calling for an investigation into the truth of the National Intelligence Service’s interference in last December’s presidential election
By Ko Na-mu, Park Hyun-chul and Jung Hwan-bong, staff reporters
How are sensible members of civil society viewing the National Intelligence Service’s (NIS) investigation into charges that Unified Progressive Party (UPP) lawmaker Lee Seok-ki conspired to overthrow the government? On Sep. 1, the Hankyoreh solicited the opinions of eight experts in various areas including human rights, the academy, and law who have been voices of reason in public discourse on the investigation.
While these experts believe that the NIS is using the investigation to bring about a change in public discourse, they admit that the remarks made in the recording of Lee defy common sense and are unrealistic.
The experts also say that, even if the allegations against Lee are true, it would not make sense to prosecute him for conspiracy to overthrow the government. Even so, they fear, the investigation might discourage legitimate activity by progressives and civic groups, such as the candlelight vigils calling for NIS reform.
The following people provided opinions for this article: Kim Geun-sik, professor of political science and diplomacy at Kyungnam University; Kim Chang-su, policy director for One Corea Action; Min Kyung-woo, former secretary general of the Unification Alliance; Park Rae-gun, executive director of Human Rights Center; Oh Chang-ik, secretary general of Human Rights Alliance; Lee Taek-gwang, cultural critic and professor at Kyunghee University; Cho Guk, professor at Seoul National University College of Law; and Cha Byeong-jik, attorney at the law firm Hangyeol.
■ The NIS is using the insurrection investigation to shift attention from its interference in last December’s presidential election
The experts agreed that the NIS resorted to the insurrection investigation to turn the situation in its favor. Recently, the NIS had come under pressure to reform after its interference in the last December’s presidential election.
“The political situation was focused on NIS reforms and the issue of meddling in the election,” said Cho Guk. “But this development turns everything on its head. If debate breaks out before the facts about the alleged conspiracy have been confirmed, we could be distracted from efforts to reform the NIS.”
“The NIS said that it had been investigating this case for a long time. I’m curious about why they are revealing it at this point in time,” Cho said.
“It is unusual for the NIS to suddenly start talking about a conspiracy to overthrow the government and make its investigation public,” said Cha Byeong-jik. There was consensus among the experts that the move seemed aimed at getting rid of the candlelight vigils denouncing the NIS.
A majority of the experts believed that it is unlikely that Lee could be convicted of insurrection conspiracy even if the recording turns out to be genuine. “At least when we just look at the transcript that the NIS released, it is unclear whether it qualifies as an insurrection or a conspiracy to overthrow the government,” Cha said. “It seems very likely that it will prove impossible to convict, or even indict, the suspects.”
“I view the investigation into a conspiracy to overthrow the government as a desperate move on the part of the NIS,” Min said. “It doesn’t make sense for people to talk about an insurrection plot when there are 130 people in the meeting. While it is possible that they could have gotten caught up in the mood and made some rash statements, they were probably not talking about a specific plot.”
■ Inappropriate and dangerous attitude about North Korea and view of reality
All criticism of the NIS aside, these experts condemned the suspects’ attitude toward North Korea and the awareness of the situation on the Korean peninsula that appear in the transcript as not only being wildly different from common sentiment in South Korea but also for also being inconsistent with progressive values.
“Presuming that the recording was not falsified,” Oh said, “the participants in the May meeting with Lee transgressed society’s conventional boundaries. Considering that a lawmaker and executives from a public party were in attendance, no defense can be made of the fact that such discussions were held.”
“Not only were the ideas expressed in the transcript divorced from reality, but they were also dangerous,” Oh noted. “Blowing up infrastructure would generally be expected to cause a loss of human life, but the participants did not seem fazed by this at all.”
“In the 1980s, there were groups who argued that physical force should be used to unify the country, but they were motivated by questions about how to resolve specific problems such as the violent groups led by former president Chun Doo-hwan and the massacre of civilians in Gwangju,” Oh said. “Is it acceptable for people to continue dying for the sake of the ideal of autonomy?”
Oh concluded that this understanding of history and attitude toward North Korea do not align with the values of human rights, including pacifism and the anti-war movement.
“The comments in the transcript are completely inappropriate for a current member of the National Assembly,” said Park Rae-gun.
These were not the only criticisms that the experts made of the transcript (presuming that the transcript is in fact accurate). “The content of the transcript is exactly the sort of thing that university students used to say when they were drinking with their friends,” Lee Tae-gwang said. “The distorted, almost freakish patterns of thought here belong to an extreme minority that are prejudiced and have no real influence,” said Kim Chang-su.
■ The symbiotic relationship between the “old progressives” and the reactionary conservatives
The experts repeatedly expressed their regret that the progressives were not able to clean up their own ranks well enough to prevent this kind of thing from happening.
“We should have raised a group of decent progressives who could have led the way,” said Min Kyung-woo. “This situation occurred because of our failure to do that. Because the mainstream progressives lack the ability to police themselves, a small anachronistic group was able to seize a progressive political party, a major base of progressive power, in spite of the will of the people.”
“The progressives ought to have dealt with these problems before moving forward,” Lee Taek-gwang said. “Because they did not, Lee Seok-ki and others had an opportunity to enter the National Assembly during the past general elections. This was due to the ambivalence of the wider progressive front.”
Other analysts suggested that there is a symbiotic relationship between this anachronistic small group of progressives and Korea’s reactionary conservatives. In other words, anachronistic progressives such as Lee Seok-ki find justification for their actions when freedom of thought is unfairly suppressed by the National Security Law, while the conservative reactionaries justify their own existence by attacking the old progressives.
“The beneficiaries of the National Security Law are the NIS and the Unified Progressive Party,” said Lee Taek-gwang. “The UPP gains strength because of the National Security Law, and the NIS survives because of the UPP. The relationship between the two would seem to be hostile, but it is actually symbiotic. And the thing that is threatened in this process is South Korean democracy.”
“We need to create a social consensus that such groups are unnecessary,” Kim Chang-su said. “However, if we put too much emphasis on the injustice of the charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government, the focus will be shifted to the inappropriateness of the NIS’s investigation. This will only reinforce the position of these minority groups.”
Another topic mentioned by these experts was the closed-off nature of the old progressives’ organizational culture. “Their organizational culture refuses to reflect changes in reality, changes in the international situation, and changes in the views of the Korean public,” said Kim Geun-sik. “In their isolation, they met in secret and tried to justify themselves and their anachronistic methods.”
■ The allegations should be fully investigated, but reform of the NIS must go on
All of the experts were concerned that the investigation into charges that Lee and others plotted to overthrow the government would be an obstacle to legitimate activities by progressives and civic organizations.
“The investigation will continue to be an issue,” said Kim Chang-su. “The NIS and the prosecutors’ announcement of the investigation will motivate conservative reactionaries to go out to the candlelight rallies and hold their own counter rallies, inciting social conflict. This will drag on through the by-elections in October.” He believes the investigation will continue to influence the situation for a long time.
“It would be possible to defend the right of people to say what was said in the Lee transcript, but it would be a lot harder to say that those positions are correct,” said Park Rae-gun. “I’m concerned about how this case may damage the progressive movement.”
These experts are of the opinion that the UPP must show that it is willing to assume responsibility so that the campaign to reform the NIS can continue.
“If it turns out that Lee and the others actually said the comments attributed to them in the transcript, the UPP must apologize before the Korean people and cut out the rot. The party should also cooperate with the investigation,” said Kim Geun-sik.
He also noted that that it is obvious that the ruling party and the NIS are trying to distract the public’s attention from the problems with the NIS, but he said that this issue could be dealt with on its own terms.
“The actual comments must be made public, whether by the NIS or the UPP. Of course, this has to take place in the courts,” said Cho Guk. “It is important that we monitor the situation so that this is not used to diffuse the movement to reform the NIS.”
“The truth of the matter must be handled in the courts,” said Oh Chang-ik. “People are worried that the investigation will be used to attack the progressive party. However, given a situation where there are indications that a crime was committed, we cannot resist the investigation merely out of fears that it will shift attention from the NIS’s meddling in the election. We must do all we can to ensure the investigation uncovers the actual truth.”
“Rather than prosecuting Lee Seok-ki and the rest as criminals, it would be better to expel them from the National Assembly or to take disciplinary action against them,” Cha Byeong-jik said.
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