Oct. 8. (pool photo)
By Kim Jong-cheol, political correspondent
During the administrations of former president Lee Myung-bak and current president Park Geun-hye, the National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea‘s spy agency has regressed.
Since Nam Jae-joon became director of the NIS, the agency’s deviant behavior has become more frequent, including unauthorized release of state secrets and intentionally exaggerated information about North Korea.
Such intelligence leaks are closely tied to trends in domestic politics, some have criticized the NIS for continuing to violate the law by interfering in politics.
Following the scandal where the NIS interfered in last December’s presidential election by posting thousands of comments online, the South Korean public reacted by calling on the NIS to stay out of domestic politics and to be a simple spy agency that works for the national interest. But the NIS under Nam Jae-joon has meddled in domestic politics at every critical moment.
The release of the 2007 inter-Korean summit transcript in June is an example of this behavior. Claiming that he was acting “to defend the honor” of the NIS, Nam unilaterally released the summit transcript that the NIS had been keeping.
This contrasts with the attitude of Nam’s predecessor Won Sei-hoon, who was director of the NIS during the Lee administration. Even Won had emphatically refused to publish the transcript, since it was a state secret.
This is why the NIS under Nam has even been criticized in the foreign media. The Wall Street Journal referred to the NIS as a “leaker” of classified information, and the Washington Post described Nam as a “political provocateur”.
The NIS release of the summit transcript occurred just a few days before the parliamentary investigation into allegations that the NIS posted political comments online, which was scheduled for early July.
This was enough to raise suspicions that the NIS was trying to blunt the force of the parliamentary investigation and distract public attention.
The spokesperson’s statement abruptly released by the NIS in early July, which claims that former president Roh Moo-hyun abandoned the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the West (Yellow) Sea during the 2007 inter-Korean summit, can be understood as having the same objective.
Even as it repeatedly refused to explain or apologize for the online comment scandal, the NIS instead appealed for a boost to its domestic investigative powers. This clearly demonstrates the regressive nature of the NIS under Nam.
When Nam testified before the National Assembly’s intelligence committee on Oct. 8, he was asked about the NIS comment scandal. “Since this is something that the former director did, I don’t feel responsible,” Nam said. “If there is anything for me to apologize about when the trial is over, I will do it then.”
On the topic of NIS reform, Nam pledged not to meddle in politics either on an operational or organization level. But at the same time, he called for uniting the NIS’s domestic and international activities for uncovering enemy organizations and spies and for significantly strengthening the domestic investigation division.
This would in fact increase the NIS’s ability to become involved in politics, and it flies in the face of demands of the opposition party and civic organizations to revoke its investigative authority or transfer it to another agency.
Nam disclosed a considerable amount of information about North Korea to the intelligence committee on Oct. 8, including the North Korean army’s fielding of new weaponry in the front-line, the reactivation of the reactor at Yongbyon, and North Korea’s boast that it would reunite the peninsula by force within three years. His testimony as head of the intelligence agency was criticized as being highly inappropriate.
In particular, information related to Kim Jong-un, including the claim that North Korean officials are only paying lip service to Kim’s leadership could provoke a sensitive reaction from North Korea, regardless of whether or not such claims are true. Such revelations could have a negative influence on inter-Korean relations.
“It is very possible that North Korea will react strongly to Nam’s presentation,” said Kim Yong-hyun, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, in an interview with Buddhist Broadcasting. “This will exacerbate difficulties between North and South.”
Coincidentally, Nam’s remarks come just as the regular session of the National Assembly is getting underway - when revisions to the National Intelligence Service Act will be debated.
The regressive behavior of the NIS under Nam appears to be inspired by absolute faith in President Park.
After the NIS comment scandal came to light, Park directed the NIS to reform itself. And when asked about the release of the transcript in September during a trilateral meeting with the heads of the ruling and opposition parties, she sided with Nam, arguing that the release had adhered to the legal protocol.
“The National Intelligence Service is currently acting like the supreme political organization,” Yonsei University professor Choi Jong-kun said during an Oct. 9 phone interview with the Hankyoreh. “The head of an intelligence agency could not be acting like this autonomously, without the implied or explicit approval of the president.”
There are also observers who suggest that the cause of these issues is an inadequate understanding of the proper role and function of an intelligence agency.
“If you look at the report that was made to the National Assembly intelligence committee, information and intelligence are mixed, and the overall quality of the information is lacking,” said Inje University professor Kim Yeon-cheol in a phone interview with the Hankyoreh.
“This is because the National Intelligence Service has tailored its role as an intelligence agency to domestic political trends. When this happens, agency employees begin to produce and distribute information along those lines,” Kim said.
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