Sewol Facts

A Resource for Journalists

Abuse of Power

How Korea’s Defense Security Command was corrupted by the Park Administration

The Park Administration used South Korea’s Defense Security Command (DSC) or military intelligence service to spy, wiretap, surveil, and intimidate the Sewol victims’ families, members of the Yoo family (who were used as scapegoats for the ferry sinking), and members of the Evangelical Baptist Church. The revelation of such abuse of power led to the disbandment of the DSC.

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Abuse of Power
South Korean protestors clash with riot police during a rally to commemorate the first anniversary of the Sewol ferry disaster in Seoul on April 18, 2015. Hundreds of protestors clashed with police in Seoul on April 18 after families of the victims of South Korea's ferry disaster were prevented from marching to the president's residence. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

Following the sinking of the Sewol, the Park Geun-hye Administration used South Korea’s military intelligence unit as a private police force, investigative arm and crisis communications firm. The actions of the unit – the Defense Security Command – were contrary to the group’s stated mission of “conducting special investigations at the direction of the president” and, it could be argued, violated the human rights of many Koreans.

This episode marks one of the darker legacies of the Sewol disaster.

The unit’s officers used advanced technology and expertise to monitor and spy on the family of Yoo Byung-eun, whom the government blamed for the sinking, and the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea. DSC agents used wiretaps, intimidation, and highly sophisticated surveillance techniques – some designed to counter North Korean spies – in an effort to find Yoo and those who it believed were hiding him.

They identified church members who were in the military — 34 officers, eight soldiers, six non-commissioned officers and 25 civilian workers — and stalled their careers, which could be construed as religious persecution.

They investigated and then infiltrated groups of family members of those who died – yes, grieving mothers and fathers of dead teenagers – to find dirt that they could use to coerce them into stopping their protests, which were causing the Park Administration to teeter.

Officers advised the Park Administration on how to quell the unrest generated by the sinking and failed rescue, and even successfully argued to delay raising the wreck of the Sewol, fearing that publicity surrounding the raising would further inflame anger against the Blue House. Finally, as the Candlelight Protests grew in intensity — and fears mounted that they would grow even more if Park’s impeachment were overturned — the DSC drew up a plan to institute martial law. This would have been a coup in disguise. It is hard to find a comparable recent example of an internal security force in a modern nation gone so completely out of control.

So egregious was this violation of trust that the DSC was disbanded once the scope of the martial law plan became public. It was renamed the Defense Security Support Command, had its personnel and budget cut by roughly one third, and has since been kept on a far shorter leash.

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