatically, or only calls with selected contacts. Samsung and LG phones exported to countries where recording phone conversations is illegal don’t have this function.
Park herself has recorded private conversations, for legal reasons.
“Around seven years ago, I was being severely harassed at my workplace,” she said. “I recorded around three conversations with my boss, who would verbally abuse me. I heard from a friend that recording a conversation [in such a circumstance] wouldn’t be illegal, so I used my phone to record the conversations. I had intended to submit them as evidence to the government committee for an investigation.”
The act of recording and sharing audio files is also quite common among university students.
“We record lectures because we can’t pay attention for the whole duration of the class, and we don’t want to miss any details,” said Lee, a senior student at Ewha Womans University. “Sometimes we share recordings, and there are even posts on the school forum website that ask for these recordings.”
What do people think about these scandals on the phone call records?
Some say the public has the right to know.
Critics of DP candidate Lee say they are glad to have gotten a look at how Lee dealt with his family matters, calling it a “glimpse of his character.”
Critics of Yoon recall the power abuse scandal involving former conservative President Park Geun-hye and her close friend Choi Soon-sil, saying that the phone conversations of Kim and the YouTuber have painted a picture of the kind of influence Kim could wield over Yoon and state affairs if he is elected president, possibly to the extent that Choi influenced Park.
Others are displeased with the act of recording the phone calls at all, let alone releasing them publicly.
“I don’t think this is a matter of whether the act of recording the phone calls was legal or illegal,” said Byun, an office worker in her 30s in Seoul. “There are rules in every society, not all of them outlined by the laws. Recording all calls without telling the other person, possibly with an ulterior motive, crosses the boundary of basic respect for the other person. There’s a reason why we have a conscience.”
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]