Caption: Kim Jin-wook, head of the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials, speaks during a press conference held Monday at the office headquarters in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)
GWACHEON, Gyeonggi Province -- The chief of the state agency dedicated to investigating political elites and high-level bureaucrats denied targeting journalists in a phone spying scandal that surfaced in December last year.
Kim Jin-wook, head of the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials, said in a press conference Monday that the controversial surveillance occurred “in the process of basic investigations” to identify owners of unknown phone numbers.
On the criticisms that obtaining and monitoring phone records of members of the press amounted to an attack on press freedom, he said that was “not the objective, or the intended outcome.”
“Journalists aren’t high-ranking officials, so they cannot be accused in cases handled by the CIO,” he said.
“But if press activities were discouraged as a result, then we will keep the possible repercussions in mind in the future direction of our operations,” he said.
The CIO last month announced measures to curb unauthorized communications surveillance.
The investigation office, which is just over a year old, faced growing criticisms over abusing its spying abilities to snoop on phone activities of journalists at more than a dozen outlets and politicians despite their not being suspected of any wrongdoing. Most of the journalists revealed to have been tracked were on politics or criminal justice beats covering stories on the CIO.
President Yoon Suk-yeol and his wife Kim Keon-hee, who was at the time a private citizen, are among some of the high-profile figures whose phone records were accessed by the CIO.
Kim denied accusations of partisanship that surrounded the investigation agency since its launch in January last year.
“The Moon Jae-in administration and the Democratic Party of Korea pushed for the CIO’s establishment. But the demands for an independent authority for investigating anti-corruption crimes have been brewing for the past two decades across both conservative and liberal administrations,” he said.
The CIO’s raison d’etre, he said, is to investigate officials on both the left and right fairly and indiscriminately -- including the sitting president -- and to keep the prosecution in check.
“I believe that more than anyone President Yoon, who himself suffered disadvantages as a result of investigations that he led, understands the importance of investigating without sparing even the most powerful.”
The CIO’s establishment was one of Moon’s key prosecution reform objectives. The office has the authority to investigate and indict high-ranking officials including judges, prosecutors and upper-level police officers.
By Kim Arin (firstname.lastname@example.org