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Former NIS deputy Choi Yun-su questioned

Nov 27,2017
A former deputy head of Korea’s intelligence agency was questioned by prosecutors on Sunday over allegations that the agency had operated illegal surveillance operations against public servants and civilians when Park Geun-hye was president.

Choi Yun-su, former second deputy director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), appeared at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office at around 9:50 a.m. for questioning.

Choi was in charge of the agency’s information gathering on domestic affairs from February 2016 to June 2017.

“I will faithfully cooperate with the investigation,” Choi said as he entered the building.

Prosecutors have been investigating allegations that the spy agency conducted illegal surveillance activities against public servants and civilians critical of the Park administration during her presidency.

Park, who took office in February 2013, was ousted in March this year for abuse of power and corruption.

Choi is suspected of having made direct and secret reports to Woo Byung-woo, who served as Park’s senior secretary for civil affairs, about outcomes of the surveillance activity. Choi was the direct supervisor of Choo Myeong-ho, who headed the NIS’s National Interest Intelligence Bureau, also known as the Sixth Bureau, in charge of domestic intelligence gathering.

Last week, the prosecution detained and indicted Choo on charges of violating the law governing the NIS. Woo was named as a co-conspirator in the indictment, and prosecutors said they would summon and question Woo this week.

Choo is accused of playing a key role in the NIS’s illegal domestic political operations against critics of the conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park governments. Prosecutors indicted Choo for operating illegal surveillance activities against eight people, including Lee Seok-su, who served as the independent inspector-general from 2015 to 2016.

Others targeted by the NIS’s surveillance activities were Lee Kwang-koo, president of Woori Bank, and Kim Jin-sun, former Gangwon governor and former president of the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

In July 2016, Lee Seok-su launched a special investigation into Woo’s corruption but quickly faced attacks from the Blue House that he had leaked information regarding the special probe. Prosecutors also started an investigation into the alleged leak, and Lee resigned from the post in August 2016.

The prosecution is focusing on the close friendship between Choi and Woo. They were classmates at Seoul National University’s law school and both former prosecutors. When Choi was appointed the second deputy head of the NIS in February 2016 with relatively little experience as a prosecutor on high-profile cases, speculation was high that Woo influenced the selection.

Prosecutors suspect that Woo pulled strings at the NIS to secretly collect information on Lee after the special inspector launched a probe into his corruption scandal. Choi either ordered the surveillance operation or gave tacit approval, the prosecution said.

“If Choi did not go through a proper process under the law governing the NIS and made an agent do something that is not a part of his duty, it is an abuse of power,” a source in the prosecution said.

Sources said prosecutors already obtained a statement from Choo that he had briefed Choi and other senior officials of the NIS about surveillance operations before reporting to Woo.

Choi is also a suspect for his involvement in the Park administration’s creation and operation of a blacklist of artists critical of the government.

Known as the cultural blacklist scandal, those on the list allegedly suffered systemic oppression such as losing job opportunities, being deprived of state funding and facing tax probes.

The prosecution said it would question Choi first and decide whether it would seek a detention warrant or not continue the probe.

Choi has been refusing the charges, arguing that the surveillance activities and cultural blacklist are legitimate parts of the NIS’s operations.

“It is routine operations of the NIS to collect intelligence on public servants higher than the vice-minister level to manage a database on personnel affairs,” Choi said. “Discussing it with Woo was also legitimate part of the NIS operation."

The senior secretary for civil affairs is a powerful post that supervises the prosecution, police and NIS. Woo was Park’s civil affairs secretary from 2014 to 2015 and senior secretary until October 2016.

Choo has also denied that he violated the law to collect information on Lee, public servants and civilians.

“No illegal means of surveillance such as wiretapping were used,” he said. “It was just a collection of information available in the open market. I also did not make a secret briefing to Woo because the information was first reported to higher authorities in the NIS.”

According to an NIS official, collecting information on senior public servants and reporting it to the Blue House are legitimate operations.

“But I am not sure if the intelligence Choi collected is within the legal scope,” he said.

The prosecution will focus on the NIS’s motives on collecting intelligence on the independent inspector-general and the means they used for the operation.

Whether or not Woo had influenced the process will also be investigated. It is expected that prosecutors’ next target is Woo after they question the former NIS officials.

Woo was raided on Friday in a surprise move. The prosecution obtained a search and seizure warrant over the illegal surveillance scandal and waited for Woo at the Seoul Central District Court, where he was attending a separate but related trial.

Woo exited the courtroom at around 5:40 p.m. on Friday, and two investigators approached him as he was about to board his car.

His mobile phone was confiscated, and the car was searched.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]