New law cuts NIS out of domestic politics for good
The ruling Democratic Party (DP) completed its trifecta of institutional reforms Sunday with the passage of a bill forbidding South Korea’s spy agency from undertaking domestic operations.
The revision to the law governing operation of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) was the last of three pieces of legislation DP lawmakers rammed through the National Assembly in an effort to realize the Moon Jae-in administration’s drive to whittle down the powers of major state agencies.
Bills to overhaul the National Police Agency and create a new Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials (CIO) — the latter intended as a check on the powerful state prosecution service — were voted in by the DP and its allies last week amid a contentious standoff with the conservative opposition.
Sunday’s vote on the floor for the NIS bill took place after the DP used its supermajority to end the opposition People Power Party’s filibuster, a method that the ruling party has not been hesitant to exercise in recent weeks despite apparent public distaste for it.
The NIS bill should put an end to the agency’s 63 years of domestic investigations of ideologically suspect activities largely defined by South Korea’s draconian National Security Act.
The new law mandates all such cases be transferred by 2024 to the newly formed National Investigation Headquarters under the National Police Agency, an independent body designed to separate the police’s investigative and public safety functions.
In effect, this will turn the new police organization into a body equivalent to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, putting it in charge of domestic intelligence and criminal investigations, while the NIS will handle national security information in ways similar to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
According to the bill passed Sunday, the NIS can now only deal with gathering and processing intelligence pertaining to foreign affairs and North Korea, as well as conduct counterintelligence and counterterrorism operations.
Ill-defined concepts allowing domestic intelligence gathering and anticommunist probes were completely removed from the organization’s charter. Added instead were new rules explicitly banning the agency and its employees from interfering in domestic politics.
To enhance the organization’s transparency and oversight by elected officials, the bill also stipulates the NIS director submit the agency’s financial records to the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee should two-thirds of the body agree to a disclosure.
The left-leaning DP’s NIS reform drive is strongly connected to the organization’s controversial past as an enabler of Korea’s right-wing governments.
At the peak of its influence in the 1970s and 80s, the agency often exercised unchecked power to silence dissidents and critics of authoritarian rulers, usually justifying such acts as being anticommunist.
While significantly weakened following South Korea’s transition to democratic rule in the 1990s, the agency continued to be implicated in political meddling largely in favor of the conservative establishment.
Four of the agency’s directors during the past two conservative administrations have been convicted of acts of political interference.
Won Sei-hoon, who served as NIS director under former President Lee Myung-bak, is currently in jail for engineering an online opinion rigging campaign in the 2012 presidential race, while three of his successors under former President Park Geun-hye were also jailed for illegally funneling money to her office as bribes.
The NIS released an official statement in response to the revisions to its governance on Monday, stressing it would be “born again as a new NIS beloved and trusted by the people.”
Pledging to focus solely on its outlined duties, the NIS stressed it would emerge as the globe’s number one intelligence agency by upgrading its capacity to deal with emerging conventional threats in realms like cybersecurity and space.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [email@example.com]
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