02.10.2013 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

On the coup d’état in South Korea

The scandal, associated with the coup attempt in the Republic of Korea, continues to “pick up speed”. Since the writing of the previous article on this topic, the intelligence services of the RK made public some audio recordings, revealing the insidious plans of the “revolutionaries”, after which Lee Seok-ki, (deprived not only of his parliamentarian immunity but of his status as member of Parliament as well) was taken into custody and even the period of his detention was extended. Such an extension can be interpreted in two ways. Either a great deal of additional evidence came to light and we can await some sensational news, or, on the contrary, it all went up in smoke and the national intelligence service is actively trying to find at least something, puffing out their cheeks and pretending to be serious in anticipation of a possible scandal, as the Unified Progressive Party (UPP) representatives are not going to give him away, and Mrs. Lee (the one who went into presidential elections to annoy Park Geun-hye) seems to want to personally defend him in court.

Moreover, in anticipation of new evidence or scandals, we have the possibility to analyse the arguments for or against the fabrication of evidence for the trial, and to pay attention to the internal political context as a whole once again.

The first argument proving that “there was something” is the fact that the persons, involved in the case, do not dispute the authenticity of the recordings. They say these are just segments, some jokes they were making, and much was taken out of context, but no one has denied uttering such words. They are clinging to trifles, but in global terms, they cannot refute anything.

Of course, the context is important, as it is necessary to distinguish, at least, between the talk in the style of “no support in an imperialist war” (in relation to acts of sabotage in the event of an invasion of the North by the RK) and the work of the fifth column in the event of an invasion from the North.

However, the main problem is elsewhere: the National Security Act, mentioned in the previous text, severely punishes people even for jokes, such as attacks on an office with a remodelled toy gun. Did they hold a secret meeting where authorities were abused? Yes, they did. Did they sing North Korean songs? Yes, they did. Did they say anything about fighting? Yes, they did. It does not matter that this was a joke – a well-meaning citizen will not make such jokes. Therefore, it is clear that there is direct evidence of a crime, case closed, take away the guilty.

The second argument is the behaviour of other opposition members. Criticizing the authorities for any reason, in this case, they rather disowned the UPP, and after the presentation of recordings, there were 258 votes “for” the arrest of Lee Seok-ki and only 14 “against”.

However, we must remember that factional struggle has always been the national sport of South Korean politicians, and the relationship between the UPP and the Democrats have never been simple. Russians can compare them (it’s a rough comparison, but…) to the relationship between their system and non-system opposition, allowing for sharper undercover intrigues – not to mention the fact that nobody wants to mess with “socialism”.

The third argument is that this high-profile case is not well-suited. The ex-intelligence director is under investigation and the new one has no reasons to justify himself. Therefore, it makes no sense to run the risk of exposure. This is not quite true, either. Further reforms and investigations would have affected ALL the top and middle level intelligence officers, and officers have a reason to fight, especially in terms of overall restoration of prestige. The case, in which North Korean agents were disclosed in the very bastion of democracy, becomes their secret wild card. In such a situation, it will be much more difficult to force the intelligence service to apply any reforms or restrict its budget.

The fourth argument is the abundance of details, which seems to be too excessive for a mere “canard” and the fact that, according to intelligence officers, they have spied on Lee and monitored his correspondence and conversations for three years. Moreover, this was done on legal grounds with the court’s sanction. One needs very solid grounds to get the approval for the surveillance of a deputy in South Korea today. In addition, North Korea has stood up for UPP and the statement of the Committee on Peaceful Reunification blaming this fuss about the coup attempt for the delayed meetings between separated families could be interpreted by anti-Pyongyang forces as a sign that there is a connection between them, and therefore, they feel so exasperated in Pyongyang.

Interpretation alone does not mean anything, but three years of surveillance, if it is true, theoretically, can turn into new evidence that could change my opinion about this issue, however, since there are no new facts yet, the working version is the same.

An indirect indication of the connection between the “case of the coup” and the struggle of intelligence for their reputation is another high-profile case, which is unfolding in parallel. This is about the events that led to the resignation of Chae Dong Uk, the Attorney General of RK, who was very actively digging out the secrets of intelligence officers and was favoured by the opposition due to his principled stand. It is also believed that he paid no particular attention to the advice of the presidential administration.

The notorious newspaper Chosun Ilbo1 accused Chae of having an illegitimate ten-year-old son, who is probably supported at the expense of public money (however, by the political norms of the RK, the very fact of “having an affair” is a serious blow to one’s reputation and is a reason for resignation). In this case, the newspaper article was based on classified information (official documents, certificates from school, birth certificates) which is part of the closed government electronic database – and this despite the fact that five years ago the Attorney General was approved by the authorities and the parliament, who theoretically have more access to classified information.

The Attorney General admitted that he has a friendly relationship with the mother of his alleged son (the hostess of a bar, which he used to visit), but no more than that, he called the accusations a slander, threatening the newspaper with litigation and offered to undergo a DNA test to prove his innocence, especially as the woman also denied the affair. However, before he was able to take this test (this procedure takes at least one month), a formal inquiry was launched against him, directed by the Minister of Justice. The situation was similar to the one we are familiar with, “either you leave on your own, or we will find a charge”, and Chae resigned, leaving a touching letter for his ex-subordinates, written in the style of “think only about the people and the law”, which only strengthened his well-wishers in the idea that rascals and corrupt officials are compromising an honest investigator, who pressed them.

This caused resentment among the opposition and among the employees of the public prosecutor’s office, many of which, including the heads of departments, started to wash dirty linen in public, retiring after Chae and making very tough statements, at least, about the fact that the Justice Department should not have started an investigation without having the results of the DNA test or the results of the internal investigation inside the prosecutor’s office. They said that the independence of the prosecutor’s office is under threat, and that they began to poke into Chae’s personal life, when he was honestly investigating the intervention of intelligence services in the presidential election, that the Minister of Justice is a coward and he should resign himself.

Under such pressure, the Presidential administration stated that Chae Dong Uk’s petition for resignation has not been accepted. At this point, the opposition went on the offensive and began to accuse the authorities, saying that the government illegally spied on the prosecutor.

As you can see, the stakes are very high – the national intelligence service and the Chosun Ilbo staked their reputation, which in the RK means much more than in Russia. The Attorney General staked his personal life and reputation. If the DNA test proves that he is not the father, the newspaper faces a substantial fine and the obligation to publish a refutation. If the paternity is confirmed, or in spite of his willingness to take it, Chae will shy away from the DNA test, it will look like the boy is his illegitimate son with all the consequent implications.

In addition, we should pay attention to the overall strengthening of the fight against corruption; the new government makes life hard both for the right and for the left. After a long period of inactivity, the authorities forced the ex-presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo to pay their old fines. It was part of the sentence on the charge of corruption, but then the ex- presidents announced that they had no money. During the 110 days of their work, the investigators tracked thousands of dummy accounts, and the former presidents gave up. Chun said that he would pay $150 million, and Roh Tae-woo took out of his purse 21 million.2 The head of Daewoo, Kim Woo Chung, comes next and as many people believe, he will be followed by Lee Myung-bak, who is the richest ex-president in the history of the country.

The left wing was not ignored either. Han Myeong-sook got her verdict, too. She served as prime minister in the time of Roh Moo-hyun and was the potential rival of Pak in the presidential election. In her case, the amounts and terms are smaller, but it gives the impression that the new head of the KR brought back to life the practice of fighting this social evil, which had flourished in the time of conventional left-wing, but almost disappeared when Lee Myung- bak came to power, the number of high-profile cases declined significantly, the special body, dedicated to the fight against corruption, was reorganized and practically reduced by combining it with the authority that fights for human rights.

We must remember that in the KR, fighting against corruption in the government is a common means of political struggle in conditions of South Korea’s bureaucratic system, where much is based on personal relationships and informal communication and almost anyone can be accused of corruption (provision of services in exchange for services) and the press will readily cause the necessary stir.

Therefore, the fight against this evil is made in surges. The first takes place before the election, when the counter-allegations of corruption and promises to end it are indispensable fighting elements of the candidates. The second surge occurs after coming to power, having waited for some time, the winner starts his redistribution, using corruption as an excuse to shift the unwanted officials. Therefore, fighting against corruption can be a long, politically motivated and fruitless process.

However, we must keep in mind the fact that the position of Park Geun-hye is somewhat different from the position of the other Presidents of the Republic of Korea; she is fighting a war on two fronts. This is due to the fact that her rise to power could have happened five years ago, when a single candidate of the right-wing party had to be determined by the Internet public opinion polls.

The fact is that the two major parties of the KR (their names may be changed, but their essence reflects in the left and right trends) are actually broad coalitions where every prominent politician has his own faction and clientele. Competition between the factions may be tough, and the methods of struggle are not always gentlemanly. Then, Park Geun-hye lost the election in favour of Lee Myung-bak, however, now, the head of the Korea Gallup, who was responsible for these surveys, is under investigation, and one of the charges against him is the falsification of the results of these surveys in favor of Lee Myung-bak.

However, this is not definitively proven yet, but largely because of that, Ms. Park and her fraction remained “in internal exile” during the entire presidential term of Lee Myung-bak, so that even during the election campaign, no one in particular laid the responsibility for the sins of the previous president on the contender from formally the same party. Of course, Lee has repeatedly asked her to strengthen the unity of the party and offered her the post of prime minister, but Park rejected these proposals, as in the Korean political culture, a strong president means that the prime minister has the role of a whipping boy, who retires after another serious failure of the authority.

Now, Park Geun-hye is finally running the country, but in addition to the left opposition, there are two groups within the Senuri Party, to which she belongs, who treat her in a very unfriendly manner.

The first group is the ex-president’s fraction. Its members hold many key positions and it is not possible to replace them overnight. Of course, every new president spends his first year in office making reshuffles (usually disguised as anti-corruption actions) and it takes a while.

Another group includes the ex-president Kim Young-sam and his supporters. As a young member of the Parliament in the late 1970s, Kim began his career with an active and tough criticism of the Park’s regime and suffered from it pretty much. Then he moved from “non-system opposition” to “system” opposition, and eventually joined the ruling party, becoming in 1992 the first civilian president of the Republic of Korea, after a prolonged military rule, at that time the dictator openly demanded to punish the recalcitrant deputy and deprive him of his mandate for having violated the Constitution. Therefore, Kim Young-sam and his supporters who have a dissident past, nourish sufficient personal dislike for Park Chung Hee’s offspring and the logic of factional strife prevails over common sense.

It is clear that in such a situation, Park Geun-hye is forced to negotiate with many people, but in the democratic game, the candidates, she proposed for the posts of ministers, pass through a very careful selection, there should not be any dark spots in their biographies. Meanwhile, it turns out that some of her protégés had relatives, who were once involved in corruption scandals, others were caught to have protected their children from compulsory military service, and there were those who were charged with real estate fraud, for having once bought a plot of land and when the prices went up, sold it advantageously.

As a result, for the present, Park Geun-hye cannot work with those people she would have liked, but with those who could pass through the selection process. This means that the first woman president is not ready for radical changes. To push her vision of the future of South Korea, she needs to strengthen her position and neutralize her political opponents, and that will take time, too.

Thus, the issues of personnel clearance and pushing her people to the necessary positions are especially pressing for Park Geun-hye. If she managed to replace the head of the intelligence (although, as we can see, this does not mean complete control over the entire structure), the former defence minister remains in office and even enjoys certain protection on the part of the United States. However, without a regular personnel structure, any initiatives of Park Geun-hye, starting with the restoration of trust between the North and the South and ending with the construction of a welfare state in the Republic of Korea, will remain at the level of pre-election promises.

However, conservative forces are defending the status quo and a considerable part of the left wing within the logic of factional struggle still regard Park Geun-hye as the daughter of her father, who on principle is unwilling to reach compromises. This somehow accounts for the high volumes of various scandals, which are closely watched by the South Korean audience.

This suggests that the story of the coup or the prosecutor’s dismissal will not put an end to this case, and the author promises to keep readers informed about such “intrigues and investigations”. The main thing is that this political show, sooner or later, comes to a happy ending.

Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, senior research fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies, Institute of the Far East RAS, exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook.

1 To be objective, we should recall that this is not a case of classic yellow press; this is the leading newspaper of the right-conservative camp, the largest in terms of circulation and the most influential in terms of readership.

2 It is worth noting that Park Geun-hye has a kind of private reckoning with the ex-presidents. Chun Doo-hwan, who took power as a result of a military coup, not only put his hand on the political foundations of Park Chung-hee, but also grossly interfered with the personal life of his daughter. For political reasons, she was prohibited from marrying the man she loved, because of a great difference in age. As a result – a broken love life – and Madam President never married.


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