(LEAD) Parties bicker over spy chief's secret meeting with influential figure of ruling party
(ATTN: ADDS reaction from presidential office in paras 14-16; UPDATES with more info throughout)
SEOUL, May 28 (Yonhap) -- Rival parties on Tuesday continued to bicker over whether a closed-door meeting between the state intelligence chief and the director of the ruling party's think tank might constitute a violation of political neutrality by the intelligence organ.
Last week, Suh Hoon, director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), had a four-hour dinner meeting with Yang Jeong-cheol, a confidant of President Moon Jae-in who now serves as director of the ruling Democratic Party's (DP) think tank, according to a report by The Fact, an online news outlet.
The report has sparked a political controversy as opposition parties raised suspicions about the spy agency's suspected attempt to intervene in the 2020 general elections.
Yang, a public relations secretary for the late former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, has recently returned to the political scene after staying away from politics on overseas trips following Moon's election win.
By assuming the role of director of the Institute for Democracy, Yang vowed efforts for unity for the party's victory in parliamentary elections next April.
Yang said in a text message to reporters that the latest dinner was a private meeting where sensitive political issues were not discussed.
But conservative opposition parties, including the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP), raised the level of political attacks, even though they have no detailed facts about Suh's conversations with Yang.
"It is hard to dispel strong suspicions that the spy chief's secret meeting with the influential official of the ruling party may herald the start of the NIS' intervention in elections," LKP floor leader Na Kyung-won said at a meeting with party officials.
The NIS was under fire for its suspected involvement in domestic politics during previous conservative governments, including the agency's online smear campaign ahead of the presidential election in 2012.
Some NIS agents were suspected of being mobilized to post online comments to sway public opinion in favor of the then-ruling conservative party ahead of the 2012 vote. Moon was defeated by conservative candidate Park Geun-hye.
President Moon has been pushing for NIS reform to prohibit it from intervening in domestic politics and make it focus on overseas operations.
LKP lawmakers visited the headquarters of the NIS in an expression of its protest. It plans to file a complaint with the prosecution against Suh over alleged violation of political neutrality.
The minor opposition Bareunmirae Party, the third-largest party, raised the need to open a meeting of the parliamentary intelligence committee to grill Suh over the controversy.
Opposition parties have raised the suspicion that the NIS is seeking to intervene in the 2020 elections. In response, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae called that a "far-fetched" interpretation.
"Nothing has changed in our stance over the spy agency's alleged intervention in politics ... The meeting is known to have been private," a presidential official told reporters.
"It is not an issue that Cheong Wa Dae can talk about. Commenting on the issue can make rival parties' relations difficult," he added.
Lee In-young, floor leader of the ruling DP, cast a similar view, expressing negative views about the convening of a panel meeting.
"I've heard that the two held a private meeting. It is rather strange to interpret the meeting as having a political meaning," Lee told reporters.
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