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Spy agency to lose power to probe cases involving N. Korea

The National Intelligence Service. (Yonhap)
The National Intelligence Service. (Yonhap)
The National Intelligence Service will not be able to investigate activities related to North Korea or gather domestic intelligence from 2024, when a law passed Sunday takes effect.

The law also makes it explicit that the NIS must avoid involvement in politics.

Police will assume the power to probe cases involving North Korea after the three-year grace period.

The change in responsibility marks a major turning point in the agency’s 63-year history. In his election campaign President Moon Jae-in had pledged to increase the Assembly’s oversight of the principal intelligence service, which his administration describes as running unchecked.

The agency has faced criticism for abusing its powers in linking individuals to North Korea to aid in their prosecution and collecting domestic intelligence to achieve political ends.

In 2018, Won Sei-hoon, former head of the NIS, was jailed for trying to influence online opinion ahead of the 2012 presidential election by instructing the agency to post comments critical of Moon, who was a presidential candidate at the time. Moon lost the election to his conservative rival Park Geun-hye.

Won, then serving under the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration, was seen as helping Park to win on the assumption that she would build on Lee’s legacies. Won is still standing trial on separate charges, including directing politically motivated investigations into two liberal former presidents.

President Moon, successor to the ousted Park Geun-hye, who was later convicted of bribery and abuses of power, was elected on a platform of reforming the country’s key law enforcement agencies -- the NIS, prosecutors’ office and police.

The NIS and prosecutors’ office, in particular, have failed to live up to their mandates and their powers should be realigned for a just, fair society, according to Moon. He has championed reassigning some of their powers to other organizations.

Police have been empowered in the process. Not only will they be able to look into North Korea-related cases, but they will be on a more equal footing with prosecutors from next year.

Currently, police must take direction from prosecutors over every investigation when called for, but an amendment passed in January made it so that police will be able to open and close cases on their own.

Prosecutors in the meantime have seen their powers reduced, with a new independent body to take over investigations of prosecutors and ranking government officials facing corruption charges.

“We’ve just laid out the democratic groundwork for those agencies -- the NIS, prosecutors’ office and police -- to work for the people and not rule over them,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun wrote on Facebook.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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