[Viewpoint] The ‘cleansing’ should stop now

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[Viewpoint] The ‘cleansing’ should stop now

President Lee Myung-bak recently replaced the deputy directors at the National Intelligence Service, calling for a rigorous work ethic in the spy agency. He advised the new senior officials to take control of the organization as quickly as possible.

It is right to define the primary role of the intelligence agency as working for the best interests of the country rather than safeguarding the ruling power. But as a member of the Roh Moo-hyun administration’s task force to oversee an overhaul at the agency I cannot agree with the president’s reference to the agency’s preoccupation with pro-government activities.

When dissident lawyer Roh came to power, he obsessively carried out sweeping reforms to depoliticize the NIS. He named outside members - former human rights lawyer Ko Young-koo and former Justice Minister Kim Seung-kew - as directors to free the agency from political fetters. He also avoided a tete-a-tete with the agency chief lest his voice should interfere with the agency’s independent activities.

Instead, domestic intelligence reports were relayed to the president through the executive office and North Korean and overseas intelligence affairs were relayed through the National Security Council secretariat office. A department to collect information that can benefit national interests was newly installed while other domestic bureaus for domestic clandestine services were closed or merged. People may bear mixed views about the Roh administration but the government should be credited for ensuring the independence of the intelligence service and setting the agency’s priorities right.

In fact, from an expert’s viewpoint, the latest appointment is a far cry from a “professional intelligence service.” Jeon Jae-man, diplomatic minister at the South Korean Embassy in Beijing, was named the first deputy director overseeing foreign intelligence operations and North Korean intelligence. Army Maj. Gen. Lee Jong-myung, a senior planning officer on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, became the third deputy chief in charge of industrial and technology intelligence service.

The two are “professionals” in their fields of foreign and military service, but whether their expertise will work in the intelligence field is questionable. The role of deputy directors is critical especially when the director is also an outside member. The first deputy must be an authority in foreign and North Korean intelligence and the third deputy in modern intelligence affairs in the field of industrial and science and technology, capable of supplementing the director and the president as well as the entire national security.

Authoritative intelligence agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States or British Secret Intelligence Service M16 rarely bring in outside members for senior posts. But currently at the NIS, the director, three deputies and the planning director were all recruited from outside. The composition is hardly an optimum recipe for a loyal and professional intelligence agency.

The president’s command to the new officials to take control over the organization as soon as possible can also be misconstrued. The NIS is under the auspice of the president. It is in danger of turning into an extended secretariat of the president. The agency collects and analyzes information upon orders from the president. Against this backdrop, the presidential order to dominate the agency could easily be misinterpreted.

There were reports that top officials in the agency who specialized in North Korean affairs in past administrations were criticized for being friendly with North Korea had been demoted for their “pro-North Korean tendencies.”

If the new officials were ordered to “take control” of the organization, the rumors sound plausible. Some may argue appointments are the prerogative of whoever is in power. Under such an argument, the anti-North Korean officials in the agency faithfully following the orders of the incumbent government are in danger of being sacked if the next government turns genial toward North Korea.

The NIS’s priority is safeguarding national security, not serving the ruling power. The agents stake their lives in the shadows with extraordinary patriotism. They should no longer be used, victimized and dismissed under the pretext of “reform” and “overhaul.” The “cleansing” at the agency that routinely takes place ever five years should now stop.

*The writer is a political science professor at Yonsei University.

By Moon Chung-in
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