Conservative lawmakers say the transcript proves Roh preferred to cooperate with Pyongyang than protect security. Liberal lawmakers say the spy agency, instead, was manufacturing one controversy to distract from the other.
The two events are convoluted, but both have dominated headlines for weeks in the South. They also have a common thread: South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), which some analysts here say has turned into a political provocateur, using its power to champion conservative causes and widen a partisan divide.
Because of its Stalinist neighbor, the South has long defined itself along Cold War lines, with political ideology here linked in part to one’s sentiment about the North. But in the 2012 election, that had appeared to be changing. On the campaign trail, conservative Park Geun-hye and liberal Moon Jae-in shared similar visions for social spending and tentative engagement with the North. When Park won by three percentage points, she vowed to unify the nation.
In the six months since her victory, that has not happened, and Park’s opponents criticize her for staying quiet about the spy agency’s actions rather than condemning them. Only last month did she first discuss the alleged election meddling — the first parts of which came to light in December — saying she had was neither connected to nor a beneficiary of the agency’s potential misdeeds.
“I don’t think this allegation puts her legitimacy in question,” said Kang Won-Taek, a right-leaning professor of political science at Seoul National University. “How many people’s opinions could have been affected by some Internet postings? But it’s true that it’s not a pretty scene for Park” to deal with.
Her approval rating remains high — above 60 percent, according to most polls. But opposition lawmakers have seized on the election-tampering charges to raise questions about Park’s victory, and small groups of protesters have gathered in recent days in cities across South Korea to demand an investigation and a greater response from Park.
The NIS, South Korea’s version of the CIA, is supposed to remain politically neutral. But prosecutors say its former leader, Won Sei-hoon, indicted last month on charges of election meddling, believed that “leftist followers of North Korea” were trying to regain power in the South. He ordered his agents to post comments not only criticizing Park’s opponents but also lauding Park, prosecutors say. Won resigned this year, having served under the previous president, Lee Myung-bak. If found guilty, Won will face up to five years in jail.