Reining in the intelligence service

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Reining in the intelligence service

Reforms at the National Intelligence Service have reemerged as a major political agenda item. The Democratic Party wants it among the first topics to be raised with President Park Geun-hye now that she has returned from her overseas trip and Lee Seok-gi of the United Progressive Party is in custody, charged with conspiracy against the government. Having done its work in detaining Lee, the NIS now has another task to finish: coming up with a reform outline. In early July, the president ordered the spy agency to draw up a self-reform proposal.

The reform has to be focused on restoring and limiting the agency’s role to its primary function of safeguarding national security, and keeping its hands off politics. Since its establishment, the NIS has been criticized for serving as a secret police for the administration and ruling party. It came under fire for interfering in last year’s presidential campaign by orchestrating online slanders against Park’s opposing candidate.

The agency claimed that what it posted online was part of propaganda warfare with North Korea. But many of the online posts can hardly be seen as part of a propaganda warfare campaign. During a recent trial, an NIS official admitted that the agency’s role may have helped put the opposing candidate in an unfavorable light. The agency has also been collecting data and storing files on legislators, political parties, government offices, media groups and other private entities on behalf of the administration. The NIS should be stripped of any political power in the reform effort. It must be denied access to private organizations and barred from collecting political information. Those domestic political department resources should instead be used to strengthen industrial, international, cyber, and North Korea intelligence.

The Democratic Party also proposes that the intelligence agency’s surveillance and investigations of anti-government communist factions be transferred to the prosecution and police. It wants to separate the intelligence and investigative functions as the United States does. But that may be premature and risky because of North Korea. Most major underground and spy cases have been related to North Korea, which is also scheming in China, Japan and the United States.

Underground organizations are also closely linked to the North. Penetrating them requires sophisticated networking, surveillance, trained agents, undercover work and cryptoanalytic skills. The NIS is best qualified because of its global network and espionage expertise. Prosecutors and police would not be able to do that well. But we must split national security from politics. The National Assembly can strengthen its oversight of NIS so that it is cut off from politics and be true to its intelligence mandate to protect national security.

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