Uphill battle for NIS nominee

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jun 11, 2014 - 20:57
  • Updated : Jun 11, 2014 - 20:57
An uphill battle lies ahead for Lee Byung-kee, the nominee for National Intelligence Service chief as he is expected to face a tough grilling during his confirmation hearing and the herculean task of restoring public confidence in the scandal-ridden institution.

President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday nominated Lee, Seoul’s ambassador to Japan and one of her closest confidants, to lead the NIS, triggering opposition from her political foes who argue that the nomination was a political move to strengthen her grip over the spy agency.

“The nomination indicates that (Park) wants the NIS to do (things) that are just palatable to her administration. It directly shows that there will be no reform in the NIS in the future,” Han Jeong-ae, spokesperson of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, told reporters.
President Park Geun-hye and Lee Byung-kee, National Intelligence Service chief nominee, pose for a photo after Park conferred a letter of credence for his appointment as Seoul’s ambassador to Japan in May last year. (Yonhap)

For a decade, Lee has been an influential political mentor for Park. He worked as a vice chairman of Park’s campaign during her intraparty race for presidential nomination in 2007 and an advisor during her presidential campaign in 2012.

Lee is also known to have suggested to Park in 2004 that her then-opposition party set up a tent for its headquarters to underscore her resolve to reform the party, which was suffering from the fallout of its partisan move to impeach then-President Roh Moo-hyun.

The so-called “tent” headquarters helped the embattled party restore public trust and raised Park’s clout within the then-Grand National Party, the precursor to the Saenuri Party.

Observers say during Lee’s confirmation hearing opposition lawmakers are likely to take issue with his accumulation of wealth. Lee’s properties are known to be worth 2.6 billion won ($2.55 million), which critics say is too much given that he has not had a stable job since he resigned as vice director of the intelligence agency in 1998.

After what is expected to be a grueling confirmation process, Lee is set to undertake the prodigious undertaking of reforming the NIS, which has faced public criticism for a series of scandals including its alleged interference in the 2012 presidential election and fabrication of court evidence in an espionage case.

With his political acumen and experience in diplomatic affairs, Lee served as an influential aide to former Presidents Roh Tae-woo and Kim Young-sam, and conservative political heavyweight Lee Hoi-chang.

After graduating from the diplomacy department of Seoul National University in 1971, he passed the state diplomatic service examination and started his life as a diplomat. He worked at the Korean embassies in Switzerland and Kenya.

Under the 1993-98 Kim Young-sam administration, he served as vice director of the spy agency in charge of overseas affairs and North Korean issues. He organized the project to help Hwang Jang-yop, former secretary of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, defect to the South.

By Song Sang-ho (