Phone-tap probe claims senior scalp and taints former leader

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2005, 12:00am

A widening probe into illegal phone taps by South Korea's spy agency has claimed another scalp and is now seriously tarnishing the image of a former president.

A former deputy head of the agency, Kim Eun-seong, is the highest-ranking official yet to be implicated in the inquiry into covert recordings made by the National Intelligence Service.

Kim is accused of ordering illegal wiretaps of conversations between top politicians, government officials and businessmen. A warrant for his arrest was issued on Saturday.

He worked for the country's spy agency during the administration of former president Kim Dae-jung when, according to public prosecutors, the security services engaged in indiscriminate and widespread wiretapping.

The allegations have proved embarrassing for former president Kim, a Nobel-prize winner who prides himself on his long history as a democracy activist.

'After Mr Kim became president, he issued a directive banning illegal wiretaps, he pursued reform of the spy agency and made many high-level personnel changes,' said Lee Nae-young, of Korea University.

'These revelations mean that at worst, president Kim was engaging in those activities he had condemned or, at best, he didn't know what the secret services were up to.'

President Kim himself suffered as an object of state surveillance during his long career as an opposition politician under South Korea's military dictators from the 1960s to the late 1980s.

'Previous administrations checked out even what meals he had. When there was a sound of munching, they would know he was eating a pickled radish,' Yoo Jong-pil, a former assistant to the president, recently said.

Crucially, it is not yet clear how far the spy agency's civilian political masters were aware of its activities.

'After democratisation, the Korean CIA announced it was going to pursue more openness and transparency, but even if you are a civilian president, you want to know as much about your political opponents [as possible], and perhaps the temptation to pursue old practices was too strong,' said Professor Lee.