Mar. 24. Groups of citizens gathered at the airport in an attempt to prevent Won from fleeing to the US. (by Park Jong-shik
By Jung Hwan-bong and Choi Yu-bin, staff reporters
An unusual spectacle unfolded on Mar. 24 as a group of people staked out Incheon International Airport to prevent former National Intelligence Service chief Won Sei-hoon from leaving the country.
The attempted flight by the recently retired NIS chief was unusual in itself, but the airport posse organizing to stop him was unprecedented.
Word spread the previous evening that the Ministry of Justice had barred Won from leaving the country after a Hankyoreh report that the embattled former NIS chief, who allegedly ordered employees of the organization to wage a campaign to influence last December’s presidential election, was planning to leave for the US.
But many people reacted to the news by saying Won had likely already left, and that the reports of the ban could not be trusted. The Democratic United Party, Unified Progressive Party, and Progressive Justice Party all issued statements over the weekend urging the ministry to issue an immediate exit ban.
At 2 pm on Mar. 24, DUP lawmaker Jin Sun-mee gathered with members of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and members of the public at the airport’s third floor international departure hall. They were intent on stopping Won from leaving, by force if necessary. A number of flights were scheduled between 4 and 5pm for California, where Won was reportedly intending to go.
They ended up conducting a kind of surveillance operation, dividing into groups to watch the different departure gates and sharing flight information in real time over Twitter and other social media. Forty-year-old citizen Yun Su-man came to the airport with a photo of Won stored on his tablet. “I heard on Twitter that he might try to leave the country today, and I raced over here to stop him from fleeing,” he explained.
Online, citizens forwarded around a virtual “Wanted” poster. Twitter user @Bohemi**** posted a picture of Won along with the message, “Searching for former NIS chief Won Sei-hoon, who is attempting to flee to the United States.” Many other netizens also wrote messages asking people to report any sightings of Won at the airport.
A number of observers commented on the absurdity of someone recently retired from a post where he handled sensitive state secrets then making plans to stay overseas for a long period just after stepping down.
“It’s extremely inappropriate,” said a former senior NIS official.
Kim Keun-sik, a professor at Kyungnam National University, said it was “shameful” and “a blow to the country’s prestige” for Won to attempt to leave.
“If someone who headed an organization in charge of state intelligence is rushing to leave the country after stepping down, there’s a very good chance high-level information will end up being leaked,” he said.
Won never appeared at the airport on Sunday. Observers took this as a sign that the negative public opinion and exit ban persuaded him to give up on his US trip. His whereabouts remained unknown throughout the weekend. Hankyoreh reporters visited his home in Seoul’s Namhyeon neighborhood on Mar. 23 to find it tightly locked and quiet. Neighbors said they had seen several moving trucks taking items away the week before.
It took until late Sunday afternoon to confirm that Won had indeed been barred from leaving the country. Many saw the criticisms and commotion over Won’s whereabouts during the weekend as a tragicomic result of the NIS’s impaired operations and illegal actions.
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