Exposing skeletons in the closetLee Nak-yon, head of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), claimed to have evidence that the National Intelligence Service (NIS) under former President Lee Myung-bak had spied on 299 sitting lawmakers and over 1,000 figures in the judiciary, entertainment, civilian and NGO communities. DP lawmakers also motioned a special resolution demanding disclosure of spy records and investigations to prevent the spy agency’s surveillance on civilians.
If the NIS indeed spied on civilians and elected officials, a probe will be necessary. But the timing of the motion raises questions. The DP’s allegations targeted the conservative government under Lee. Retraining of domestic-focused spy agents started from the former NIS chief to prevent political involvement by the spy agency. Domestic spying therefore was formally banned from this year.
The NIS is responsible for conducting background checks on the government. Although the targets have been reduced from this year, the agency was responsible for examining the records of all new government recruits and executives of public corporations. In the past, the spy agency also probed people who had traveled overseas. As the files dated late 2009 have already passed the 10-year statute of limitation on power abuse, the exposure of the NIS’s spying on civilians could trigger controversy rather than finding the wrongdoings.
Under the Moon Jae-in administration, the NIS came under dissection. A body of outside experts even searched the main server of the agency. Its ex-chief Won Se-hoon went on trial after the raid. The reform committee found records of spying on politicians at the order of the Blue House, but did not pursue any further. Suddenly, however, the DP is making a fuss about it.
There can only be a political motivation ahead of the mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan on April 7. The move could be targeting Park Hyung-joon, a candidate for Busan mayor from the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) and a former senior secretary for political affairs under President Lee. PPP lawmaker Chung Jin-suk raised suspicion about “political scheming” with the DP head who is spearheading the move along with the politician-turned NIS chief.
In a parliamentary hearing, NIS Director Park Jie-won said there had been traces of illegal spying under the conservative government of President Park Geun-hye. He said the agency could disclose the files if two-thirds of the members of the Intelligence Committee in the National Assembly vote for the move. Since eight of the 12 on the committee are DP members, the disclosure could be a done deal. The ruling party is putting the agency back under political influence again.