A spy agency gone wrong

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A spy agency gone wrong

I personally have a special attachment for the National Intelligence Service (NIS). I believe the core value of the NIS as the front guard of national security should not be dismissed because of its past service to authoritarian regimes. At my university, I taught “National Intelligence Theories” for the first time in Korea, founded a research group named the National Intelligence Society, and published a textbook on the subject. My devotion led me to take the helm of the NIS Reform Committee at the Blue House at the beginning of the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration.

The president’s guideline for reform was clear. He wanted to make sure a fundamental system was built to prevent the NIS from getting involved in domestic politics. The Blue House’s secretary for NGOs and the secretary for civil affairs, who participated in the committee, wanted to separate the foreign and North Korean intelligence operation from the domestic security function. Only then could the political involvement of the NIS be prevented structurally, they argued.

I, along with other committee members representing intelligence-related agencies, opposed the idea since it was not easy to distinguish foreign and domestic operations in a globalized and information-driven age, and having two separate entities would create two powerful organizations. Moreover, since the Sept. 11, 2011 attacks, intelligence agencies around the world were trying to unify foreign intelligence and domestic security functions. It went against the global trend to divide an already integrated agency. In the end, the committee agreed to maintain the integrated NIS operation while implementing overall reform.

While President Roh approved the proposal, he took various steps to prevent the over-empowerment of the NIS. First, he abolished the practice of the president having private consultation privileges with the NIS chief. Domestic intelligence was to be debriefed through the Blue House policy monitoring office, while the North Korean and foreign intelligence reports came through the National Security Office.

When appointing the NIS chief, the president also chose someone who would abide by the law instead of someone political and close to power. That’s why he promoted Ko Young-koo and Kim Seung-kyu, both of whom have legal backgrounds. Roh’s prescription was effective. The NIS lost its power and the vice of political intervention diminished noticeably.

In retrospect, however, maybe we should have separated the two functions of the agency. The proof is how degraded the NIS became during the five years of the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration. How do we describe an agency that engages in a psychological war by categorizing citizens critical to the administration as “pro-Pyongyang” and orders its agents to post disparaging messages about a former president on the Web when he passes away?

That’s not all. In the process of prosecutors indicting former NIS chief Won Sei-hoon for violating the Election Law and the National Intelligence Service Law, it has been revealed that the NIS was deeply involved in a multitude of elections. Citizens feel betrayed that the top intelligence agency failed to distinguish national security from the administration’s security and worked to undermine the constitutional order, which it should rather defend. We cannot believe that these things are happening in the democratic Republic of Korea in the 21st century.

The declassification of the transcript of the inter-Korean summit in 2007 is a serious issue. A transcript of a conversation between state leaders is generally categorized as top secret. Classifying it as a second-level secret is incredibly unusual, and it is unthinkable to declassify it completely and then hand it over to politicians. While the National Intelligence Service claims that they went through all the appropriate procedures, what is the purpose of making summit meeting transcripts confidential in the first place? The job of an intelligence organization is to collect, analyze, produce and safeguard secret information. Making such information public for “the honor of the agency” or “political circumstances” cannot be justified. The NIS is not an agency that makes political judgments or drafts or implements and promotes policies. That’s a job reserved for the president.

The NIS as an integrated intelligence organization must be reconsidered. Who can trust a spy agency as a pillar of national security when it is more focused on political manipulations? Aside from the North Korean and foreign intelligence operations, foreign counterintelligence and science and technology information operations, all the parts that have the potential to intervene in domestic politics should be drastically removed.

Simple reform to improve the agency’s image is not enough to eradicate the adverse side effects and bad practices that have come to pass. Neither is it sufficient to merely highlight the original function of an intelligence agency. Also, the practice of appointing someone close to the president as the head of the intelligence agency should end right here and now. The agency should be headed by someone with expertise in the field, and a term should be set to guarantee operational independence.

President Park Geun-hye needs to promote a drastic reform of the National Intelligence Service. I believe it is her only chance to prevent candlelight protests from spreading around the nation and to escape heavy political responsibility. Also, it’s the only way to save Korea’s national security at the same time.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.

by Moon Chung-in

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