A law that is needed now
Here is a disturbing thought. Let’s say that terrorists plant a bomb on a ferry with hundreds of passengers and take them hostage. Who would have the job of overseeing an operation to suppress the terrorists, disable the bomb and rescue the hostages?
The answer, for now, is no one.
Under national counterterrorism guidelines established in 1982 and revised in 2009, the head of the Korea Coast Guard is supposed to lead maritime counterterrorism operations. After the Sewol ferry sinking and the Coast Guard’s shameful performance in the rescue operation, the government terminated the post. A lower-level official assumed those duties.
The minister of public security and safety, whose main responsibility is disaster countermeasures, cannot lead a counterterrorism operation. There is a high risk the country wouldn’t know what to do and end up wasting precious time to rescue the hostages. If the terrorists are suicide bombers, like those in the recent Paris attacks, we wouldn’t be able to find out who is behind the assault, not to mention the attackers’ identities.
It is a delusion that Korea is safe from terrorism.
It was revealed recently that a member of the Islamic State, who died during a battle in Syria, worked in the Seongseo Industrial Complex in Daegu for two years.
An Indonesian man who entered the country with a fake passport waved the flag of the Al Nusra Front on Mount Bukhan. It was the same kind of flag used by the terrorists who took hostages at a cafe in Sydney last year. Under the current law, the Indonesian man would only face a brief imprisonment and deportation.
What if the man was arrested in Australia on the same charges? He would face up to 25 years of imprisonment. Joining or supporting a terrorist organization - or even promoting it - is heavily punished in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia with 10 to 25 years in prison.
Mohammad Momin Khawaja, a resident of Ottawa, was arrested. He was convicted of involvement in a plot to plant a bomb in the United Kingdom and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Khawaja argued that the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act was unconstitutional. He said the law’s definition of terrorist activity is unconstitutionally broad, there was no specific danger and his constitutional right was violated.
The Supreme Court did not accept his argument. It ruled that defining various activities that strengthen the capabilities of a terrorist organization as a crime does not go against the law’s objective of preventing terrorism.
In the case of a terrorist attack, prevention is more important than response. Once one takes place, casualties are inevitable, no matter how fast you suppress it. The core of prevention is a strong capability to gather intelligence. But the National Intelligence Service (NIS) has no legal right to primarily investigate possible terrorists.
In 2003, the NIS received a tip from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) about an Al Qaeda operative in Korea. It was tipped off that an operative had infiltrated the country with an order to monitor U.S. bases in Korea. The NIS confirmed that he had entered the country illegally and deported him. It failed to figure out what he was doing during his stay.
As terrorism has become globalized, cooperating with foreign intelligence agencies has become crucial. Give-and-take is a key principle in intelligence exchanges. The NIS, with no authority to investigate, rarely has valuable information to give. It therefore has to wait for other countries’ agencies, such as the CIA, to offer information to it.
Intelligence on terrorism becomes more specific when more agencies cooperate. It is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It is more effective to gather pieces of intelligence collected by the police, prosecution, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the NIS.
The United States operates a National Counterterrorism Center, the primary organization in the government for integrating and analyzing all intelligence pertaining to terrorism possessed or acquired by 17 U.S. government offices. And yet, Korea’s opposition parties dismiss a possible counterterrorism bill because it will give the NIS “inappropriate” power.
A counterterrorism law can’t prevent all terrorist attacks. But when there is no such law, an international terrorist group may target Korea because of its weak defenses.
This is something we don’t want to think about, but let’s assume that innocent citizens have died in a terrorist attack. Will the lawmakers of the National Assembly sing the national anthem, as French lawmakers did when the president declared a war on terrorism? Or will they criticize the president and government for having failed to quickly respond to the attack?
I bet on the latter based on my observation of the legislature’s handling of the counterterrorism bill since the 16th National Assembly. Let’s not forget Korea was incapable of stopping Kim Ki-jong’s knifing of the American ambassador.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 20, Page 34
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Cheong Chul-gun