PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 December, 2002, 12:00am

The latest allegations emanating from South Korea in conjunction with its approaching presidential election are really frightening. The opposition Grand National Party has made public many pages of summaries and transcripts of telephone conversations that it alleges came from a whistle-blower in the National Intelligence Service.

Those subjected to wiretapping include politicians - members of the opposition and government parties - as well as civic groups and other public figures. The transcripts make clear that Big Brother is listening, but not who Big Brother is. South Korea has a history of wiretapping abuses, despite efforts earlier this year to curb such practices.

Already, several people have confirmed that the transcripts are genuine. These include the Speaker of the National Assembly, Park Kwan-yong, as well as media executives and journalists. 'It must have been bugged illegally,' Mr Park said of a discussion with a supporter. 'I had never told anyone else of the conversation.'

Shin Kuhn, the head of the intelligence agency, denies it was responsible, saying that perhaps it was the work of private detectives. 'I have maintained strict political neutrality since I took office last year,' he said. 'All wiretapping we are engaged in is legal and is only conducted with court warrants.'

However, the wiretapping was on such a scale that it is difficult to imagine anyone other than a government agency being capable of conducting such an operation.

The transcripts suggest it was done for political purposes and not national security reasons or during criminal investigations. In fact, the materials suggest at least some of the eavesdropping in March was to help Roh Moo-hyun, now the ruling Millennium Democratic Party's presidential candidate, win the presidential primaries.

President Kim Dae-jung should order an investigation into this whole affair. Although the election for a new president will be held on December 19, Mr Kim will remain in office until February, and he must order investigators to follow all leads. He cannot afford another political scandal on the eve of leaving office.

Already, Mr Kim is serving out the last months of his five-year term under a cloud. Allegations that he secretly arranged a payment of US$400 million (HK$3.1 billion) to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in order to secure the summit meeting in Pyongyang in 2000 have gone unanswered. During the presidential campaign in 1997, Kim Dae-jung pledged to crack down on corruption, but now, two of his sons have been sentenced to prison terms for corruption. The one unsullied portion of his presidential legacy is South Korea's recovery from the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. There the record is most impressive. South Korea was the recipient of an emergency International Monetary Fund rescue package, but it managed to repay the full amount of US$19.5 billion last year, three years ahead of schedule.

The latest IMF assessment of the economic recovery gives due credit to the president. 'A key lesson from the recovery is the importance of political leadership,' it said. 'President Kim Dae-jung was able to unify the country to overcome the crisis . . . Korea has probably done more than any other country affected by the Asian crisis to address the problem of non-performing loans and make banks' balance sheets healthy again.'

The country has made fundamental structural reforms to its economy. Its growth rate this year is estimated at 6 per cent, double the rate of last year. And the unemployment rate, which stood at 8.6 per cent in 1999, has dropped to 3 per cent. Moreover, advanced industries, such as information technology, have become important components of the economy.

But if political scandals are not cleared up by the time Kim Dae-jung leaves office, whoever wins the election - especially if it is the opposition candidate, Lee Hoi-chang - may follow up with investigations that conceivably could lead to criminal charges against Kim Dae-jung himself.

South Korea already has a history of sending former presidents to jail - Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were imprisoned during the presidency of Kim Young-sam. It would be a shame if Kim Dae-jung, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, should be confronted with a similar fate. It is in his own interests to get to the bottom of the eavesdropping affair.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator