By Kim Nam-il, staff reporter
The debate among politicians over reform of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) is heating up once again as Unified Progressive Party (UPP) lawmaker Lee Seok-ki faces an investigation and trial for allegedly encouraging insurrection.
The ruling Saenuri Party (NFP) is hoping to use the case to bolster its position that the NIS’s domestic intelligence gathering functions and anti-communism investigation authority should be maintained. The party’s leadership, including floor leader Choi Kyung-hwan, are opting for a wait-and-see approach after President Park Geun-hye asked the NIS to come up with its own ideas for reform.
Meanwhile, the opposition is planning to form its own committee on NIS reforms, arguing that the issue cannot be put off any longer. In particular, they are pointing to repeated instances of “tactical investigation,” including the systematic leaking of the charges against Lee.
The NIS is scheduled to present its own reform plan to the National Assembly in late September, after the long Chuseok holiday. Nothing is known yet about the specifics, but the organization is expected to use the “confirmed presence of North Korea sympathizers in the National Assembly” as an excuse to retain its domestic intelligence gathering functions. Plans have been floated for giving anti-communist investigation authority to prosecutors and police, or a new organization that would be separate from the NIS. But the NIS appears likely to use the internal and police investigation of Lee to insist on integrated domestic intelligence gathering and anti-communist investigation capabilities.
“The Lee Seok-ki case and National Intelligence Service reforms are two completely separate issues,” said Chung-Ang University law professor and onetime Saenuri emergency committee member Lee Sang-don on Sept. 5.
“The issue now is the NIS’s actions - monitoring even people who were merely critical of the Four Major Rivers Project or the South Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, conducting online posting operations, and peering and prying all around to gather intelligence,” Lee said. “It’s about prohibiting involvement in domestic issues [by the NIS], not giving up all capabilities for domestic action against threats from overseas or anti-terrorism tracking and surveillance capabilities.”
Lee also said the NIS should refrain from portraying an end to its domestic functions as a “paralysis” of its ability to gather intelligence on North Korea.
“The NIS shouldn’t be objecting to everything, lumping together the abolition of all its domestic roles,” he said.
A second-term Saenuri Party lawmaker agreed. “The NIS is doing things it shouldn’t do and not really doing the things it should,” the lawmaker said. “Changing that means changing its standing and structure.”
The same lawmaker also put some of the blame on the current system, in which the President chooses an especially close subordinate to fill the spot of NIS director.
“When that happens, the NIS inevitably turns into a kind of straw sucking up only information that is politically useful for the president,” the lawmaker said on condition of anonymity.
“The system needs to be reformed so that it focuses completely on specific functions so that the NIS does not merely serve the President.”
On the other side of the aisle, the opposition is doing everything it can to fan the flames of NIS reform, forming a permanent committee on the issue and submitting an additional reform plan.
On Sept. 5, the Democratic Party decided to form a committee for NIS reform that would be chaired by lawmaker Shin Ki-nam, who previously headed the special committee for a parliamentary audit of the organization.
“We’re setting up the committee to bring all the facts of the NIS’s illegal political involvement to light and prepare legislative plans for NIS reforms,” explained floor spokesperson Chyung Ho-joon.
One of the party’s ideas involves heading off any domestic political involvement by amending the National Intelligence Service Act and Act on the Staff of the National Intelligence Service.
The minor opposition Justice Party also plans to present its own amendment to the National Intelligence Service Act (the “Overseas Intelligence Service Act”) that would restrict the NIS to overseas intelligence gathering and bar it from involvement in domestic politics.
“It would empower the Board of Audit and Inspection to examine accounts and duties at intelligence organizations at the request of the National Assembly Intelligence Committee, while stepping up National Assembly oversight and controls by allowing the Committee to hear reports on the President’s intelligence activity orders,” explained Justice Party lawmaker Park Won-suk.
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