Still adjusting to democracy

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Still adjusting to democracy

The prosecution indicted a former chief of the National Intelligence Service without detention on charges of violating election and national intelligence service laws for his and the agency’s meddling in last year’s presidential election campaign. The case raises questions about the fundamental role of the spy agency.

A special investigation team of the prosecution launched a probe in April to find out whether the NIS was behind online smear campaigns against rival candidate Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic Party. Some have claimed that Won Sei-hoon, who was then in charge of the agency, ordered a campaign to prevent opposition parties, civilian organizations and labor unions from entering the political mainstream by labeling them as “pro-North Korea” forces. A cyber-espionage team was allegedly formed to systematically track, intervene in and disrupt online activities of the groups and individuals on cyberspace through negative comments and protests on their Web sites and blogs. Their activities were reported to Won. According to the prosecution, the negative comments about Moon added up to 73 and click tallies related to election surveys reached 1,281.

The court will decide on Won’s legal responsibility. But regardless of the legal implications of his actions, Won’s involvement in the affair cannot be considered normal for the National Intelligence Agency’s chief. Since he took office, the agency primarily served to assist the president and support government policies. In April 2010, Won claimed that unifying liberal candidates to defeat the ruling party candidate was effectively an order from Pyongyang. In December 2012, he said pro-North Korean forces were collaborating with Pyongyang to regain governing power.

Such comments hardly have any relationship with the agency’s genuine role of safeguarding national defense and security.

It is unthinkable for a top security agency to mobilize its elite spy agents to tamper with public opinion. Such actions undermine state authority and democracy. If government power and resources are spent and wasted in other areas as well, national security could be at risk.

The agency must act fast to restore its credibility following Won’s indictment. It must eliminate the old mind-set that to serve the president is to serve the nation. The agency must recreate itself to accommodate today’s political system and the democratic world.

We no longer want to see an intelligence chief on trial when a new government takes office.
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