Saving the spy agency

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Saving the spy agency

The 21st-century era that we live in today is defined as the age of intelligence. Events at home and abroad - the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the hacking of major banking networks, the theft of industrial secrets among rival countries - all underscore the fact that when a country lags in its intelligence capabilities in a time of globalization and information, the nation’s security could be at stake, as well as its interests. Accessibility and wealth of information can determine a nation’s fate.

There are many threats against national security. In the post-Cold War age, strategic security has shifted from conventional military defense to encompass broader risks including terrorism, disease, environmental problems and cyberattacks. The capacity to secure sufficient information and readiness to face these new threats has become a state priority, as it is tantamount to national power.

Security services and intelligence organizations in advanced countries are moving fast to develop their ability to stockpile, mine and analyze information through espionage activities in fields like economics, human resources, and science and technology. They are building comprehensive, extensive security systems for compiling information at home and overseas in the globalized world.

South Korea, which confronts the unpredictable, militant North Korea across the last Cold War frontier, cannot be left out of this global security trend. But we are particularly hard on our intelligence agency, jumping on it every time a new government takes office. This time, allegations that the National Intelligence Service tampered with the last presidential election by campaigning against opposition candidates online have come back to haunt the spy agency. The National Assembly has opened an investigation and is mulling legislation on overhauling the agency.

The reform should aim to realign and upgrade the agency so it can become a guardian of the nation’s security and interests that measures up to the standard of advanced countries. If the overhaul merely ends up crippling and undermining the intelligence service, it would be to the loss of the country and the people.

Few now regard the spy agency as an almighty authority. It has been reorganized and dispossessed of the power it once wielded under military regimes since civilian presidents came into office. But it nevertheless is still deeply involved with politics. If an NIS employee indeed illegally interfered with the election campaign, the government and legislature should come up with a mechanism to keep the spy agency away from politics and restore public confidence in it. We need more aggressive and more practical rules than the current rhetorical guarantee on political neutrality and a ban on political involvement.

But reforms should not hamper the agency’s primary function ? to conduct espionage activities against North Korea and surveillance and intelligence gathering for national security. North Korea remains hostile and committed to “liberating the race” through revolutionary strategies, engaging in various espionage and offensive activities against South Korea. It has recently been active in cyberspace, carrying out propaganda campaigns through blogs, Web sites, and social media networks where the national security law can’t reach. It also upped its cyberattacks and threats. New regulation on the agency should not influence a just and necessary response or a defensive position against North Korea.

Reformists usually first speak of prohibiting the agency from surveillance and intelligence activities at home. But they do not understand the work of intelligence when they draw the line between overseas, North Korea, and domestic espionage affairs. North Korea moves on a wide spectrum to weaken South Korea’s security - through its military command, sophisticated overseas schemes, propaganda activities from pro-North Korean groups, and manipulation of traditional conflicts between the liberals and conservatives. However, activities that are redundant and cause misunderstanding should be eradicated. The reform bill should also comprise a systematic foundation to strengthen intelligence activities on counterterrorism and industrial espionage. It must allow the agency more authority and liberty to do its work, while increasing accountability so that mismanagement and faults can be strictly punished. This is how a national intelligence service and its activities should be promoted under democratic control.


*The author is a professor of Chung-Ang University Law School.

by Jhe Seong-ho

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