Concerned scholars’ statement on National Intelligence Service interference in South Korean democracy
September 1, 2013
Recent actions by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) are raising concerns that Korea’s hard-won democracy is under threat. The NIS and its former director are currently under investigation for very serious allegations of interference in last year’s presidential election. But with that investigation ongoing and talk among politicians across party lines of the need for NIS reform, the agency has mounted what appears to be a counterattack, moving against a minor opposition party and one of its lawmakers with charges of plotting a rebellion. These charges have been unheard of since the days of the military dictatorship that ended in 1987. They bring to mind previous travesties like the charges of sedition levelled at political dissident and later president and Nobel Peace Laureate Kim Dae Jung in 1980 and the fabricated People’s Revolutionary Party case of 1975 which claimed the lives of eight innocent people, later exonerated.
South Korea has rightly been seen as a beacon for democratisation from below, as a model of how a dictatorship can transition, largely peacefully, to a thriving democracy with a civil society that is the envy of many around the world. However, it has also been clear to many that under the continuing cold war conditions on the Korean peninsula South Korea’s democratic transition remains unfinished. There have long been concerns that South Korea’s hidden ‘security state’ has never actually gone away and the recent actions of the NIS have given new credibility to those concerns. Furthermore, we are gravely concerned that alongside the accusation of treason, the National Security Law, a vestige of Cold War anticommunism with a history of abuse, is once again being used to attack opposition politicians.
We can make no judgement about the guilt or innocence of Rep. Lee Seok-ki and the other accused members of the United Progressive Party. However, it is abundantly clear to us that the greatest threat to democracy and civil liberties in South Korea is not the alleged actions of a minor left-nationalist politician, but the direct political interference in the electoral process by an intelligence apparatus that seems to be desperately trying to divert attention from the reform of its own structure and operation. To many in Korea and abroad, it appears that the NIS is using a crude distraction in order to avoid scrutiny of its own alleged illegal activities, and to justify its existing powers.
This is a very dangerous moment for South Korea’s democracy but it also presents an opportunity for the Korean people to finally lay to rest the remnants of the cold war and the dictatorships of the past. For Korea to really be the democratic society that it aspires to be it must allow full freedom of speech, thought and political activity. A mature democracy should not be afraid of people who have strong beliefs, nor should it use a supposed external threat to silence diverse voices that make up society. As scholars who care deeply about Korea we express both our concern about this latest threat to Korean democracy and our solidarity with the Korean people so that we can all ensure there is no return to the dictatorial past.