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Debate brews over spy agency’s anticommunist probe role

Gap widens between rival parties over direction of NIS reform

Debate persists over how to reform the politically contested and controversy-ridden National Intelligence Service, with rival parties poles apart on the direction and their differences amplified by a recent case involving allegedly pro-North Korea politicians.

At the center of the dispute is the NIS’ political role and its powers to conduct anticommunist investigations, which have been the flash point in any discussion of the agency’s reform.

The main opposition Democratic Party is close to finalizing its proposal to reform the NIS as part of its move against the spy agency’s purported political interference in last year’s presidential election through a smear campaign.

Its drive, however, appeared to lose steam with the opening of investigations by the NIS and prosecution into Unified Progressive Party members, including Rep. Lee Seok-ki. The probes have provided fodder for conservatives who support the spy agency’s role as an anticommunist investigative body.

Considering how NIS reform has been a bottomless pit of debate, the political discussion over how to overhaul the agency appears less than hopeful despite the overwhelming calls from the public.

President Park Geun-hye and the leaders of the two major parties are set to meet on Monday with the NIS reform expected to be the main agenda, but prospects for progress of the discussion appear dim as fresh source of political contention emerged upon prosecutor general Chae Dong-wook’s offer to resign last week which the opposition claims is a result of political pressure.

A survey by the Public Opinion Studies Center of Asan Institute for Policy Studies on Thursday showed that nearly half, or 45.5 percent, of the public believed the NIS probe into the alleged rebellion conspiracy by Lee Seok-ki was an attempt to evade reform.

While 74.3 percent said they believed the allegations to be true, a large majority, or 82.9 percent, still said reforming the NIS was crucial regardless of the investigation.

“Because the people view the two issues independently, it appears it is left to political circles to deal with the probe and the NIS reform separately to achieve the desired outcome,” said Kim Ji-yoon of the research center.

Reforming the NIS has been a popular subject upon the launch of every new administration.

In May 2003 for instance, the then-opposition Grand National Party, the precursor to the Saenuri Party, discussed closing down the NIS and setting up an overseas intelligence agency in its place to work on gathering intelligence on North Korea and overseas, without any investigative rights.

At the time, the roles were reversed, as the GNP, floundering from its 2002 presidential election defeat, accused the NIS of interfering with the election through illegal wiretapping.

Upon then-President Roh Moo-hyun’s designation of a new NIS director, the GNP demanded abolishment of the agency and the resignation of its chief.

The situation is eerily similar to the present, where the DP is accusing the NIS of interfering with last year’s presidential election and calling for its director Nam Jae-joon to step down.

The DP’s NIS reform plans are likely to include: abolishment of the investigation authority and the collection of domestic intelligence; moving its planning and coordination function to the National Security Council; strengthening control by the National Assembly through budget audits; and getting rid of the privileges of NIS agents regarding investigation or disciplinary action.

There are, however, differences even within the DP over whether to eradicate all of the agency’s investigative rights.

Removing the investigative function of the NIS has long been demanded by progressive activist groups such as the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and Minbyun-Lawyers for a Democratic Society.

Eliminating the function would be to abolish the so-called “duty as judicial police officers” of NIS agents.

Under Article 16 of the National Intelligence Service Act, NIS personnel upon nomination by the director will assume duties of judicial police officers and military judicial officers to perform the scope of duties stipulated in Article 3.

According to Article 3, NIS agents are responsible for collecting, compiling and distributing domestic public security information regarding communists, any acts to overthrow the government, espionage, terror or international crime organizations. It is also responsible for investigating crimes of insurrection or rebellion or those stated in the National Security Act.

Critics argue that such investigative rights held by the NIS are prone to abuse or infringe on human rights, and are easily manipulated for political surveillance.

They contend that such investigations can be handled by the police and the prosecution belonging to the national security divisions.

Supporters of the NIS current powers, on the other hand, argue that the spy agency’s investigative rights at present are conducted as prescribed by law.

They insist that the goal of North Korea to undermine the South Korean government and the widened means of sabotage such as terrorism and cyber attacks make the NIS’ role indispensable.

Others point out that the deep-rooted antagonism toward the NIS stems from its “original sin” of having served as the watchdog for the oppressive rules through the struggling years of democracy between the 60s and the 80s, and that the remnants of its authoritative role are hard to shake off.

For now, the Saenuri Party looks to put the brakes on any large-scale reform by riding on the heightened anticommunist wave following Lee’s probe.

Saenuri floor leader Rep. Choi Kyung-hwan said in a radio interview on Tuesday, “The argument by the opposition to remove the domestic function or the anticommunist investigation part is not so much different than saying let’s give wings to the pro-North forces and the spies.”

The Saenuri Party’s Rep. Kim Jin-tae, a former prosecutor, underscored the invective toward the DP for having aligned with the UPP in last year’s general elections.

“The DP is demanding to abolish the NIS’ anticommunist investigation authority when it should be reflecting upon itself as resentment is heavily directed toward them for having played host to the cancerous pro-North forces. It’s the same as a thief demanding the abolishment of the police.”

The DP, for its part, contended the investigation capacity of the police and the prosecution were sufficient, especially considering the poor record of successful anticommunism investigations by the NIS in recent years.

“Many have been indicted by the spy agency over the years, but many of them have been proven innocent, not to mention the public harboring deep distrust over the NIS investigations. There is a need for the agency to be reborn into an intelligence organization that is better trusted,” said Rep. Moon Byeong-ho of the DP and a member of the party’s committee for NIS Act reform.

“There is no problem in transferring (the NIS’) investigation authority to the police and the prosecution, both of which already have anticommunist investigative bureaus. When needed, we can create an exclusive organization for the anticommunist investigation where the NIS agents can be dispatched to,” he said.

By Lee Joo-hee (
Korea Herald daum