Private Electronic Bugging Grows, Koreans Say

Times Staff Writer

Illicit eavesdropping by the government on private conversations, once a fact of daily life in South Korea, is decreasing, but such activity by private citizens is on the rise, the International Rights League of Korea is charging.

Lee Jong Mok, a member of the league's standing committee, said recently that complaints filed with the league about private bugging have been increasing as the lifting of authoritarian controls has helped turn South Korea into a more assertive--and argumentative--society.

Business enemies are bugging each other, he said, and management is tapping phones and eavesdropping on conversations in labor union offices. At the same time, he said, politicians are listening in on their rivals, and foreign investors, including American and Japanese businessmen, have been accused of bugging their employees.

"Companies bug individual workers who have complaints against management to find an excuse to fire them," said Kang Seung Hee, another member of the standing committee.

Dealers in the Seun electronics market in downtown Seoul report that women are buying the devices to check on their husbands. And some men, the dealers said, appear to be checking on their wives.

Although sales of the devices are illegal, South Korea has no law against their use, except by employees of the government-run telephone company, Lee said. Worse yet, he added, the courts regularly accept as evidence information provided by listening devices.

As a result of the increasing complaints, Lee said, the Human Rights League has undertaken a campaign to outlaw bugging completely, along with the secret recording of telephone conversations. A bill has been submitted to the National Assembly but, contrary to the league's wishes, it would allow the courts to authorize the police to eavesdrop on conversations if national security issues are involved.

Kang said that police suspicions of national security violations have often included virtually any anti-government activity, and he charged that the independence of the courts is not assured.

"It's doubtful that the courts in Korea would turn down any request," he said.

Lee said the league received 32 bugging complaints last year and has received 10 so far this year, "but we believe those complaints represent no more than 10% of the actual cases."

Dealers in the Seun market say they sell all the bugging devices they can obtain.

Most of the bugging devices are smuggled in from Japan or Taiwan, and most of the customers, a dealer said, want Japanese models, which sell for around $225. Korean-made devices cost as little as $42, he said, but "since buyers are always in desperate need, we can charge four to five times the cost."

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