[Analysis] Will passage of anti-terror bill turn the NIS into a monster?

Posted on : 2016-03-03 17:34 KST Modified on : 2016-03-03 17:34 KST
Opposition parties had resisted giving more power to the NIS due to its history of political meddling and human rights abuses
Minjoo Party of Korea floor leader Lee Jong-geol holds back tears as he speaks last in the opposition’s filibuster that attempted to block the passage of the anti-terror bill
Minjoo Party of Korea floor leader Lee Jong-geol holds back tears as he speaks last in the opposition’s filibuster that attempted to block the passage of the anti-terror bill

Despite a filibuster by opposition parties that lasted for nine days, the government and the ruling Saenuri Party (NFP) refused to budge an inch.

The bill for the Anti-Terror Act for Protection of the People and Public Safety - which strengthens the authority of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) to an unprecedented degree by enabling it to collect information, question, and track suspected terrorists - survived a record-setting 190-hour-long filibuster to receive the approval of the National Assembly. This is only increasing concerns that South Korea is witnessing the transformation of its spy agency into a monster.

After the opposition parties‘ filibuster concluded with a speech by Lee Jong-geol, floor leader of the Minjoo Party of Korea, the main session of the National Assembly passed the anti-terror bill, with only lawmakers from the Saenuri Party in attendance. All of the opposition parties that had taken part in the filibuster against passing the law - the Minjoo Party of Korea, the People’s Party and the Justice Party - boycotted the session in which the bill was passed.

While legislation for the anti-terror act, spearheaded by the NIS, was first prepared in Nov. 2001, during the presidency of Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), it failed to clear the hurdle of the National Assembly amid various controversies. But now, 14 years and four months later, it has become law.

The primary components of the new law are to set up an anti-terror center under the Office of the Prime Minister, which will coordinate and carry out anti-terror activities, and to enable the NIS to collect financial information, personal information (including sensitive information about ideology, beliefs and health), phone records and location information for individuals suspected of terrorism. It also gives the NIS the authority to question and to track down such individuals.

This makes it possible for the NIS to directly exercise powers that have been the prerogative of the investigative authorities (that is, the police and the prosecutors), after following legal protocols, including submitting a written request to the court for a warrant.

Opposition parties and activist groups have also taken issue with the act’s definition of suspected terrorists, which they argue could be exploited arbitrarily to shut down criticism of the government. Suspected terrorists, the act says, are “members of terrorist groups or individuals who have or who can reasonably be suspected of having promoted terrorist groups, raised money for or donated to terrorist causes or otherwise prepared for, plotted, promoted, or agitated for acts of terrorism.”

While the act provides the NIS with awesome powers that have led some to call it a leviathan, the only measure it takes to check and limit civil rights infringements is adding a civil rights protection officer to the National Terror Countermeasures Council, which is chaired by the Prime Minister.

Given the NIS’s sordid history of meddling in politics and violating civil rights - including the online comment scandal during the 2012 presidential election campaign, the unauthorized release of the transcript of the inter-Korean summit, the fabrication of evidence during the espionage trial of Seoul public servant and North Korean refugee Yoo Woo-sung and the mobile phone hacking scandal - the addition of a single protection officer is unlikely to assuage public worries.

In order to pass the anti-terror bill, President Park Geun-hye, the Saenuri Party and the NIS have marshaled every related incident as evidence for the need of this legislation, including last year‘s knife attack on US Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert and the terrorist attack in Paris. And then last month, after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and launched a long-range missile in short order, these groups doubled down on the sense of crisis and pushed ahead with the legislation.

Even National Assembly Speaker Chung Ui-hwa, who had refused to use his authority as speaker to bring economic bills to the floor, was forced under pressure by conservatives to creatively interpret the situation as “a national emergency,” bringing the anti-terror bill to the floor for a vote on Feb. 23.

On Wednesday, the ruling and opposition parties passed the North Korean Human Rights Act, along with a revision to the Public Official Election Act, which outlines the election districts that will be used in the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for Apr. 13. Now that the districts have been determined, the various parties are moving into full election mode, hurrying to nominate candidates for the elections.

By Hwang Jun-beom, staff reporter

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