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[Editorial] Apolitical spy agency

[Editorial] Apolitical spy agency

Intelligence gathering needs to be bolstered

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Published : 2013-12-08 19:25
Updated : 2013-12-08 19:25

The impending process of depoliticizing the National Intelligence Service will undoubtedly be anything but smooth, with the rival parties still wide apart on how to reform the agency. Yet, a politically neutral national intelligence agency will be good for the nation, if not for whichever party is in power.

The ruling Saenuri Party, favoring the status quo, wishes to continue to get access to the spy agency’s confidential information, be it about what is happening in North Korea or about a domestic development that may become politically explosive if no action is taken. On the other hand, the main opposition Democratic Party desires to clip its wings and, by doing so, to keep it from meddling in domestic politics, as it seems to have done in the run-up to the presidential election last year.

But the conflict over the reform of the spy agency derives from the Saenuri Party’s arrogance, the Democratic Party’s defeatism and both parties’ shortsightedness. It appears as if they unwarrantedly believe that a party will continue to be in power once it takes power. Otherwise, there should be no reason for the Saenuri Party to oppose a reform aimed at making the spy agency apolitical, or for the Democratic Party to make an all-out effort to emaciate it to the detriment of its intelligence-gathering capacity.

The National Intelligence Service, like any other government agency, is not allowed to engage in political activities. But the statutory ban is hardly administered by the spy agency faithfully, as highlighted by comments made by its agents about the opposition presidential candidate during the previous presidential election.

Given the strict chain of command at the spy agency and the clandestine nature of its operations, it is not easy for any agent to blow the whistle on political intervention by the agency or to defy an unlawful order from above. No wonder its directors, invariably handpicked from among those closest to the president, are tempted to launch illegal operations out of loyalty, as Won Sei-hoon, the previous director, did when he allegedly ordered the online smear campaign ahead of last year’s election.

As such, one of the most effective ways to prevent the spy agency from intervening in political affairs is to make it institutionally impossible for its agents to engage in domestic operations. One proposal that merits serious consideration in this regard is to restrict its operations to gathering intelligence on North Korea and other foreign countries and hand over its counterintelligence function to the prosecution and the police.

The spy agency has retained its counterintelligence function on the assumption that it helps enhance its capacity for intelligence gathering. Few would say the assumption is misplaced. Still, the nation has had to pay too high a price, with the spy agency frequently abusing its counterintelligence powers to intervene in domestic politics.

Now, it is time to seriously consider separating intelligence gathering from counterintelligence operations, as is often done in other countries. Of course, this is not to weaken the spy agency’s intelligence-gathering capacity. It can be bolstered when the resources for counterintelligence are diverted to intelligence gathering. It goes without saying that additional resources, or even more, must be appropriated for intelligence gathering if it is deemed necessary for security reasons.

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