By Kwak Byong-chan, senior reporter
It was just after the South Korean presidential election in 1971, and unsuccessful presidential candidate Kim Dae-jung met with Lee Hu-rak, director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (which later became the National Intelligence Service). When Lee offered Kim awkwardly tried to console Kim about the outcome of the election, Kim said, “I didn’t lose to Park Chung-hee: I lost to you, the director of the KCIA.” At the time, Lee, as director of the KCIA, was the person in charge of Park’s election campaign. The KCIA had a long reach, as it was even involved in counting the ballots.
But Park’s administration was not the only case in Korean history when the intelligence service interfered in a president election. With the exception of two, the intelligence agency has meddled in every presidential election.
Violence broke out when Roh Tae-woo was campaigning in Gwangju for the 1987 election stirred up regional sentiment and locked in the Gyeongsang Province vote for Roh. It was carried out by thugs who received orders from the Agency for National Security Planning (another former name of the National Intelligence Service). These were the same goons who took part in the effort to block the establishment of the opposition Democratic Unification Party eight months earlier (usually called the Yongpari incident).
During the 1992 presidential election, the agency broke the news about the Lee Seon-sil incident, which supposedly involved the biggest spy ring since Korea gained its independence in 1945. But as soon as the presidential election was over, the investigation fizzled out.
Before the next presidential election in 1997, the agency under the leadership of Kwon Yeong-hae plotted to convince the North Korean army to create fear for political effects. This scheme was inspired by the ruling party’s overwhelming victory in the general election in 1996 after a provocation at the border involving heavily armed North Korean soldiers.
When these schemes succeeded, they led to the election of ruling party candidates, and by and large, they did succeed. The one failed attempt was Kwon Yeong-hae’s incident in 1997, and in fact Grand National Party candidate Lee Hoi-chang lost that election.
This presidential election meddling was revived by the Lee Myung-bak administration. NIS director Won Sei-hoon waged an “Amalekite battle” against so-called North Korean sympathizers.
This was not just a matter of posting some comments online. More important than that was the scheme to use the transcript of the 2007 inter-Korean summit to brand opposition party candidates as North Korean sympathizers. They excerpted, falsified, and leaked the transcript in order to associate the opposition party with former president Roh Moo-hyun, who they alleged had offered the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the West (Yellow) Sea to then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
And these efforts were effective. The election turned into a debate about whether the NLL had been abandoned or not, and who was a North Korean sympathizer and who wasn’t. This discourse put the opposition party at a serious disadvantage.
These efforts were brought to public attention with the revelation of the online comments, which were a comparatively minor instance of interference. The release of the transcript, which had been discussed at a low intensity since the parliamentary audit in October 2012, was a contingency plan thought up by Park Geun-hye confidante Kwon Young-se to distract from the online comment scandal.
Two days before the Dec. 19 election, Saenuri Party lawmaker Kim Moo-seong was holding a rally in Busan in support of Park’s election when he revealed part of the content of the transcript, which he had gotten from somebody. Kim said the transcript had “filled with indignation”.
The news spread throughout the country in a flash, and many voters went to the poll, viewing Moon Jae-in as the chief of staff of the president who abandoned the NLL.
Only after these efforts to manipulate the election had succeeded did the prosecutors get involved. Since this information had already become public knowledge, they had no choice but to take action. They located and restored the evidence that the NIS and the police had tried to destroy and indicted NIS Director Won Sei-hoon and the Seoul police commissioner.
The Blue House found itself in an awkward position. With the disclosure of the NIS’s illegal election activity, and of the efforts to cover it up, the legitimacy of the administration was sure to be damaged.
It was in this situation that current NIS director Nam Jae-joon released the excerpts and the full text of the 2007 inter-Korean summit transcript. The NIS is part of Park’s government, and therefore took part in these activities under Park’s watch, too.
In reality, the success of the machinations seemed to have been aided by the conservative media’s unquestioning loyalty to the government and by the dim-wittedness of the Democratic Party. In particular, the Democratic Party eagerly took part in the game of chicken over the allegations that Roh abandoned the NLL. The more serious questions about the NIS’s illegal interference in the presidential election and the illegal disclosure of the presidential archive records were pushed aside.
The only people keeping these issues alive were determined members of civil society, such as the university professors and students who issued political statements from all over the country. It was them who helped the Democratic Party return from its absurd detour to its proper position.
Park Geun-hye is frustrated. She makes light of the current situation, saying this is all a wasteful controversy. Even if the allegations are true, it won’t change the results of the election, she suggests.
Park gave the NIS her complete trust, even though the NIS is the organization that hatched these plans. Park says that the NIS can reform itself, so politicians don’t need to get involved. But this is like telling organized criminals to reform themselves. How likely is it that gangsters will decide on their own to give up crime?
The father rose to power through a successful coup d’etat. The daughter rose to power 52 years later through an election. She was aided by a successful effort to manipulate that election.
Nine years ago, the Grand National Party (predecessor to today’s Saenuri Party) spearheaded the impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun because they said he had failed to maintain his political neutrality in an election.
What should be done now? Are they going to say that successful manipulation in a presidential election cannot be prosecuted any more than a successful coup d’etat?
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