Don’t play politics with NIS

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Don’t play politics with NIS

The political sector has entered another round of the blame game in the scandal of Lee Seok-ki of the left-wing splinter Unified Progressive Party, who has been indicted on a charge of treason. In a rare show of bipartisanship, the National Assembly overwhelmingly stripped Lee of legislative immunity and handed him over to the prosecution, which carried on with a case that has been built by the National Intelligence Service for years.

Despite its cooperation in the legislative vote, the main opposition Democratic Party now accuses the government of fanning anti-North Korean sentiment with Lee’s arrest. DP head Kim Han-gill accused the government of trying to distract public attention from the misdeeds of the NIS - allegedly orchestrated election meddling and cover-up - that “are greater than the crime of Lee.” DP members are intent on pushing ahead with a bill proposing sweeping reform of the NIS, depriving it of its key anti-state investigation authority and outsourcing its local intelligence unit.

Even considering the propagandist assertiveness in the tone and action for political purposes, the opposition has gone too far in its set of reform demands. Intelligence activities to look out for anti-state organizations plotting to overthrow the government and law enforcement endeavors to keep them at bay are essential to ensure security and safety of the nation and its people. Judiciary procedures to punish a grave crime against the state are legitimate intelligence and prosecution work vested by the Korean Constitution and laws. The Korean Constitution is based on “defensive” democracy that does not tolerate enemies of freedom. The NIS should be separately accountable if its staff organized the online slander campaign against the presidential candidate of the opposition party in last year’s election. The argument that its crime is bigger than the treason and rebellion charges Lee faces cannot be convincing.

Stripping the NIS of anti-state investigative power is preposterous when considering the security tensions on the Korean Peninsula today. The work of gathering intelligence and investigating spies that sneak into the country through thorough training under false identities, building intelligence networks on North Korea and cooperating with other foreign intelligence organizations is entirely different arena of investigation that cannot be compared with general anti-crime activities. Since the turn of the century, North Koreans have sent spies via China and third countries rather than directly across the border and even disguised as defectors. They also approach and coax South Koreans overseas to flee to North Korea.

Despite their grave repercussions on national security, spy and treason cases can be investigated and punished once the crimes are acted out. Preventive surveillance activities by keeping close watch on suspicious figures are therefore crucial. But police and prosecutors cannot be entirely relied upon to do the highly complicated job. About 600 people have been arrested for spy activities connected with North Korea over the past five decades. Of them, 90 percent were uncovered and caught by state intelligence agents.

In reality, the Koreas are de facto at war, remaining the only divided nation in the world. North Korea has not given up its hope to conquer South Korea through revolution and threatens to frequently overthrow it. Anti-state intelligence activities should remain with the NIS considering the persistent North Korean threat and the highly specialized nature of security intelligence work.

If the state intelligence agency is broken up into two separate units in charge of domestic and overseas operations, comprehensive counter activities encompassing the traditional security realm as well as new threats in economic, commerce, environmental, and industrial security could be undermined. Blind spots in intelligence activities may be unavoidable. It goes against the general global trend in advanced societies of pursuing integration of intelligence operations and abilities for concerted and collective effectiveness.

The reform of the NIS should be carried out prudently based on a thorough study of the domestic and overseas intelligence environments. If overhaul is precipitated for reform’s sake, the country’s intelligence capabilities could be seriously impaired. The Ronald Reagan administration paid a heavy price because the previous Jimmy Carter government scaled down the organization and function of the Central Intelligence Agency. Anti-state and security issues must not be addressed with a political motive and approach.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

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

by Jhe Seong-ho
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