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Korean police officer arrested for leaking information about Lee Sun-kyun’s investigation

By Erica Hwang 

A senior police officer was arrested for allegedly leaking investigative information about actor Lee Sun-kyun who was suspected of drug use and committed suicide in December 2023.  

The arrest by Gyeonggi Southern Police Agency’s Anti-Corruption and Economic Crime Investigation Unit on March 21st, 2024, came after a two-month investigation into how the Incheon Police Agency handled the actor’s privacy.

The police officer, who is suspected of leaking a report about Lee’s suspected drug use case to the press, is not a member of the investigation team.

The press was alerted when Lee was summoned for three investigations by the Incheon Police Agency from October to December 2023. 

Fans took to an Instagram fan page of Lee Sun-kyun to mourn his death.

Renowned for his role in the Academy Award-winning film Parasite, the South Korean actor earned several awards including the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture in 2019 and the Asian Pop-Up Cinema Award for Excellent Achievement in Film in 2023. 

On December 27, 2023, Lee was found dead in a vehicle in a parking lot near Waryong Park in Seoul. The death was marked as a suicide by the Seoul Seongbuk Police Station.

Lee’s defense lawyer Park Seong-cheol was quoted requesting a private summoning and citing from a statement by a spokesman at the Incheon Police Agency “If Lee Sun-kyun is summoned privately and videos or photos are taken (as if he was hiding), it will be more damaging to the suspect,” as reported by YTN, a Korean news outlet, on January 17th, 2024.

Speaking to the press on December 28th, 2023, Kim Hee-joong, commissioner of the Incheon Police Agency said: “No official permit for press coverage of Lee’s appearances was issued, but information such as the specific dates of Lee’s questioning had ‘somehow’ been leaked,” 

 “Whether individual investigators interacted with the media or answered questions from reporters regarding investigative matters needs to be clarified,”  said Bong Joon-ho, director of Parasite, during a press conference hosted by the Cultural and Artistic Professionals Conference (CAPC) on January 12th, 2024.

The articles listed under Section 4: Media Promotion, Chapter 4: Investigation of “Police Officer Job Regulations to Protect Human Rights” clearly state the law. 

The Korean National Law Information Center provides detailed law on Article 84 regarding the limitation on media disclosure of investigative cases, and Article 85 concerning the prohibition of infringement on portrait rights. 

According to Article 84 (Limitations on media disclosure of investigative cases), “Matters related to honor and privacy, identity, that are not directly related to crime. Detailed information regarding the method of crime and the circumstances of the arrest should not be disclosed,” 

According to Article 85 (Prohibition of infringement on portrait rights), “Police officers must ensure that no scenes are filmed within the police station where the identity of suspects, victims, or other persons involved in the case may be assumed or where the identity may be exposed,” it reads.

There were 4,313 articles about Lee’s drug charges from October 19, 2023, to January 3, 2024, according to data from Korea Press Foundation’s Big Kinds, a news big data and analysis organization. 

They also found 2,855 news stories revealing Lee’s identity from 20 October to 26 December, 2023. 

Chairman of The Hong Kong Journalists Association Ronson Chan Long-sing describes the incident as “unfortunate”. 

“The Hong Kong Police Force releases information through official channels and journalists can call the public relations wing for information about cases for reporting,” Chan says. 

He also adds that the police do not reveal the full name and identity of people under investigation in Hong Kong. 

Regarding details of protocol and protection of individuals when conducting an investigation, the Hong Kong Police Force states they respect press freedom and are obliged to follow the requirements under the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance when responding to an inquiry by Varsity. 

“The Force has the responsibility to provide timely information to the media and the public for preventing and detecting crime. It is to the benefit of the police to maintain a relationship with the media that is based on mutual respect and understanding,” the statement reads.

“However, when disseminating timely information to the media, police are obliged to follow the legal requirements under the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance and ensure that all the important principles governing the disclosure of third-party information under the Code on Access to Information have been complied with. Furthermore, any information disseminated should not affect covert operations and possible judicial procedures,” it adds. 

Edited by Nutcha Hunsanimitkul & Charlotte Wu

Sub-edited by Nicole Li