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NIS reform: Unfinished business

NIS reform: Unfinished business

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Published : 2014-01-01 20:07
Updated : 2014-01-01 20:07

Democratic Party lawmakers propose an adjournment to Prime Minister Jung Hong-won (left) at the National Assem­bly in the early hours of Wednesday. Members of parliament later passed the long-awaited National Intelligence Service reform bill along with key budgetary legislation as the clock ticked past midnight on New Year’s Eve. (Yonhap News)

Still more work awaits parliament’s special committee on National Intelligence Service reform in the New Year, despite lawmakers successfully legislating related landmark bills on Tuesday.

Major amendments inserted into the NIS Act included explicit prohibitions against state spies from “participating in political campaigns through information telecommunications,” and increased penalties against those found guilty of illegal electioneering.

The hard won amendments, attained in response to accusations that the NIS illicitly interfered in the 2012 presidential elections, risk losing their political significance if lawmakers do not reach agreements on important details.

Whether to leave anti-communist investigative rights with the NIS is a particularly thorny issue among lawmakers from both the ruling Saenuri Party and the main opposition Democratic Party. Saenuri Party representatives call for leaving the investigative powers with the agency, citing the need to allow spy operatives to eavesdrop on telecommunication networks for intelligence-gathering purposes.

DP lawmakers, on the other hand, adamantly oppose such reforms.

“I say this as an ordinary lawmaker and not a committee chief, but frankly, I think the anti-communist investigative rights should be transferred over to prosecutors and police officials,” said DP Rep. Chung Sye-kyun, who also serves as the head of parliament’s special committee on NIS reform.

Equally cumbersome is the issue of allowing NIS officers into government agencies without prior authorization. DP lawmakers have vigorously called for laws that unequivocally ban state spies from entering government offices, while Saenuri’s lawmakers and security experts have called for allowing the NIS to write related in-house regulations on the agency’s own initiative.

“I don’t know what exactly the DP wants with this,” said Yang Uk, a senior researcher with the Korea Defense and Security Forum. “But if this means preventing even liaison officers from the NIS entering government buildings, this could become a problem.”

Amendments passed on Tuesday took a somewhat compromising tone, stating, “NIS agents will be prohibited from entering media outlets, political parties and government agencies if such acts violate existing laws and regulations.”

“You can understand the amendment as having taken 60 percent of its tone from the Saenuri Party and 40 percent from the DP,” a senior National Assembly official told The Korea Herald on Wednesday, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “There will be some noise ahead concerning this,” he added.

The NIS will report proposals for setting up in-house regulations concerning the issue by the end of February to parliament’s special committee.

The special committee on NIS reform was founded last month to resolve weeks of bickering between the Saenuri Party and the DP regarding allegations of NIS agents posting online comments favoring the then-ruling camp candidate Park Geun-hye during the 2012 presidential elections. Election laws forbid public officials from participating in political campaigns.

Court proceedings trying former NIS Director Won Sei-hoon, who has been charged with masterminding the reported 2012 NIS election meddling operation, are still ongoing, while President Park has kept quiet about the issue.

Important clauses inserted in the NIS Act and related bills on Tuesday were aimed to prevent future election scandals. Other amended clauses obligated the NIS Director to report a detailed receipt of the spy agency’s budget to parliament’s intelligence committee, and empowered junior NIS officers with refusal rights against potentially unlawful orders.

By Jeong Hunny (

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