An AP news report in late September noted that an agent employed by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (formerly the Korean Central Intelligence Agency) who was serving as a consular official in Los Angeles, had met with fundraisers John Kerry’s campaign. An unknown amount of money was raised by the agent and passed to the Democrat’s campaign. Reportedly, the Kerry camp returned $4,000 because of “concern about [its] origins.” Considering the amount of money foreign governments – especially Asian governments like South Korea and China – throw into American politics the $4,000 sounds like chump change, especially in light of other related information.
This intelligence agent, Chung Byung-man, previously served in Atlanta where he came into contact with an American, Rick Yi, described as a “former military attaché” who had worked in the Clinton White House. Yi became a private businessman and was an aggressive, successful Democrat Party fundraiser. Since 2003 Yi reportedly raised more than $500,000 for various Democrat candidates including an unknown amount for John Kerry. Yi visited Chung after the latter was reassigned from Atlanta to the consulate office in L.A.
During a visit Chung reportedly proposed to Yi that a Korean political action group be formed to support John Kerry’s presidential run. Chung was prepared to finance and assist in the startup. Then an investigative Associated Press reporter discovered that Chung was an official in South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and wrote a story about it. Almost immediately Chung fled to Korea. Anonymous officials there confirm Chung’s employment by NIS but deny that the Korean government was trying to influence a US election. The Kerry campaign denies knowledge of Chung’s true background.
It gets more complicated. Rick Yi was business partner to one Chun Jae-yong, who was the son of former Korean strongman Chun Doo-hwan, himself convicted in 1997 in a Korean court of bribery charges. The younger Chun wrote a check to the Kerry campaign for $2,000 which was returned. Yi now says that he and Chun have discontinued business activities. As is true in many of these cases, little is written down and personal contacts are made through networks and relationships.
Why does all this matter? It is old news that Asian governments – working through a loose coalition of individuals and politically oriented groups – have long sought to buy influence in US politics. South Korea has a reputation for such under the table activities. During the mid 1970s a character named Park Tong-sun established himself in Georgetown and became a prime mover and shaker on the Washington scene. A scandal broke surrounding Park and later investigation disclosed the attempted and successful bribery of many U.S. Congressmen.
What drove the Koreans to take what many regarded as reckless actions? Quite simply, the Korean government feared that America would not honor its defensive treaty obligations, thereby inviting a North Korean attack. They saw America abandon its South Vietnamese allies to conquest by invading North Vietnamese forces despite a treaty affirming the US commitment to its security. Within a year after Saigon fell Jimmy Carter was elected president on a platform in which he vocally promised to withdraw American troops from Korea without consultation with the South Korean government, also treaty allies.
In the minds of Korean observers it had become impossible to trust the word of an American president. Even if he pledged support they saw proof positive that a hostile Congress could undermine him. Therefore it was necessary in the Korean worldview that they have Congressmen upon whom they could rely under any circumstances. In their society at the time the usual way to secure loyalty in a public official was through bribery. So off they went. Illegal, risky, and foolish, but understandable under the circumstances.
Now, almost three decades later we see suspicious activity this time targeted not at Congress but at a potential chief executive. Ironically the issue with South Korea is not worry about a chief executive like Carter who was weak, but fear that President Bush is too strong. His upbraiding of North Korean and categorizing it as part of the Axis of Evil makes the present South Korean government very nervous. Since 1997, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his successor Roh Moo-hyun have followed a policy of accommodation and appeasement regarding North Korea.
The Kim Dae-jung government passed huge bribes to the North Koreans to pretend to talk peace while they covertly pursued manufacture of nuclear weapons. This duplicitous action won Kim a Nobel Prize. Both Kim and Roh deliberately turn a blind eye to the horrific human rights abuses inflicted on its population by North Korea, preferring instead to cook deals with the regime. Under Kim-Roh leadership, South Korea has attempted to occupy a position as “mediator” between the U.S. and North Korea, as if it did not have a dog in the fight. Former National Security Advisor Richard Allen categorized this action as “a serious breech of faith” by South Korea.
So President Bush’s hard line on North Korea – not least his outing of its nuclear weapons R&D program - has frightened those South Koreans who have developed an under-the-radar, cozy relationship with the Kim Jong-il regime. While the initial deal drawn up with North Korea was cobbled together by Jimmy Carter “acting independently” in 1994, it was welcomed by the Clinton administration and by many observers as a way of averting possible war on the Korean peninsula. In a nutshell, this Agreed Framework stated that if North Korea ceased its nuclear programs the U.S. along with Japan, South Korea and Russia would construct two light water nuclear reactors for energy (the product could not be weaponized), provide huge tonnage in food supplies and medicine, and dump shiploads of fuel oil into the country.
Three years later, when Kim Dae-jung was elected president of South Korea in 1997, he expanded this by instituting the so-called “Sunshine Policy” that was ostensibly an outreach program to develop accommodations with North Korea. Later, witnesses have reported on huge sums of money – by some accounts as high as $1.5 billion – passed furtively to North Korea to bring it to the table. Along the way the abhorrent human rights abuses in North Korea were intentionally ignored. At the time U.S. policy makers went along with this policy of intentional ignorance, citing a need to deal with the most critical nuclear issues first. This crass abandonment of North Korean innocents to the death camps and starvation conditions imposed by the dictatorial Kim Jong-il raised the ire of many in America – including then-candidate George W. Bush – as well as people of conscience inside South Korea.
The opposition Grand National Party in the legislature initiated investigations of Kim Dae-jung’s behavior and has insisted that human rights be an essential part of any agreement made with North Korea. While the U.S. Congress last week unanimously passed the North Korea Freedom Act which President Bush eagerly signed into law, the ruling party in South Korea was lobbying to kill it but GNP legislators encouraged passage.
The ruling party in South Korea has been increasingly under the microscope for financial irregularities and overall incompetence, to the degree that fistfights and name calling are common occurrences on the floor of the National Assembly. President Roh and his Uri Party would like to see pressure on them from America diminish because they fear not only for retention of power but also from possible criminal persecution. One way to get America off their backs would be to change leadership in America. As a consequence, the South Koreans are in odd agreement with North Korea: both are working hard to see that George W. Bush is defeated for re-election in November. This puts them foursquare with most of the reprehensible, corrupt, and dangerous regimes in the world.
As every politician knows the grease that makes the wheels of power turn is money. In an odd way it makes sense to foreign governments seeking influence with American government to apply it liberally, especially in a climate of rapacious fundraising that characterizes American presidential election campaigns. Sometimes it falls into the “how could they be so dumb” category, e.g., Gore accepting checks at a Buddhist monastery then when caught expressing shock that monks who lived with a vow of poverty were handing him sequentially numbered checks for five grand each. Other times it can be a bit more subtle such as the short-term leases on the Lincoln Bedroom and “meet-the-President” coffee klatches.
In this case intelligence/consular officer Chung seems to have been trying to take advantage of the latest goofy American innovation, campaign finance law, in order to establish a 527-like structure in order to buy some squeeze in a future Kerry-Edwards administration, or at worse have the Senators’ ears in case a critical bill might be on the Senate floor and they might actually show up to vote. Give the Dems credit, they’ve never yet seen money, Asian or other, that they didn’t like and were only too happy to have bagmen like Rick Yi run the traps for them.
It goes without saying that much more would be heard of this if the party affiliation were reversed. “Koreans Bribe Bush” would be above the fold in the NY Times if that were the case. So the story languishes in the background and only reaches a large audience because of Internet news organizations, talk radio and, if pushed hard enough, perhaps cable TV. Bottom line is that in this case the South Korean government operating through a thinly disguised agent attempted to manipulate American election law in order to establish an influence foothold in the Kerry-Edwards campaign through use of illegal foreign contributions. The thin evidence at hand suggests that while the Democrats did not solicit the funds neither were they eager to turn down the help.
Such extraordinary efforts to pick an American leader that they think can be manipulated is a left-handed compliment to George W. Bush. The Kerry camp pretends that the “world hates us” because of righteous indignation when the reality comes clearer daily that the world fears an honest American leader who demands accountability from enemies and more so from friends. A president who will not wink at Oil for Food frauds or sell out his principles for money. A president who will demand a reckoning for grotesque human rights abuses, and will hold a bright light on lying, cheating, proliferating weapons of mass destruction, and state support for terrorism. When all the pieces are on the board the puzzle is not difficult to put together at all.