In the last few weeks, Korea has seen the pariah of its politics: the Unified Progressive Party (UPP; whose factionist misfortunes were outlined in a column last year) making a spectacular re-entrance onto the central stage, once again shackled to the name of representative Lee Seok-gi. However, if the scandal last September had centered on Lee's rigging of UPP votes to facilitate his election as representative to the National Assembly, the current hullaballoo is altogether a far more complicated – some would even say nefarious – pickle.
It all began amidst a nationwide siege on the National Intelligence Service (NIS), which allegedly had tried to influence public opinion during the 2012 election by means of online political vitriol and by spying on civilians. Anger was also directed towards the Park Geun-hye administration, perceived to have benefitted off of and to have condoned these activities. The collective furor was such that the former head of the NIS was summoned to court while discussion forums blazed and candlelight vigils sprung up on the streets. Seemingly an echo of 2008 when a similar nationwide movement had almost forced the administration from power, all seemed lost for the NIS (and by extension, President Park). Yet by late August, everything had miraculously stopped.
National opinion was suddenly galvanized by NIS transcripts of a clandestine meeting in May of several UPP members including Lee. These discussed “a general attack on South Korean infrastructure [communication and transportation networks, fuel depots] in the event of an inter-Korean armed conflict.” Preparations mentioned included stockpiling “firearms as well as homemade bombs.” Of course, the NIS and the government wasted no time in shoring their gains by raiding UPP headquarters last month and arresting Lee on the charges of “conspiracy to treason.” Partly because of public fury and the conservative onslaught riding on it, none of the other left-leaning parties came to the UPP and Lee’s aid. The Democratic Party described Mr. Lee and his Alte Kämpfer with the words, “irresponsible groups that deny the Republic of Korea… cannot be condoned.” The Justice Party went farther, voting in favor of Lee’s arrest.
Though Lee’s statements clearly divulge the unequivocally pro-North allegiances most people already suspected that certain politicians in the UPP were harboring, the party’s clumsy handling of the situation has made matters significantly worse. UPP members went from denying the statements outright to hastily rectifying that they were merely “jocular remarks.” This refusal to accept public scrutiny of their political opinions once again exposes the UPP for the hypocrites that they are. Yet the bottom line is not the UPP’s ludicrous scheme – which apparently was not put into action as of yet - of arming 200 untrained individuals and hoping to lead a coup against the government. The shock of the revelations notwithstanding, it has been obvious from the get-go that the issue was a cover-up for the controversial NIS and the incumbent administration to escape what would have been an overwhelming liberal assault. Had Lee and his cronies been deemed a serious threat, NIS knowledge of the meeting back in May should have been reason enough for authorities to swoop in immediately. That this was not the case hints that other factors were more important.
In an unprecedented turnover of fortunes, the right has used the most blameworthy sect on the political scene to drive their critics into a moral conundrum: protect the UPP and risk becoming fellow traitors, or abort the attack on the NIS and the administration. Though it is reasonable that liberals did not choose the former, from the NIS and the conservatives’ track record (spanning several authoritarian as well as democratic governments) the latter possibility also seems highly unsavory. It is not that Lee Seok-gi was exposed as the injudicious and possibly dangerous figure he was long suspected to be. It is the fact that ideological arguments such as the National Security Act were used - curtailing any freedom of speech in the process - to convict him instead of hard evidence that the plans were indeed being put into action.
This sets a worrying precedent. Coupled with the government’s latest attempts to tame the Supreme Prosecutors' Office by blackmailing its independent-minded chief (who had, incidentally enough, ordered an investigation into NIS involvement in the 2012 elections) with accusations of marital infidelity, it is likely the government is attempting to extend its stranglehold on domestic politics by using the intelligence and judicial agencies, an age-old tradition. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this all is not the existence of some people in this country who are fanatical supporters of a ruinous dictatorship; it is the existence of an equally fanatical, ruinous, and dictatorial tendency of using “national security” as an excuse to crush the opposition.