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[Editorial] NIS reform

Use of agency to protect administration should be banned

A National Intelligence Service committee to reform the agency said it would push for a revision to the National Intelligence Service Act this year.

The main points of the revision include the transfer of anticommunist investigations to the police, the clarification of the NIS’ role, the enhancement of transparency of its budget execution and the encouragement of the rejection of illegal orders.

The task force vowed to work to restart the NIS with a clean slate as an agency devoted to national security.

NIS reforms should be institutionalized by necessity, not out of choice, as the corruption within the agency has been exposed through recent prosecutorial investigations.

During the past two conservative presidencies, the agency was found to have done unlawful activities to safeguard the administrations. It operated a team of civilians and NIS retirees that left internet comments critical of the opposition and blacklisted cultural figures.

Won Sei-hoon, the agency’s director under President Lee Myung-bak, is serving a four-year prison term for running the cyber comment team. All of the three NIS directors who served President Park Geun-hye face indictment for giving part of their “special activity” budgets to her aides. Arrest warrants have been sought for them.

Key to renovating the agency is eradicating problems from the source. The root cause of the NIS degenerating into a tool to protect those in government lies in the power which uses it for its own sake rather than the agency itself.

Giving money to Cheong Wa Dae out of NIS directors’ special activity accounts each month at its request cannot be excused under the plea that it was customary, and yet it is not only the NIS directors that should be blamed. Few intelligence chiefs would refuse presidential demands. It is fair to level accusations at the president who demanded the money.

The NIS for one will have to think better of safeguarding the regime, while the president should be banned from using the agency to defend his or her power.

Probably the most controversial issue in revising the NIS Act is whether it should hand over anticommunist investigations to the police. During his campaign, President Moon Jae-in vowed to transfer the NIS’ anticommunist investigation authority to a security investigation bureau he would set up within the National Police Agency.

The NIS and opposition parties oppose the plan, arguing that it is too early to do that in a situation where the nation confronts the communist North Korea along their heavily fortified border. The agency’s accumulated capabilities of preventing and detecting enemy espionage and protecting its spies is more important than ever in the current security crisis. Considering that anticommunist espionage and investigations involving North Korea are directly related to the security and survival of the nation, the gains and losses of the plan needs be examined over a long period.

The refusal of illegal orders is well meaning, but it is questionable how realistic it is. It is practically impossible for a subordinate to reject his or her superior’s orders in an organization. An institutionalized mechanism is needed to protect those who refuse illegal orders from any disadvantage.

Most worrisome in reforming the NIS is that the anticommunist and counterespionage bulwark may crumble.

It is feared that arresting chiefs of the spy agency who worked under conservative regimes and portraying them as “evils to root out” will dampen the morale of its agents and weaken its proper functions. No wonder intelligence agencies of other countries will unlikely give sensitive information to or share it with a country whose intelligence chiefs are punished as the administration changes. Who would be happy to see the chiefs of South Korean spy agencies under the conservative governments arrested?

For the NIS to be reborn as an intelligence agency trusted by the people, it must become an organization devoted to national interests and security. It must not be a tool to defend power. Reform can succeed when it is done both from within and without.