[News Focus] Long road ahead for NIS reform

By Choi He-suk
  • Published : Nov 14, 2017 - 21:44
  • Updated : Nov 14, 2017 - 21:44
The probe into alleged wrongdoings of the National Intelligence Service continues to expand, once again bringing the integrity and role of the spy agency into question.

In the early hours of Tuesday, Lee Byung-kee was taken into custody, becoming the first former NIS director to be detained in the latest investigation into the spy agency.
Former National Intelligence Service chief Lee Byung-kee is surrounded by reporters at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office on Monday. (Yonhap)

Later in the day, investigators filed for arrest warrants for former NIS chiefs Nam Jae-joon and Lee Byung-ho over the same allegations.

The prosecution is investigating allegations that as much as 100 million won ($89,000) of the NIS’ covert operations budget was given to Cheong Wa Dae officials each month.

The monthly contribution is thought to have been made under former President Park Geun-hye’s orders and overseen by the three NIS chiefs of her administration.

The scandal, coupled with another involving the Lee Myung-bak administration, has brought the NIS’ budget into question.

Although the covert operations budget is said to be over 500 billion won each year, the NIS is not required to disclose how the money is spent, a loophole that enabled the flow of money to Cheong Wa Dae.

The scandal, the latest in a long series that goes back decades, has proven a boon for President Moon Jae-in’s drive to reform the NIS.

“Strengthening the National Assembly’s control over the NIS’s covert operations budget, which was used as a corrupt administration’s pocket money, cannot be delayed further,” Democratic Party of Korea Floor Leader Rep. Woo Won-shik said at a recent forum on NIS reform.

“Planning, information security and anti-communism investigation powers have become channels for the NIS’ political meddling and revising the law must be considered.”

Rep. Chun Jung-bae of the minor opposition People’s Party echoed similar views, arguing the spy agency must be subjected to increased control.

Others at the forum called for ways to make the NIS’ budget more transparent and to give the National Assembly more power over the agency.

True to his election pledges, which included abolishing the NIS’ domestic operations to focus on North Korea, Moon quickly launched the NIS reform committee after taking office.

The committee, which has reviewed a number of past developments and turned over evidence to public prosecutors, is pushing to propose a revised National Intelligence Service Act that includes a number of measures promised by Moon.

The reform measures drawn up by the committee include transferring the NIS’ investigation powers to other government agencies, increasing transparency of the agency’s expenditures and establishing a working environment in which employees are able to refuse orders that violate laws. The committee has also suggested changing the organization’s name in an attempt to shed the image of corruption.

The new administration’s NIS reform drive is only the latest in a number of reform attempts, which have failed to bring the NIS into the light.

For some years, the government has been accused of failing to monitor North Korea’s activities, with the blame often falling on the NIS. Some have accused the liberal Kim Dae-jung administration of cutting loose the agency’s human intelligence, or HUMINT, resources, in a drive to improve inter-Korean relations.

The selection process of NIS chiefs may also be a factor in the supposed lack of professionalism.

Since its foundation in 1961 as the Korea Central Intelligence Agency, the NIS has reported directly to the president, and its chief can be appointed by the president without the approval of the National Assembly.

As such, a number of NIS chiefs have been selected for their association to the president rather than their professional qualifications.

Of the 13 NIS chiefs who have held the post since 1999, when the agency assumed its current name, only two built their careers within the intelligence community. Won Se-hoon was a career civil servant, while Lee Byung-kee was a diplomat for much of his life in the civil service that began in 1974. Won is a close associate of former President Lee Myung-bak, who is currently on trial over the agency’s alleged interference in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.

In addition to such accusations, the NIS has been involved in numerous scandals that resulted in its former leaders facing criminal charges.

In 2005, two former NIS chiefs of the Kim Dae-jung administration were indicted after it was revealed that the agency illegally wiretapped a number of civilians and opposition lawmakers under their orders.

While Won’s trial continues, it has come to light that the NIS of the Park administration attempted to cover up his actions, prompting yet another probe.

According to reports, authorities now believe that Nam set up a task force within the NIS to tamper with evidence and give investigators false leads.

The team, which included a number of public prosecutors who were serving with the NIS at the time, went so far as to set up a dummy office for investigators to search as part of its efforts to keep evidence from emerging.

The investigation is ongoing, but the evidence and new allegations that have emerged so far have seemingly prompted two former members of the task force to take their own lives.

Some, including former President Lee Myung-bak, accuse the Moon administration of using the investigations to take revenge against conservatives who held power for 10 years until this year’s election.

The investigation has turned up evidence suggesting that Lee was aware of the NIS’ political meddling.

“I have started to have suspicions about whether they really are reforms, or an expression of pent-up emotions or political reprisal,” said Lee on Sunday, referring to the Moon Jae-in administration’s project aimed at addressing irregularities in society and governmental organizations.

“Such an act would not only divide public opinion, but also be unhelpful for our security at a crucial juncture and for South Korea’s economy when it has to take advantage of the global economic recovery,” he said, adding that the probes into the military and intelligence organizations would undermine national defense.

By Choi He-suk (