Fri, May 17, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Spies caught in Web site scandal embarrass Seoul

The South Korean spy agency has said its agents were engaged in missions to cope with North Korea’s cyberwarfare, but opposition lawmakers and activists suspect something more insidious is afoot

By Kim Hung-jin  /  AP, SEOUL

Illustration: Mountain People

The scandal shaking up South Korea’s main spy agency is not cloak-and-dagger stuff, but the kind of low-grade trickery anyone with an Internet connection can pull off. And the target was not Seoul’s opaque rival to the north, but the country’s own people.

Internet postings ostensibly from ordinary South Koreans, but actually from National Intelligence Service (NIS) agents, allegedly promoted South Korean President Park Geun-hye while she was running for the job as the ruling party’s nominee. She was reportedly dubbed “the best,” while her opponent, in a play on his name, was called “criminal.”

A police investigation conducted before the election in December last year found no wrongdoing, but now police say at least two agents violated the law and the original investigation is itself being examined. Dozens of Internet comments, or more, may not have affected an election that Park won by a million votes, but they have damaged public trust in a spy agency that already had a dubious record.

The agency was founded in 1961 by Park Geun-hye’s father, longtime dictator Park Chung-hee. Agents detained, tortured and even allegedly killed his political opponents. After Park Chung-hee was killed in 1979 — by his spy chief, ironically enough — other abuses occurred under his successors.

However, in recent years criticism of the NIS has centered on what it has failed to do — namely, come up with much intelligence about North Korea. It learned about former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011 two days after it occurred, when Pyongyang’s state TV announced it.

The Internet comments scandal captured headlines in South Korean media late last month, when state prosecutors summoned the agency’s former director, Won Sei-hoon, and raided its Seoul headquarters. Reports recalled the unfortunate fates of predecessors who ended up being arrested, imprisoned or even killed.

“The prosecution will mobilize all its capabilities to swiftly and thoroughly get the truth of the case,” South Korean Prosecutor-General Chae Dong-wook said in a meeting with top prosecution officials on Tuesday last week, according to his office. “This case should be investigated in a way not to have any lingering suspicion.”

The scandal flared about one week before the Dec. 19 election. Liberal opposition members camped outside the apartment of an NIS officer allegedly involved in illicit online campaigning, based on a tip from another agent. The officer locked herself in the apartment for two days, then came out — wearing a mask and a baseball cap to conceal her identity — to let police confiscate her computers.

The incident triggered a last-minute election debate over whether the NIS illegally engaged in politics, or whether the opposition party harassed an innocent woman.

Three days before the election, police announced the results of their initial investigation by clearing the officer of any wrongdoing, giving Park Geun-hye’s camp a source of criticism on her main rival, Democratic Party candidate Moon Jae-in.

Kwon Eun-hee, a police officer who headed the initial investigation, recently told reporters that her bosses inappropriately interfered in the probe by pressing her team to drastically decrease the number of search words they would use in analyzing the NIS officer’s computer hard disk, in an apparent effort to announce the investigation results before the presidential election. Top police officers have denied Kwon’s claim, saying there was no attempt to cover up the truth about the case, according to the National Police Agency.

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