Military unit reborn with more oversight

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Military unit reborn with more oversight

President Moon Jae-in signed an executive order on Tuesday to formally disband the military’s controversial Defense Security Command (DSC) and replace it with a new intelligence unit.

The order puts an end to the command’s 27-year history, during which it was in charge of internal security and counterintelligence, and replaces it with a similar unit - tentatively called the Military Security Support Command - with less power and more civilian oversight.

“The fundamental purpose behind disbanding the Defense Security Command and installing the Military Security Support Command is to sever the new unit from the DSC’s past and prevent it from ever repeating past wrongs like political interference and illegal surveillance of civilians,” Moon said at a cabinet meeting in the Blue House on Tuesday.

Last month, a lawmaker revealed that the DSC had drawn up contingency plans for martial law in case the Constitutional Court rejected the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye and chaos ensued.

The plans included procedures to arrest opposition lawmakers and civilians for what it defined as “anti-state activities.”

Moon on Tuesday called the plans “an unfathomable act of betrayal against the people.” The executive order requires the new command to “maintain legal and political neutrality when fulfilling its duty as a servant of the people” and explicitly says it cannot infringe on people’s rights.

On Aug. 2, a reform committee recommended sweeping changes to the DSC and proposed revising its legal foundation. The Ministry of National Defense then launched a task force on Aug. 6 to lay the groundwork for the new unit, which will have fewer military officers but continue to handle matters of internal security and counterintelligence.

The executive order prohibits the command from conducting surveillance on civilians outside the ranges of its duty, abusing its authority under the pretext of duty and engaging in political acts like joining political organizations or parties.

While the executive order has narrowed the rechristened unit’s authority, some analysts say that its essentially unchanged role means the reforms are useless since the command still has vast intelligence capabilities. For this reason, the Defense Ministry said it would strengthen civilian oversight with a permanent audit office.

On Tuesday, a joint military-civilian team investigating the DSC’s martial law plans raided its headquarters, a research institute and military subunit. Investigators said they were looking for evidence on how the plans were drafted and who ordered them.

Ahead of the DSC’s dismantlement, 26 key figures in the command accused of taking part in drafting the plan and surveilling the families of victims who perished in the Sewol ferry sinking were ordered to return to their original units on Monday. Some of them could be subject to punishment if the investigative team proves the allegations true.

This is not the first time the DSC has faced scandal in its long, troubled history.

In 1979, Chun Doo Hwan, as head of the predecessor Security Command, used the unit’s investigative prerogatives to usurp authority and stage a coup d’etat that eventually made him president.

It was rechristened as the DSC in 1991, but the unit’s role in politics did not end. In recent years, it has been accused of engaging in far-reaching political influence campaigns to curry support for the conservative governments of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.

In July, a human rights group alleged that the DSC also tapped the phone line between former President Roh Moo-hyun, a liberal, and his defense minister, and collected the personal information of thousands of civilians who visited soldiers at bases.

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