Picking the right spy chief
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The formation and shape of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration is becoming clearer as cabinet appointments are being made quickly. During the Kwanhun Club’s presidential debate in December, Yoon said “appointments are everything” and it is not an exaggeration to say that a new government’s success depends on appointments.
Top posts such as prime minister, deputy prime minister, ministers of key ministries and presidential chief of staff seem important. But as the presidency is being changed for the first time in five years, it is also important who will be the new head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS).
The new NIS chief is important now more than ever because it is imperative for the top spy agency to restore its presence since the Moon Jae-in administration undermined its fundamental role in overseas spy activities and North Korea espionage activities over the past five years. “As North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are advancing, we need to improve the NIS as a strong intelligence agency that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will fear. But over the past five years, it actually became a powerless organization that has tried to please North Korea,” lamented a former senior official of the NIS.
During the early days of the Moon administration, the Truth Finding Commission on the NIS was formed, and the main server of the spy agency was exposed to the former student activists who are pro-North leaders. Intelligence experts said it was a shocking incident that cannot happen in a national intelligence agency whose life depends on secrecy. “Agents are performing overseas operations that are in between the boundary of legality and illegality,” said an intelligence community source who wished to remain anonymous. “But the main server was made public for a political reason. From now on, no one will risk their lives for a secret mission because they will fear retaliation.” Ironically, over the past five years, public servants said the NIS has become a “well-being” organization where the workers enjoy high salaries, good benefits and no overtime.
Political retaliation was also suspected because all five NIS chiefs in the conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations were prosecuted under the relentless campaign of eradicating “past evils.” For five years, investigations into suspected espionage were hardly done. North Korea’s United Front Department of the Workers’ Party and the Reconnaissance General Bureau — which persistently worked to dismantle the National Security Act and the NIS — must have welcomed the situation.
Members who deplored internal discipline have collapsed NIS due to unfair appointments inside the organization over the past five years. Suh Hoon, appointed by President Moon as the NIS chief in 2017, prompted criticisms by appointing people who agreed with the philosophy of the leftist administration or people he had worked with before. A hometown friend of Park Jie-won, the current NIS chief, was promoted to a top post only two years after his latest promotion. The NIS is operated under the strong chain of command according to rank, and many showed concern that the agency’s hierarchy has collapsed because of some recent appointments that ignored the history.
Reinventing the NIS has become an urgent task. Rep. Chang Je-won, the president-elect’s chief of staff, said Thursday that Yoon is taking a very careful approach to appoint the new head of the NIS because it must be reorganized as a strong, competent organization without interfering in domestic politics. Following Chang’s remarks, rumors spread about possible candidates.
Many said it is likely that Yoon will name an overseas and North Korea expert as the new NIS chief. Throughout his campaign, Yoon stressed that the NIS should become a world-class spy agency like Israel’s Mossad. Ra Jong-yil, who served as the first deputy head of the National Security Planning Agency — the predecessor of the NIS — during the Kim Dae-jung administration, underscored that an NIS official who has experience and expertise in overseas and North Korea spy operations is the best candidate.
Former minister counsellor of the Korean Embassy in the United States, Kwon Choon-taek, who has experience in communicating with U.S. intelligence agencies, and Kim Ok-chae, former minister counsellor of the Korean Embassy to Japan, are rumored to be possible candidates. Experts said former diplomats — including Rep. Cho Tae-yong of the opposition People Power Party (PPP), who had served as the first vice minister of Foreign Ministry, and Kim Kyu-hyun, former first deputy head of the National Security Office (NSO) at the Blue House — are also good candidates.
Some observers say Yoon may choose a former member of the military or the prosecution to head the NIS. Yeom Don-jay, former dean of the Graduate School of Strategic Studies at Sungkyunkwan University, who had served as the deputy director of the NIS in charge of the overseas operation during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, said a minister-level heavyweight should be appointed to reshape the spy organization. Many expect that Yoon will find a new NIS chief from leaders of the military or the prosecution known for their strong patriotism and leadership — such as former Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, whose robust response to the North’s sinking in 2010 of the Cheonan warship was feared by Pyongyang.
It remains to be seen who will head the spy agency, but the consensus is that it is urgent to normalize the NIS. “When a policymaker has intelligence, it is tempting for him or her to use the intelligence agency for political purposes rather than making a proper judgment,” said former ambassador Ra. “Intelligence and policymaking, therefore, should be separated.”
He also stressed the need to ensure the tenure of the NIS chief. These are important advice Yoon must listen to.