South Korea’s Embattled Spy Agency Deflects Heat by Finding Reds Under Beds

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Lee Seok-Ki
Jung Yeon-je / AFP / Getty Images

Lee Seok-ki, a leftist lawmaker from South Korea's United Progressive Party, speaks during a parliamentary session to vote on a government motion for his arrest on sedition charges at the National Assembly in Seoul on Sept. 4, 2013

South Korean politics has been paralyzed in the wake of allegations that a small group of left-wing politicians had been secretly planning to help North Korea take over the country. The scandal shows how the mention of North Korea can still flip South Korean politics on its head on short notice.

Parliament has been idle since last week when legislators voted by a landslide to have sitting lawmaker Lee Seok-ki arrested for his alleged role in plotting with members of his United Progressive Party (UPP), a small far-left party with pro–North Korea leanings, to take out infrastructure in South Korea in the event of a war with the North, in order to help North Korean forces win.

Having Lee arrested is apparently the only thing lawmakers from different parties have been able to agree on, with politicians on different sides of the aisle bickering over the details, as well as another bigger scandal, involving the body that brought the charges against him, the National Intelligence Service (NIS), the South Korean equivalent of the CIA.

That scandal revolves around an alleged attempt by the NIS to help swing public opinion in favor of the ruling party in the run-up to the presidential election in December.

The NIS is accused of having had its agents post thousands of comments in online message boards supporting ruling-party candidate and eventual victor Park Geun-hye and disparaging her opponent, liberal candidate Moon Jae-in, as a shill for North Korea.

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The NIS is meant to be strictly apolitical, and this kind of misuse for many South Koreans brings back memories of the undemocratic governments that ruled in the 1970s and ’80s. “There is a history in Korea of governments using state bodies like the police or intelligence agency to control the population in illegal ways,” says Kim Soo-jin, a professor of political science at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

Protests were being held all across the country, with citizens calling on the government to issue an apology, hold an investigation into the NIS’s alleged acts and reform the institution.

The Lee scandal has taken the wind out of those protests, as the liberal opposition has now splintered, with people trying to distance themselves from the now pariah-like UPP.

In their own defense, the UPP and its supporters are claiming that the charges against Lee and his colleagues are exaggerated and are being brought forth at this particular moment to distract from an ongoing scandal that is endangering the NIS’s continued existence.

The question therefore remains: Why did the NIS choose now to make the allegations? Are they looking out for their own survival during a time of crisis?

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“The timing is deeply suspect. The NIS is in hot water, and there’s a consensus about the need for reform. They’re protecting their own backs, and they’re doing it quite skillfully,” says Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University.

The NIS has always been tasked with rooting out the small but resolute factions in South Korea that are dedicated to reuniting the peninsula under North Korea’s ideology of juche, or self-reliance.

Those groups have never had any real success and are now smaller than ever, seen as something of a Cold War–era anachronism. North Korea’s abysmal human-rights record and nuclear program are well known and have depleted support for the Pyongyang regime among the South Korean public.

Given North Korea’s bad rep, and the huge gap in development between South and North, it’s a wonder why some South Korean politicians still cling to idealistic visions of North Korea as a peaceful socialist state where everyone is equal. Indeed, the UPP’s refusal to jettison its sympathy for North Korea could have finally doomed South Korea’s beleaguered left wing to lasting irrelevance in the country’s politics.

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