Regaining public trustPresident Park Geun-hye nominated Korean envoy to Japan Lee Byung-ki as the new director of the National Intelligence Service. He replaces former chief Nam Jae-joon, who stepped down to take responsibility for major scandals that have undermined the reputation of the spy agency. The president’s security and intelligence lineup will be realigned if Lee and defense minster nominee Han Min-koo receive legislative approval. The new NIS chief comes from a diplomatic background rather than military, unlike his predecessors. Lee served the spy agency as a special adviser and deputy director in the overseas division. He worked behind the scenes in the operation to bring Hwang Jang-yop, then the highest-ranking North Korean defector who had been the architect of North Korea’s official state ideology Juche, to South Korea in 1997.
Lee has a difficult mission as new helmsman of national security. He must spearhead long-delayed reforms in the spy agency. The office is in the midst of its worst crisis because of its involvement in a smear campaign against the opposition presidential candidate during the 2010 election and accusations that its agents framed a North Korean defector as a spy. Its political neutrality has been questioned and the agency lost public confidence as the result. Lee must enforce stringent reforms on the agency so that it serves the country as a whole and not a particular political power. An intelligence agency loses its place in the country if it does not have the support and respect of the people. Lee must first prove that he is free of any political connections.
Along with reforms, he must strengthen the capabilities of the spy agency. Agents’ attempts to fabricate evidence against a North Korean defector underscored how desperate and incompetent local spy agents can be. The agency also displayed its ignorance of overseas intelligence affairs. Human and infrastructure resources must be overhauled in order to boost the agency’s primary function of intelligence gathering. Promotions, appointments and incentives should be based strictly on performance and expertise. Devotion and competitiveness cannot be expected from agents working in the shadow whose morale and pride are shattered.
The new NIS chief also should reexamine North Korean policy. The hawkish stand of his predecessor interfered with a flexible response to North Korea. Lee is well versed on North Korean affairs, having served as President Roh Tae-woo’s protocol secretary. As ambassador to Tokyo, he must be aware of recent developments in the Japan-North Korea relationship. We hope he will contribute in finding a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations within the context of denuclearization.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 11, Page 30