The special parliamentary committee for reforming the spy agency is briefed by National Intelligence Service chief Nam Jae-Joo (front row) on the agency’s reform plans on Thursday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
The National Intelligence Service on Thursday reported to the National Assembly its reform plans including banning its agents’ activities inside the parliament, parties and media outlets and obligating them to sign an oath pledging not to participate in political campaigns.
The pledges however failed to satisfy the main opposition party which calls for more drastic reforms including a prohibition of domestic surveillance activities which it suspects of being disguised political maneuvering.
NIS chief Nam Jae-joon submitted a list of prospective ways to improve the agency to the parliament’s special committee on NIS reform, which resumed operations after two days of hiatus caused by partisan wrangling.
The bureau’s long-awaited self-improvement plan focused on preventing the NIS from illegally interfering in political campaigns and strengthening its counterespionage operations against North Korea.
Nam suggested taking away free passage rights allowing intelligence agents to enter the buildings of the National Assembly, political parties and media outlets at will. It also calls for creating a workgroup to review unlawful orders.
To better fight cyber attacks, it demanded refining laws authorizing NIS agents to conduct psychological warfare against the North and setting up an in-house watchdog team to oversee the psychological warfare unit.
The top intelligence official also proposed recruiting lawyers who could serve as legal advisors in politically sensitive operations.
As investigations into allegations that the NIS illegally interfered in the 2012 presidential elections gained momentum, cries to reform the NIS acquired more and more proponents.
Korea’s attempt to ameliorate the NIS, however, presents policymakers with a dilemma.
On the one hand, with the NIS being accused of having posted pro-Park Geun-hye and anti-opposition comments on Internet sites before voters went to the polls last year, calls to limit the intelligence agency’s authority sound convincing. But as the recent downfall of North Korea’s number-two man Jang Song-thaek shows, arguments for an adept intelligence community sound equally reasonable.
The rival parties differ on key issues surrounding the proposal.
“Opposition members on the committee viewed (Nam’s) proposals as largely failing to meet our expectations of reforming the NIS … The DP will only use these proposals as points of reference as we finalize the amendments (to related bills),” said Rep. Moon Byeong-ho of the opposition Democratic Party.
But, Rep. Kim Jae-won of the Saenuri Party said to reporters, “The proposals from the NIS show a willingness to self-improve the institution.” The two parliament members had conveyed their opinions earlier in the day when they both appeared on a radio show.
Saenuri and DP representatives, in particular, disagree on whether the NIS should preserve its domestic espionage unit. The unit had served as an anticommunist government branch during the Cold War, but with prosecutors investigating the spy agency for having potentially violated election laws, the DP argues that the domestic unit should forfeit a number of powers.
The special parliamentary committee on NIS reform had begun discussions on Monday but conservatives on the bipartisan panel boycotted meetings after two DP lawmakers made controversial remarks about President Park. Panel members resumed their work on Wednesday after senior party officials from both sides agreed on the urgency of reforming the NIS.
The committee will hold public hearings and review multiple bills related to the NIS next week.
By Jeong Hunny