NIS reform plan draws stinging Saenuri rebuke

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NIS reform plan draws stinging Saenuri rebuke

President Park Geun-hye’s allies in the Saenuri Party have gone on the offensive against the opposition Democrats, who want a housecleaning at Korea’s National Intelligence Service. Countering the Democratic Party’s persistent complaints and dramatic flourishes, such as locating their headquarters in a tent outside Seoul’s City Hall, with a vigorous counterattack, Saenuri charged that weakening the spy agency would threaten national security and spark a wave of espionage by North Korea.

“In short, what they want is not reforming the National Intelligence Service, but disbanding it in order to assist pro-North Korea groups and spies,” thundered Choi Kyung-hwan, the ruling party’s floor leader, at a party meeting yesterday. “The DP, which played a crucial role in helping pro-North Korean politicians enter the National Assembly, is now coming up with the idea of helping their anti-state activities by disbanding the NIS.”

In the June 2012 legislative election, the Democrats named no candidates to fill seats in some of their safe constituencies to help the smaller Unified Progressive Party win seats in those areas. The UPP, under attack for its alleged pro-Pyongyang stance and now for rebellion charges against one party legislator, earned 13 seats in the election.

On Tuesday, the DP leadership announced a plan to reform the NIS to retaliate for what it called the spy agency’s meddling in the December 2012 presidential race. One sweeping reform demanded by the opposition would strip it of its long-standing role in domestic intelligence gathering; it would have the authority to gather intelligence and conduct operations only against foreign and North Korean targets.

Following from that broad change, the DP plan would strip the service of its powers to investigate Koreans for suspected pro-North Korea activities. In addition, it would place the spy group, which would be renamed “Intelligence Institute for Unification and Foreign Affairs,” under the prime minister’s office. The NIS is now a special organization controlled directly by the president.

Currently, authority to investigate anti-state activities inside South Korea is shared by the NIS, police and prosecution. The DP wants the NIS dropped from that trio.

The Democrats, many of whom are former student activists from the democracy movement of the 1970s and 1980s, claim that the right to investigate citizens for praising North Korea or assisting in North Korean espionage has led to massive abuses of human rights and trampled on freedom of expression in this country.

To implement its reform plans, the DP has called for a new National Assembly oversight committee to monitor the process. The president and her allies have asked for the NIS to submit its own reform plan.

“Reform of the NIS is an inevitable order from public and responsibility of the National Assembly,” Chyung Ho-joon, a spokesman of the DP, said in a briefing yesterday. “We once again strongly demand a consensus with the Saenuri Party over forming a special committee to monitor the reforms.”

Saenuri members rejected the idea of putting domestic espionage investigations off limits to the NIS, noting that the two Koreas are technically still at war.

The poster boy for conservative politicians is Lee Seok-ki, a member of the UPP who is now being detained on charges that he and others in his party’s extreme wing plotted a rebellion against the South Korean government in an underground organization.

“The plan means incapacitating the NIS entirely,” Yoon Sang-hyun, a Saenuri leader, said at the party meeting yesterday. “This plan is a serious concern because it could produce a second and third Lee Seok-ki.”


BY KIM HEE-JIN [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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