South Korean Politics: A First Pass at the Scandal

July 8, 2013 7:00 AM

Political scandals are complex because they typically involve an original sin followed by the more-damning effort to cover it up. In the current South Korean case, an additional complexity is that the underlying political football is a transcript of the Roh Moo Hyun-Kim Jong Il summit of October 2007 in which the deceased president said highly controversial things about the Northern Limit Line, aid to the North and the continued presence of American troops. The transcript was used by the Saenuri to tar presidential candidate Moon Jae-in as soft on defense during the 2012 election campaign.

But questions are now being raised about how Saenuri gained access to the classified transcript—which has now been released in full—and whether Park Geun-hye or close advisors such as Kim Moo-sung were complicit in its politicization. In the meantime, both high-ranking national intelligence and police officials have been indicted for violation of election laws. While the National Assembly investigation will take some time to unfold—45 days to be exact--we thought it imperative to take a first pass at what we know. The following provides an overview based on an extensive dossier of press coverage put together by Dan Pinkston at the International Crisis Group in Seoul; Dan will be producing a more thorough report on this shortly and we will be looking at the Roh-Kim transcript.

The Election Shenanigans

In October 2012—as the election campaign was heating up—a Saenuri legislator named  Chung Moon-hun claimed that President Roh Moo Hyun had disavowed that the NLL was a maritime border during his summit with Kim Jong Il. The allegation was a bombshell for two reasons. First, no mention had ever been made of a summit transcript; now Saenuri legislators were making the improbable claim that the North Koreans had recorded it and subsequently shared it with them. Where had this document come from?

Second, the charges played directly into the presidential election because the DUP’s presidential nominee, Moon Jae-in, was Roh’s chief of staff at the time and a key architect of the summit. As Park tacked to the center on both social and North Korea policy, there was obvious value in tarring Moon as soft on security issues. The North Koreans, in their typically self-destructive way, were playing into Saenuri strategy by engaging in incursions across the NLL and escalating their rhetoric. These actions provided the opportunity for President Lee Myung Bak to visit Yŏnp’yŏng  island, which had been shelled by KPA artillery in November 2010. Saenuri legislators subsequently claimed that the transcript revealed not only that Roh was willing to compromise on the de facto border but that he had made other controversial statements to Kim Jong Il, promising large-scale aid to the North and the withdrawal of American forces.

The two parties engaged in a fierce struggle for the moral high ground on the issue, with Saenuri emphasizing the security questions and the DUP initially questioning whether the document existed and if it did what the chain of custody was that permitted access to it on the part of ruling party legislators. Under South Korean law, documents of this sort held by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) would typically be classified for as long as 15 years. Documents held in the presidential archive cannot be accessed unless two-thirds of lawmakers agree, or if a warrant is issued by a high court. When the National Intelligence Service admitted in October that it had kept a copy of the transcript, it raised additional suspicions of how the document had come to be released to select legislators—and of the ruling party--and at a sensitive time in the campaign.

The issue of the politicization of the NIS was not limited to charges that its staff—or their political superiors—had leaked the document. The DUP also charged that an NIS staffer had been involved in web postings that denounced Moon Jae-in’s candidacy, a violation both of the South Korean equivalent of the Hatch Act and of national election laws. The employee was quickly exonerated by the police prior to the election. But the investigation appeared perfunctory and charges that the NIS and its director Won Sei-hoon had been involved in politics dragged well into spring.

While it is impossible to judge whether any of this late push on security issues mattered, the presidential race was extraordinarily tight and Moon appeared to get the worse of the exchanges. The electoral outcome is now history: Park prevailed, but narrowly.


In April, police finally concluded that two National Intelligence Service agents had indeed illegally intervened in the last presidential election by posting comments critical of the opposition party on the internet prior to the elections; moreover, high-level police officials concluded that the initial investigation was indeed a whitewash and that no less than the former chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency was implicated. Both the former head of the NIS and the police chief were subsequently indicted. By June, the issue had shifted to whether prosecution was enough or whether a full-blown National Assembly investigation was warranted. Roles were now reversed with the Saenuri on defense as the DP pushed its case. A deal was ultimately struck to open a National Assembly investigation that will now run for 45 days. The committee will have wide powers to subpoena; it will be both legally and politically difficult to claim executive privilege.

The big questions hanging over the investigation are whether the leak of the transcript or the NIS violations of election law were known or even ordered by President Lee, candidate Park, the leadership of the party, underlings or some combination of the above. Civil society has gotten into the act, as a variety of student organizations and other NGOs have hit the streets to protest NIS meddling in politics. The issue is not entirely partisan; Hankyoreh reported last month that nearly 80 percent of respondents to a poll they conducted believed that a National Assembly investigation was warranted; 65 percent said Park needed to state more clearly her position on the issue.

In the interim, excerpts from the transcript were dribbled out by the NIS in late June and they seemed to confirm that Roh was interested in taking a second look at the NLL. The issue is not as straightforward as the Saenuri made it appear during the campaign. The idea floated by the Roh administration was in fact an interesting—if politically naïve—set of confidence building measures that included a peace zone and joint fishing area in the Yellow [West] Sea, joint development of the Han River estuary area and a joint economic zone along the coast from Haeju to Incheon. Without careful consideration of the context in which these proposals were made, it is too early to draw any conclusions about Roh’s intent; the ability to pull juicy quotes from a complicated exchange is too simple and politically convenient.


President Park has denied involvement and correctly stated that the investigation is a matter for the National Assembly to pursue. But the partisan jousting on these issues is intense, as can be imagined.

The full summit transcript was unilaterally declassified by the NIS and released by its director Nam Jae-joon. The release of the document has raised yet more constitutional and legal issues. On what—and whose—authority were such sensitive diplomatic papers suddenly released to the public? Did the NIS have the authority to declassify such documents, as the administration and its director have claimed? Are the documents in the hands of the NIS the same as those that are in the presidential archive or are there perhaps different transcripts? If the documents were ultimately in the presidential archive, as the DP is arguing, then was the NIS director guilty of releasing classified information without the authority to do so? The DP has argued that the Saenuri's efforts to have the National Assembly look at the documents is little more than an attempt to normalize their release. The DP is also saying that Park needs to fire the NIS chief, and that the entire role of the NIS in the policy-making process needs closer scrutiny.

President Park was not entirely above the fray; for example. she could not help taking a swipe at late President Roh last week by commemorating those who had died in defense of the NLL.

However, the issue is clearly serious. Park now faces the classic scandal dilemma: if she did know, she was complicit; if she did not know, she appears incompetent. Lurking behind this tactical jousting is the larger question of the very legitimacy of the presidential election and Park’s presidency.

On the foreign front, the DPRK denounced the release, calling it a mockery of the supreme leader. One of several motives may be at work in Pyongyang's response: that the transcript contains surprises from a North Korean perspective, that the release of the transcript will undermine the possibility—however slim—of South Korean concessions, or because of legitimate concerns that confidential diplomatic exchanges will be violated.

In any case, none of this is good. The very nature of the investigation assures the issue will continue to be a major political distraction, and with legitimate reason; evidence of election tampering has been established in the earlier indictments. Although it took only a short while for the North’s initiative toward the South to blow up, resuming those efforts is now likely to be stalled and complicated as South Korean politics turns inward.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff