Spy agency likely to become No.1 target of reform

The National Intelligence Service, located in Naegok-dong, southern Seoul, faces mounting calls to revamp itself. The spy agency has been at the center of political turmoil during the last two conservative governments due to its alleged ties to those in power. / Korea Times file

By Choi Ha-young

South Korea’s spy agency conducted illegal surveillance on the Constitutional Court’s judges, according to a former National Intelligence Service (NIS) agent reported by broadcaster SBS.

The news hit the NIS March 4, amid growing confusion ahead of the Constitutional Court’s ruling to unseat President Park Geun-hye, Friday.

Opposition parties and presidential hopefuls blasted the agency. According to law, the NIS cannot gather intelligence on domestic affairs, except those involving terrorism, espionage or crime rings.

“The necessity to totally reform the NIS became clearer,” said Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), odds-on favorite to become the next president. “There’s no alternative other than the turnover of political power.”

In January, Moon pledged to change the NIS’s role in collecting domestic information, echoing civic groups’ longtime calls. “I will revamp it as a capable intelligence agency focusing on North Korea, security, terrorism and international crime,” he said.

The National Assembly, concerned about potential pressures on the court’s ruling, called an Intelligence Committee meeting on Mar. 7. During the meeting, NIS chief Lee Byung-ho admitted there was a department in charge of judicial circles, but denied tailing and wiretapping justices. Opposition lawmakers said the NIS has conducted surveillance in the form of intelligence reports.

The special counsel team further affirmed the NIS was behind the government’s blacklisting of artists. Citing Lee’s testimony, the team reportedly said the agency even created a “whitelist” to fund organizations favorable to the conservative government.

Deja vu

Kwon Young-hae
Won Sei-hoon

Unfortunately, this is not the first time the NIS has made headlines amid decisive national moments. Last April 8, five days before the general election, the Ministry of Unification suddenly revealed 13 North Korean defectors had arrived in Seoul.

Later, civic groups and human rights lawyers raised doubts that the NIS engineered the defections. The defections took only two days, while most defections through China take at least one month.

The DPK has worries about the NIS’s engagement in domestic politics. During the 2012 presidential election, an agent was caught by Democratic United Party officials manipulating public opinion on social media in favor of Park Geun-hye, at that time the ruling party’s presidential candidate.

However, prosecutors failed to review the case thoroughly. Rather, prosecutor Yun Seok-yeol, who led investigation team, was demoted after exposing high-level intervention. “I couldn’t obey the order not to investigate the serious electoral crime,” said Yun, who returned as a member of the special counsel team probing President Park.

The NIS was busy on domestic affairs under former President Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. Yet, it remained in the dark when former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died in 2011. Its chief at the time, Lee’s associate Won Sei-hoon, learned of it from Pyongyang’s announcement.

The NIS’s actions against liberal politicians date to 1997. Before the presidential election, some campaigners from the conservative Grand National Party, the Liberty Korea Party’s predecessor, asked North Korean soldiers to fire at the South to create a bad environment for liberal candidate Kim Dae-jung.

Kwon Young-hae, then head of the intelligence agency, was sentenced to five years in prison following the act to benefit the enemy. Recently, Kwon, 80, is continuing a hunger strike to protect Park’s presidency as her staunch loyalist.

Tension lingers between liberal figures and the NIS. Human rights lawyer-turned-presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung of the DPK has filed a lawsuit against an NIS agent who allegedly investigated his academic background.

In 2013, Rep. Jin Sun-mee of the DPK unveiled a document that shows the NIS’s manipulation of public opinion against Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, a DPK member who dropped out of the presidential race. “The anger against the NIS made me enter politics,” Park said in an interview.

Reset the NIS

Rep. Jin organized a discussion in the National Assembly on Mar. 8 about the troubled spy agency. Panels commonly insisted on removing the NIS’s authority to investigate.

“NIS staff members are entitled to investigate as judicial police officers,” said lawyer Kim Yong-min, a member of Lawyers for a Democratic Society. “When asked about the report of the inspection to check its lawfulness, they can easily make an excuse that it was information collection, to evade legal binding.”

Overseas, spy agencies such as the CIA of the United States, MI6 of the United Kingdom, the Federal Intelligence Service of Germany and Mossad of Israel do not have the authority to investigate their own citizens.

However, in a divided nation under the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea, national security easily overwhelms human rights. Amid such public opinion, the panels emphasized that reform doesn’t mean “abolition” of the investigative function, rather a “relocation” of the function.

As a leading presidential contender, Moon vowed to transfer the authority to the police. But Rep. Park Ju-min of the DPK called for a comprehensive approach involving reform of the police and the prosecution.

“I’m not sure if the nation’s police and prosecutors have enough democracy,” Park said. “This means the reform of the NIS should go along with reforms of other investigative agencies.”

The Assembly’s supervision of the NIS’s activity and budget is crucial. The agency spends up to 500 billion won ($432.15 million) a year, plus has 400 million won in a reserve fund.

“The Assembly’s Intelligence Committee is not allowed to review the budget in detail,” Shin Kyoung-min of the DPK, a committee member, told The Korea Times. “Unlike other committees, accountants or aides with expertise cannot attend the budget review.”

For tighter checks and balances, Professor Lee Jea-seung of Konkuk University Law School proposed progressive lawmakers’ mandatory participation in the committee. Currently, only those in the negotiation bodies are qualified to serve.

Liberal government’s failure

During the National Assembly discussions, investigative journalist Choi Seong-ho from Newstapa expressed frustration at liberal politicians he felt were advocating for the victims of the NIS.

Obviously, the NIS was better behaved under the two liberal Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. During Kim’s term, the NIS was called a “peacemaker,” playing an active part in the background to solve conflicts with Pyongyang.

It is well known that the two leaders did not abuse the organization under their direct supervision. Kim Dang, a retired journalist who specialized in the agency, cited a conservative lawmaker’s remark in 2000 under the Kim administration: “We even hired a private detective to catch the NIS’s engagement in the election, but found nothing.”

However, the two administrations failed to institutionalize reform, which led to the agency’s recurring illegalities. “This is not a matter of individual spies,” said lawyer Lee Sock-bum, who once worked for the NIS as a legislative officer. “The Roh administration did a successful job to reflect on the NIS’s crimes, but the change was not institutionalized.”

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