Impartial probe needed
Intelligence chief in spotlight over allegations Yoon abetted accusations
National Intelligence Service Director Park Jie-won, whose duties require him to act clandestinely, is now in the media spotlight over a political issue.
The controversy concerns election-meddling allegations involving Yoon Seok-youl, a leading presidential contender affiliated with the main opposition People Power Party.
On Sept. 2, online news outlet Newsverse revealed anonymous allegations that prosecutor Son Jun-sung, who at the time was an investigative intelligence policy officer under then-Prosecutor General Yoon, prepared indictments to be filed if the People Power Party made accusations against pro-government figures. Son allegedly sent them to Kim Woong, then a prosecutor-turned-opposition party candidate, ahead of the April 2020 general elections in an apparent bid to put the ruling Democratic Party of Korea at a disadvantage. Newsverse says Yoon is suspected of ordering Son to do so, an allegation Yoon denies.
Son denies writing the indictments in question and sending them to Kim. Kim says he doesn't remember receiving the indictments from Son.
The anonymous informant turned out to be Cho Sung-eun, a 33-year-old politician-turned-businesswoman. To the party's surprise, she was vice chair of the United Future Party campaign committee for the April 15 general elections. The United Future Party was the predecessor of the People Power Party.
The country's spy chief gained the public's attention after it came out that he and Cho had lunch together one on one on Aug. 11, about three weeks before the Newsverse report was published, at a hotel restaurant in Seoul.
Cho denies discussing her allegations with Park over lunch, but the opposition party doubts her denial. About a month before that lunch meeting with Park, she talked to Newsverse.
Cho catapulted Park into a brighter spotlight with her remarks. When she was asked in a TV interview on Sept. 12 about the timing of the Newsverse report, she said it was "not a date that my director (Park) and I wanted nor a date that I discussed after being kindly allowed to."
She also said Newsverse publisher Lee Jin-dong had decided on the publication date.
Cho's words, which she seems to have uttered carelessly, could be interpreted to mean that she and Park hoped the report would be published on a different date, but it came out early. Though she argues that the inference is unwarranted, saying the timing of the news report was a coincidence, the circumstances would seem to suggest otherwise.
Park denies trying to intervene in politics. But his conduct as head of the country's intelligence agency deserves criticism.
He said in July that he and all NIS agents would keep their distance from politics, but it is questionable whether he has kept that vow. It was revealed recently that he met with Cho and former lawmakers at the NIS director's official residence in February. That too invites suspicion.
A country's spy chief needs to refrain from holding private meetings. They can lead to the disclosure of sensitive information or to unnecessary misunderstandings about the agency. It is ridiculous that Park's movements were made public through Cho's social media posts about her two meetings with Park. He frequently had open conversations with her on social media.
When Cho's allegations were reported, the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials quickly embarked on investigations. It booked Yoon on four charges, though without evidence linking him to the allegation that he abetted accusations. It also searched the parliamentary office of Rep. Kim Woong. The Supreme Prosecutors' Office launched an internal inspection.
Campaigners for Yoon accused Park and Cho of violating laws governing elections and the NIS. Reports were filed with the CIO, but so far the agency has not yet begun to investigate Park or Cho and looks unlikely to do so.
It is problematic that the CIO assigned the investigation to a prosecutor who once worked as an aide to a ruling party lawmaker. If the CIO wants to avoid misunderstandings or suspicion that its probe is biased, it should exclude her from the investigation.
If Cho's revelations are true, the prosecution should be held responsible for violating its duty to maintain political neutrality. If the NIS chief discussed the timing and methods of the revelations with her, that could spark controversy over political meddling. Investigations must be fair and impartial. Otherwise, a strong aftermath will follow.