South Korea is dealing with growing controversy concerning efforts by intelligence operatives to influence domestic politics. Agents of the National Intelligence Service have admitted to secret work to elect President Park Geun-hye. The Cyberwarfare Command of the South Korea Army has been accused of similar illegal interference.
Park won the election early last year by a margin of one million votes. In late November, government prosecutors made public evidence that NIS agents used Twitter to generate at least 1.2 million tweets praising the future president, and linking her opponents to Communist North Korea.
New allegations charge the NIS forged evidence that a former Seoul city official, and defector from North Korea, was a spy. A key informant in the spy case was arrested on March 12, and prosecutors followed up by raiding NIS headquarters. NIS Director Nam Jae-joon is under pressure to resign.
South Korea now enjoys truly representative institutions of government, developed over a relatively short period of time compared with the United States and other nations. Inevitably, there is tension between open political debate and secrecy necessary for national security. Events in the United States provide a current reminder of the challenges involved.
Gen. Park Chung-hee, father of the current chief executive, stifled incipient democracy and imposed extremely harsh military dictatorship for nearly two decades. He was assassinated in 1979 by the head of the KCIA, predecessor to the NIS. The military dictator remains a respected symbol of strength and effectiveness for many, doubtless a factor in his daughter’s notable national political success.
This family history understandably has been the focus of considerable media commentary on the present Park’s political ascendancy, but the development of stable representative government in South Korea is a much more important story. Gen. Park was succeeded as chief executive by two more generals, Chun Doo Hwan and Roe Tae Woo, but growing pressure for true democratic representation proved insurmountable.
The capstone of transition to democracy was the election of Kim Dae-Jung as president in 1997. He completed his five-year term without interruption, and in 2000 received the Nobel Peace Prize. A principal symbol of opposition to Park dictatorship, he was imprisoned for several years. On another occasion, KCIA agents kidnapped him and planned to kill him.
Only the intervention of senior U.S. CIA official Don Gregg saved his life. Gregg’s involvement with Korea dates from the Korean War, when close collaboration between our national intelligence services also began.
Gregg capped a distinguished career of public service as national security adviser to Vice President George H.W. Bush, U.S. ambassador to South Korea, and then head of the Korea Society based in New York. His notable life of public service has spanned the decades from the Korean War to the end of the Cold War.
South Korea’s remarkable domestic accomplishments have unfolded while the country has become increasingly influential in global arenas. Korean diplomat Ban Ki-moon is Secretary-General of the United Nations. President Jim Yong Kim of Dartmouth College, who was born in Seoul Korea, has become president of the World Bank.
These are only two prominent examples among many. South Korea continues to be a steadily more influential beacon for the positive worldwide trends of our time.
Park Geun-hye personifies family continuity but also extraordinary national progress. However, an essential precondition is aggressive prosecution of law-breaking by intelligence agencies.