Reforms mean substantial changes

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Reforms mean substantial changes

Laws to bar the state spy agency from political meddling by toughening oversight on political activities by intelligence agents were passed in the first regular National Assembly session for 2014. The laws are a by-product of a year of political wrangling and standoffs between the ruling and opposition parties following allegations that the National Intelligence Service was involved in an online smear campaign against opposition candidates during the 2012 presidential race. We now have to see how the reforms would change the intelligence agency, which has long been tasked with clandestine spy activities for the ruling party.

Fighting against time with the 2014 budget bill linked to the NIS reform bills, the National Assembly opened a plenary session in the wee hours on New Year’s Day and approved the new NIS Act and other related laws to cut off the spy agency from political connections. The new act includes a clause punishing NIS employees if they use online platforms and communication networks in the name of psychological warfare against North Korea for political activities.

The legislative body will also have greater say and oversight on the NIS’s budgetary spending and planning. The agency no longer can dispatch or regularly send employees to government offices, parties and media organizations. Protection for whistle-blowers is stronger. Punishment for political involvement has been toughened and the statute of limitations for violations extended to 10 years.

The reforms are monumental in many ways. The NIS Act has been revised 15 times since it was first introduced in 1961. But the revisions stopped in tweaking the wording. The new law goes beyond the self-reform proposal by the agency. It is the first outside-led reform of the spy agency. What must follow are changes in the mindsets and actions of intelligence officers. NIS chief Nam Jae-joon said the agency will humbly accept the bipartisan laws. He must live up to his words and act on the reforms. We will be able to know how the NIS can divorce itself from its past practices from the reports to the National Assembly’s special committee on NIS reform.

The special committee will work to come up with ways to strengthen the primary intelligence function of the spy agency by the end of next month. Even with strict oversight, the agency’s role in anti-terrorism and intelligence activities on North Korea must be kept intact. Both parties must strive until the end to reform and modernize the NIS to strengthen its primary role in safeguarding national security.
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