The two whistleblowing scandals rocking the Moon Jae-in administration expose some chronic illnesses of the Korean government and politics. The two cases also manifest that whistleblowers in this society are vulnerable to reprisals and retaliation.
One of the common elements of the two cases, both of which target alleged wrongdoings of senior government officials, is that the power elite, especially presidential aides, are prone to abuse their power.
At the core of the first sets of allegations made by Kim Tae-woo, a former member of the Cheong Wa Dae special investigation unit, is that senior presidential aides ignored his intelligence reports about personal misdeeds of close associates of President Moon.
Kim’s allegation about his unit’s surveillance activities on civilians also strengthens the suspicion that the Moon government has failed to break out of the practice of powerful agencies interfering with domestic politics and the private sector.
Kim’s allegation that the Moon government intervened in the replacement of executives affiliated with the Environment Ministry is also strikingly similar to the one raised the second whistleblower, Shin Jae-min, a former official at the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
Shin alleged that the presidential office attempted to replace the chief executive of Korea Tobacco & Ginseng and the Seoul Shinmun newspaper company. KT&G used to be a state-run monopoly and the government holds a stake in the Seoul Shinmun.
These kinds of government interventions in the personnel affairs of public organizations and even in private companies that had been state-run enterprises are nothing new. But Shin’s allegation that senior officials attempted to implement fiscal policy such as issuance of treasury bonds in tune with “political judgement” should raise big concern about the rampant abuse of power by the presidential office.
The key part of Shin’s allegations is that Cheong Wa Dae was behind the push for issuing 4 trillion won ($3.6 billion) worth of deficit-covering bonds in late 2017. Shin claimed that due to an increase of tax revenue, the government did not have to raise debt, but the Moon government pushed it to increase the debt-to-GDP ratio for the year, for part of which the former Park Geun-hye administration was responsible.
Government officials need to tell the public whether Kim and Shin were telling the truth or not. Rather than providing logical rebuttals of the two men’s allegations, they simply took legal action.
The presidential office, categorically denying Kim’s allegations, filed a criminal complaint against him, accusing the inspector of making false allegations and leaking government secrets. Kim is also under separate investigation by the state prosecution over accusations of personal wrongdoings, including playing rounds of free golf.
In Shin’s case, the Economy and Finance Ministry filed a criminal suit to accuse him of leaking government secrets.
Investigation by authorities may be inevitable to shed light on the truth, but the swift government litigation, in the absence of logical, convincing explanations or evidence that can refute the allegations, can only be regarded as an intimidation of two men who courageously disclosed what they believed to be wrongdoing.
Indeed, Kim and Shin’s claims are incurring considerable damage to the Moon government. Some ruling party members, like Rep. Sohn Hye-won, are reacting sensitively, going all out to attack them personally.
In her social media, Sohn posted disparaging comments against Shin. Sohn described Shin as a “crook” who ran into a dead-end and a greedy “gambler” disguised as a righteous person. She even said after Shin was taken to hospital after an attempt at his own life that she did not feel any need to talk about him anymore because he did not have enough resoluteness to take responsibility for his own act.
People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a leading civic activist group that is usually supportive of the Moon government, demanded that the Finance Ministry withdraw the suit against Shin. It said litigation and personal attacks that can impede whistleblowing should be discouraged.
The activist group would not have issued such a statement if it thought Sohn was a more responsible citizen than Shin. People like Shin and Kim should be protected from reprisals and retaliations at least until the truth is established, for which a parliamentary investigation or the designation of an independent counsel may be necessary.