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[Editorial] Security void

Starting this year, police take over anticommunist investigations

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 2, 2024 - 05:31

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Starting this year, the National Intelligence Service has taken its hands off anticommunist investigations entirely, handing the job to the police, who have taken full charge.

Anticommunist investigations target violations of the National Security Law, such as espionage and anti-government activities. It was one of the main duties of the intelligence agency.

The police say they are well prepared to assume the role, but public concern is still great.

The previous Moon Jae-in administration pushed hard to strip the intelligence agency of its control of anticommunist investigations. The then-ruling Democratic Party of Korea with a large majority passed the National Intelligence Service Law revision bill through the National Assembly unilaterally on Dec. 13, 2020. But the three-year grace period passed without sufficient preparation by the police.

In a self-evaluation last year, the police rated their own performance of tasks related to anticommunist investigation as “insufficient” or “somewhat insufficient.” They effectively admitted to lacking the ability to conduct such investigations properly.

According to a local news report, 43 of 84 senior police officers who command security crime investigations have less than three years of related experience.

On Dec. 26, the police announced 31 officers to be promoted to deputy chiefs of city and provincial police agencies and other posts in the same grade, but none of them have experience in national security investigations. This indicates that the police still put little importance on the investigation of national security breaches.

The police reportedly plan to increase related manpower to about 700 this year. It is necessary to increase investigation personnel, but when it comes to catching spies, highly trained agents are essential.

While the police are beginners, spies use increasingly cutting-edge techniques to disguise their secret messages. They are said to hide messages somewhere in image or music files. Even veteran agents of the National Intelligence Service had a hard time finding real evidence though they spent more than 10 years tracking suspects.

It is questionable whether the police can complete investigations successfully with the shortage of experience and personnel.

Spies often make contacts abroad so it is important to gather intelligence abroad. These days, they evade domestic surveillance by meeting with North Korean agents in China and Southeast Asia. About two-thirds of spy suspects caught over the past five years are said to have contacted agents abroad.

If it is necessary to trail suspects abroad, cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies is needed. But the police have limits in getting such cooperation because they have no overseas counter-espionage networks.

It is difficult for the police to replace the National Intelligence Service in the fields involving foreign intelligence agencies and gathering human intelligence.

North Korea has never given up its ambition of communizing South Korea. It has not let up on its espionage operations to subvert the government in the South. It is true that some people at home act in support of North Korean totalitarianism. To weaken anticommunist investigation in such circumstances only raises public anxiety.

National Security Law violations are crimes that threaten the democracy and public security of South Korea. The National Intelligence Service has investigated spy cases since the establishment of the nation’s first intelligence agency in 1961. As far as the National Security Law is concerned, the service has more know-how than anyone else. Experience in espionage investigations and overseas counter-espionage cannot be acquired overnight.

Cutting out the NIS only serves Pyongyang's interests. Few intelligence agencies in the world would be stripped of the power to investigate spy cases.

A new National Assembly to be launched after the general elections in April must dispel public anxiety over a void of security by restoring the NIS’ power to run anticommunist investigations.