Keep the NIS out of politicsConfirmation hearings for eight cabinet nominees in a reshuffle following the Sewol ferry crisis started this week. Lee Byung-ki, nominated to head the National Intelligence Service, was the first to come under heavy fire from lawmakers during the four-day hearing. The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy has a grudge against the country’s spy agency, whose two previous chiefs were accused of interfering in the 2012 presidential elections to turn public opinion against its presidential candidate, Moon Jae-in, and intentionally releasing confidential records of an inter-Korean summit that made late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun look as though he was making maritime border concessions to North Korea.
The NIS also has been criticized for illegal activities and impotence, with its agents attempting to tamper with evidence in a bid to frame a defector as a North Korean spy. The intelligence office’s morale is at its lowest point after losing public confidence because of such scandalous follies. As an intelligence agency in a country technically at war, the NIS wields enormous power with limitless access to intelligence, and much of its budgetary spending and missions remain shrouded in secrecy. Therefore, extra-high ethical standards, national commitment, qualifications and capacity within the government is demanded of the head of the agency.
Lee was grilled for his involvement in shady activities by the ruling party during the 2002 presidential election. The conservative party, then called Grand National Party, raised 82.3 billion won ($81.3 million) in campaign funds from large companies, and Lee, then special adviser for party presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang, handed over 500 million won to the rival conservative camp of Rhee In-je to persuade him to help Lee win the race on the sidelines. Lee was fined 10 million won. Questioners also zeroed in on his role as a deputy of the spy agency for secretly seeking Pyongyang’s help to defeat Kim Dae-jung in the 1997 presidential race.
Lee apologized for having been involved in the payout to Rhee. “It was the biggest mistake in my entire life.” He promised he would completely disavow any political connections as soon as he becomes director of the NIS. He denied any involvement in illegal fund-raising and emphasized he was cleared in the 1997 scandal.
Confirmation hearings should not entirely focus on exposing past wrongdoings. Instead, they should evaluate the current qualifications and ability of a nominee. But political neutrality has become a crucial qualification for an NIS chief. Whatever the outcome, we hope we have heard the last of political meddling from the NIS and its head.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 8, Page 34