Tension is rising between Cheong Wa Dae and opposition parties over a whistle-blowing dispute involving a former member of the special inspection unit of the presidential office.
The main opposition Liberty Korea Party has already taken the case to the state prosecution, accusing top presidential aides of abusing their power and dereliction of duty.
Other opposition parties, including the Party for Democracy and Peace, a liberal group that is usually supportive of the ruling party, and the centrist Bareunmirae Party, have joined the conservative main opposition party in demanding that Cho Kuk, senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, step down.
At the core of the scandal are two sets of allegations made by Kim Tae-woo, a prosecutorial investigator who was a member of the Cheong Wa Dae special inspection team whose job was to monitor senior government officials and relatives of the president’s family.
The first set of allegations focus on suspected corruption cases involving close associates of President Moon Jae-in. Kim claims that senior Cheong Wa Dae officials covered them up and instead took disciplinary action against him.
Those mentioned by Kim include Woo Yoon-keun, a former lawmaker who was tapped as ambassador to Russia last year, and Lee Kang-rae, another former lawmaker who now heads Korea Expressway Corp.
The second set of allegations claims that the special inspection team used to spy on civilians, casting doubt on Cho and other presidential officials.
Kim made public a list of civilians he claimed he surveilled. Kim’s intelligence reports included information about a professor who made negative comments about Moon, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, which is critical of the Moon government, and a group of civilians associated with the cryptocurrency industry.
Citing the report compiled by Kim, the Liberty Korea Party said the inspector also surveilled the chief of the Seoul Innovation Center for the Creative Economy, which was established during the Park Geun-hye administration.
Like previous allegations made by Kim, presidential officials have dismissed Kim’s latest claim.
What is disturbing is that presidential officials have been reading from the same script in their response to the series of allegations.
Cheong Wa Dae said senior officials never ordered Kim to collect information on civilians in an illegal manner. They insisted that if Kim did so, he did it purely on his own and that information that could cause problems was discarded. Besides, most of the information collected by Kim was not reported to senior officials beyond the special inspection team. This is hardly convincing.
Even if what they claim is true, the undeniable fact is that a member of the Cheong Wa Dae special inspection team spied on civilians in breach of the law and work guidelines. This goes against President Moon’s pledge to end the tradition of powerful agencies interfering with domestic politics and collecting information on civilians.
Relevant presidential officials -- either Cho or Cheong Wa Dae chief of staff Im Jong-seok -- should come forward to tell the public what really happened and apologize for whatever went wrong. They ought to comply with the opposition’s demand to make testimonies in a parliamentary session.
Instead, Cho made it clear in Facebook posts that he and Cheong Wa Dae do not have any intention to do so. He said he would “take beatings but would keep walking forward.” The former law professor even posted a link to the song “No Surrender” by American singer Bruce Springsteen.
A part of the song’s lyrics says, “We made a promise we swore we’d always remember. No retreat, baby, no surrender. Like soldiers in the winter’s night with a vow to defend. No retreat, baby, no surrender.”
It is a shame that the man whose job is to advise the president thinks of himself as a warrior in a political war against his and the president’s opponents. The foremost duty of every public official -- elected or appointed -- is to surrender to truth and public opinion.