Go to contents

THE DONG-A ILBO Logo

Exploitation of illegal surveillance scandal

Posted April. 02, 2012 05:48,   

한국어

Ahead of the April 11 elections, controversy is intensifying over the alleged surveillance of civilians by the civil servant ethics team of the Prime Minister’s Office, which had been considered closed by a criminal probe in 2010. After a string of discoveries and accusations were made by former team member Jang Jin-su, the new union of Korean Broadcasting System and the main opposition Democratic United Party, the party is staging an all-out offensive to use the case in the elections. The KBS union and the party released 2,619 documents Friday on surveillance conducted for three years from 2008 to 2010 under the Lee Myung-bak administration. When the presidential office inspected the documents, more than 2,200 of them, or 84 percent, were found to have been filed under the Roh Moo-hyun administration. The presidential office said, “Items filed by the incumbent administration amount to about 400 that are about corruption involving civil servants and that come merely with titles and summaries. Just 120 are prepared in the form of documents.”

Of the documents that were released, the presidential office said, prosecutors only indicted those responsible for two items in their 2010 probe and stopped short of indicting those for other items because they were mostly simple gathering of information, which were not serious enough to qualify as violation of abuse of authority and interference in exercise of rights. Prosecutors are also suspected of a cover-up in their insufficient probe. Had they thoroughly investigated the case at that time, they would have prevented the opposition party from exploiting the case for political gain ahead of the general elections.

Moon Jae-in, executive adviser to the Democratic United Party, said, “It was unthinkable to conduct illegal surveillance and probe of civilians under the participatory (Roh Moo-hyun) government.” Recently released documents, however, include items that can be suspected as surveillance of civilians, including the monitoring of Hyundai Motor and truckers’ unions in January 2007, under the Roh administration. Yim Jong-ryong, minister at the Prime Minister’s Office, said, “The inspection and review office under the past government, which played similar functions as the civil servants ethics office, is confirmed to have conducted (surveillance of situations).” Critics say past governments cannot be exempt from the practice of surveillance of civilians.

Accusations against such surveillance by the Prime Minister’s office are being spearheaded by Jang, the main figure in the scandal, and his legal counsel, who is candidate No. 30 for proportional representation of the Democratic United Party, and the party itself. The party might have sensed the need to reverse the situation in which it is in defensive mood in the wake of fabricated opinions by Lee Jeong-hee, co-chairwoman of the United Progressive Party that formed an alliance with the Democratic United Party for the upcoming elections, and the exposure of the existence of the pro-North Korea faction Eastern Gyeonggi Alliance.

Experts say chances are high that surveillance of civilians will influence voter sentiment and sway the election results. Parties, however, need to reflect on the practice of slandering and groundless accusations that were common in previous elections. All accusations and suspicions that erupt just before elections spawn negative effects by blocking policy-focused elections and verification of candidates. In many cases, accusations are found to be groundless after elections. The ruling and opposition parties should stop the ill-advised practice of seeking small gains in elections through such a practice, and disclose the truth on illegal surveillance of civilians committed by past governments as well as the incumbent administration and prevent a recurrence.

Lawmakers must also remember that they are civil servants paid with taxpayers’ money, and thus should be subject to checks. The civil servants ethics office is a body under the executive branch, however. Under the democratic system of separation of the legislative, judicial and executive sectors, the office committed abuse of authority by monitoring the activities of Rep. Nam Kyung-pil, who clashed with the power elite of the Lee administration, and has good reason to cause controversy over political surveillance. The same holds true with the suspected surveillance of the editor-in-chief of the left-leaning weekly magazine Hankyoreh 21. These two cases are serious and suspicious enough for people to suspect that those in power used the civil servants ethics office like a private organization. If illegal surveillance was committed to benefit those in power and seek political gains, those responsible should be sternly punished.

Under the government’s organizational structure, the civil servants ethics office of the Prime Minister’s Office is entitled to inspect a limited number of entities. The office’s reporting line is also designed to include the prime minister, but the office directly reports to the presidential office. So this is good reason for it to be accused of abusing its power. The office is the revival of the inspection and review committee, which conducted covert monitoring of civil servants under the Kim Dae-jung and Roh administrations. The Lee government dismantled the office shortly after its inauguration but revived it later, judging that it needed to strengthen discipline in officialdom. The civil servant inspection body of the past, whose function was maintained in previous governments, received intelligence about illegal acts by civil servants, often raid their offices, and discovered envelopes containing cash bribes. Hence, the entity was called the "death angel" among civil servants. To prevent corruption and crack down on irregularities, constant inspections should be conducted on civil servants and public organizations who abuse regulatory authority and waste taxpayers’ money.

On how to investigate and find the truth behind the surveillance of civilians, the ruling wants an independent counsel and the opposition demands a special investigative task force. Prosecutors are considered untrustworthy to probe the case because their 2010 investigation was criticized as being insufficient. Incumbent Justice Minister Kwon Jae-jin also served as presidential secretary for civil affairs when the illegal surveillance was allegedly committed. Chances are high that an independent counsel will be formed by the next National Assembly after this month`s general elections.

What is important is improvement of the system to prevent recurrence of civilian surveillance. Surveillance of civilians and politicians, a bad tradition from the country`s previous dictatorial governments, should not be revived on the pretext of monitoring civil servants and situations. The methods of inspection, in addition to the objects and scope of inspections, should be legitimate and clearly specified.