South Korea: Illegal Surveillance of Citizens and Entertainers

South Korea's presidential house has come under fire over its illegal monitoring of civilians. The case, which started as allegations raised by the opposition sides, has now escalated and has even been referred to as the Korean Watergate scandal [ko]. Entertainers who often hosted anti-government protests have revealed that they have been followed and monitored by government intelligence agence officials.

While the investigation is underway, the nation's online space has erupted with people's angry responses. This is one of the biggest political scandals under the current President Lee Myung-bak's administration.

The nation's Democratic party and the KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) labor union has released parts of government documents comprising about 2,600 pages, which show the current regime monitored activities of their citizens, including journalists, activists, rival party members and even comedians, who openly expressed their political stances.

Kim Jae-dong, participating in the broadcaster's strike against unfair journalism, Screen capture image of a Youtube video uploaded by user mbcunion2012

Kim Jae-dong, participating in the broadcaster's strike against unfair journalism, Screen capture image of a Youtube video uploaded by user mbcunion2012

Kim Jae-dong is a well-known comedian and talk show host who publicly expresses his liberal political stance and is often unfairly accused as being a ‘pro-North Korean leftist’ by conservative sides. Kim said in an interview with the nation's investigative news magazine SisaIN [ko] that he had two encounters with a man who introduced himself as working for the National Intelligence Service (NIS), the FBI equivalent agency in South Korea.

The anonymous agent tried to persuade him to drop his planned hosting of a funeral event (not an official funeral ceremony) for the deceased former president. However, Kim went on to host the event and his talk show, which was about to be launched, was subsequently cancelled, fueling various suspects online.

This gave evidence to the theory that the government indeed monitored a wide array of civilians and it has ignited public anger online. Baek Chan-hong (@mindgoodtweeted [ko]:

MB정권하에서 연예인들까지 사찰대상이었다는 보도를 보면 50년대 미국 메카시 선풍이 생각날 정도. 지난 4년간 정권의 눈밖에 나면 누구나 감시대상이 되는 상황에서 국민들은 말그대로 철장없는 감옥에서 살았던 것.

When I read news reports that even entertainers were being monitored under the current administration, it reminds me of the dominance of McCarthyism in the United States back in 1950s. Anyone who is on bad terms with the government became an target of monitoring. This means for the past four years, South Korean people have been living behind invisible bars.

Other than Kim, one of the nation's most famous rock singers, Yoon Do-hyun, and Kim Mi-hwa, a comedy godmother figure and radio show host, are also believed to have made to the government's monitoring list [ko] after being labeled as ‘leftist entertainers’.

Twitter user @cinemAgora tweeted [ko]:

[…]연예인까지 사찰 대상. 이 정부의 레드 콤플렉스가 이 정도일 줄은 몰랐다.

Even entertainers were being monitored. I never expected this government had such a huge Red Complex [refers to a fear of Communism and a tendency accompanying irrational fear to over-censor anything related to Communism or Communist states. On related notes, any content related to North Korea is closely being censored in South Korean society].

The nation's influential but also controversial culture critic, Chin Jung-kwon (@unheim) urged people to vote [ko] to punish the government and ruling party. A general election is on coming up next week and the presidential election is in December this year.

“국정원 직원 두 번 찾아왔다.” 결국 김제동씨가 증언을 했군요. 충격, 또 충격. 총리실과 국정원이 연예인을 사찰하고
협박하고… 대체 뭣들 하는 짓인지. 응징의 방법은 단 하나, 투표입니다.

So finally Mr. Kim Jae-dong testified that NIS official visited him twice – a shocking revelation, a shock beyond shock… The prime minister's office and NIS have monitored and threatened those entertainers. What the hell they think they are doing? The only way to punish them is through voting, people.

Mr. Chin analyzed [ko] the shift of power caused by the new media environment:

과거의 독재정권들은 ‘지식인'을 사찰했지요. 근데 왜 이 정권은 애먼 ‘연예인'을 사찰하느냐? 그건 미디어 환경의 변화지요. 사회의 주요한 소통수단은 텍스트에서 이미지로 넘어갔죠. 지식인은 텍스트 문화의 영웅, 연예인은 이미지 문화의 영웅입니다.

Authoritarian regimes in the past used to monitor ‘intellectuals’. You might ask ‘why this government monitors irrelevant entertainers?’ It is because the media environment has changed. The main medium has shifted from text to image. While the intellectual is the hero figure in text-based culture, entertainers are the heros in image-based culture.

Those entertainers who have been monitored by the government were also active Twitter users. Whenever their tweets made headlines, discussions followed on whether the government or broadcasting companies should set stricter guidelines on Twitter usage by influential people. Twitter user @tsbre commented [ko]:

사찰이후 정권이 맘에 들지않는 연예인은 1.우선 편파심의로 징계하고 2.제작진을 경쟁력 저하라는 막연한 잣대로 압박하며 3.그래도 안되면 방송사별 소셜테이너 금지조항을 만들어 억지로 프로그램 하차시켰죠

When the government found specific entertainers unfavorable after monitoring them, [the usual pattern is] first, they reprimand them with their unfair censorship system. Second, they pressure their team [program crew] with vague evaluation standards, such as blaming them for ‘losing competitiveness’. Third, if those measures still wont work, they set up a broadcasting regulation which limits entertainers’ social media activities and then, kick them out of their programs [by applying those new rules].

The presidential house argues [ko] that most monitoring cases recorded in the disclosed government documents date back to the former administration. But some journalists disagree [ko] by saying that while the past government focused on checking up on their officials, the current one targets ordinary people.

Twitter user @yaaacool [ko] has expressed his discontent in watching the government and ruling party shirk the blame and added this civilian monitoring gives him the chills since anyone could be the next victim.

Freedom House last year downgraded South Korea's status from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’ to reflect an increase in official censorship and the government’s attempt to influence media outlets’ news and censor contents online.


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