S. Korea’s spy agency ramping up national security investigations to keep itself relevant, critics say

Posted on : 2023-01-19 17:10 KST Modified on : 2023-01-19 17:10 KST
The National Intelligence Service’s ability to conduct national security investigations is poised to be transferred to the police on Jan. 1, 2024
Investigators with the National Intelligence Service carry boxes out after raiding the offices of the KCTU in downtown Seoul on Jan. 18. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)
Investigators with the National Intelligence Service carry boxes out after raiding the offices of the KCTU in downtown Seoul on Jan. 18. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)

On Wednesday, Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) and police concluded that four former and current executives and activists belonging to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) met and interacted with North Korean agents abroad, including in Cambodia and Vietnam between 2016 and 2019.

A thorough search and seizure operation was launched into the case of suspected violation of the National Security Act.

In particular, the NIS raised the possibility that, among those being investigated, some may have even received money from North Korean agents. With this case involving the KCTU, the NIS appears to be pushing the accelerator on trumping up charges of breaching national security.

Some are also pointing out prosecutors are playing an active part in snowballing this case by increasing the scope of its department in charge of national security, election and labor cases.

Both the NIS and National Police Agency confirmed on Wednesday that all four individuals targeted by the search and seizures are suspected of violating the National Security Act.

Investigators from the NIS and police conducted a raid on the offices of executives at the KCTU and Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union (KHMWU), the home of a member of a Kia Motors union branch who served as vice chairman of the Korean Metal Workers' Union (KMWU), and a housing facility for laborers protesting layoff long term, victims of state violence, and families bereaved by a social disaster in the Bonggae neighborhood of Jeju Island. It was also discovered that the head of the housing facility, known as the “Peace Shelter,” had a history of working with the KMWU in the past.

The suspects are accused of meeting and interacting with North Korean spy agents individually or together overseas, including in Cambodia, Vietnam, and China between 2016 and 2019.

The NIS and the police suspect that these individuals met with officials from North Korea’s Cultural Exchange Bureau, an organization that spies on the South, in Phnom Penh in September 2017 and then again had contact with North Korean agents in Hanoi in 2019.

The NIS and police are also looking into whether the suspects received money from North Korean agents.

This case is separate from previous cases in which the NIS and the police were investigating suspicions of “acts supporting the enemy” by the so-called People’s Autonomous Unification Vanguard, which was concentrated in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, and another organization known as HGH in Jeju.

Prosecutors seem to be throwing their weight behind these trumped up national security cases.

Previously, prosecutors transferred the responsibility over the People's Autonomous Unification Vanguard case, which was being headed by the Changwon District Prosecutors' Office, to the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office’s first national security, elections and labor division (led by Lee Hee-dong) and also reinforced its power of investigation by sending a researcher to the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office.

Now that the investigation into the Moon Jae-in administration’s handling of North Korea’s 2020 killing of a Southern official is almost over, some say the prosecution’s national security, labor and elections division being handed over a major case related to the National Security Act could end up becoming yet another witch hunt.

In the case of the KCTU, the Suwon District Prosecutor’s Office’s national security, labor and elections division, filed for the warrant and took charge of the case. The Suwon District Prosecutor's Office is a public prosecutor’s office that has historically mainly dealt with national security, labor and elections cases just like the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office.

In addition, Jeong Won-doo, the chief prosecutor overseeing the case, and Lee Hee-dong are regarded as some of the top experts in the prosecution when it comes to dealing with cases related to the National Security Act due to their vast experience with the subject.

“The Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office has traditionally been strong regarding public security cases,” a lawyer who formerly worked in the national security, labor and elections division of the prosecution service said.

“In particular, as the chief prosecutors in charge of each case are known as the best public security experts, there is a high possibility that they and the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office will handle each case separately,” the lawyer said.

Meanwhile, with the NIS, which had been quiet for some time, now taking up successive public security investigations, rumors inside and outside police circles are brewing that the NIS is trying to take back control over its investigating power after the decision was made to transfer this responsibility to the police.

With the revision of the National Intelligence Service Korea Act going into effect on Jan. 1 next year, the right of the NIS to investigate anti-communist activity will be transferred over to the police.

However, through this case, some see the actions taken by the intelligence agency as its way of trying to prove that anti-communist “national security” investigations can only be conducted by the NIS.

Meanwhile, the police, who have been strengthening their capacity to conduct anti-communist investigations and preparing for the transfer of the investigative power, seem to be puzzled.

“Many within the police force suspect the NIS is disclosing more details than ever of an investigation in order to try and hold onto its investigative power for anti-communist cases, which will be transferred to the police next year,” an NPA official said.

By Jang Na-rye, staff reporter; Ko Byung-chan, staff reporter; Son Hyun-soo, staff report

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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