Police and National Intelligence Service agents block the entrance of the KCTU headquarters in downtown Seoul during a raid on Jan. 18. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)
On Wednesday National Intelligence Service (NIS) agents and police conducted a search and seizure on the offices of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union (KHMWU).
The targets were two officials — one in each union — who were suspected of violating the National Security Act. The NIS has recently been investigating claims of meetings between North Korean operatives and KCTU members in the Jeju and South Gyeongsang regions. Now it appears to be casting its net far and wide.
While we’ll have to see the investigation’s outcome to know the true nature of the situation, we need to be on guard on the off chance that the NIS is deliberately going overboard with its investigation in order to hold on to its authority for “anti-communist investigations,” which is set to pass over to police next year thanks to an amendment to the NIS Act.
For now, the KCTU and KHMWU have fired back that the raids are “excessive.” They claim that the investigators were putting on a show by enlisting hundreds of police and firefighters — along with an anti-falling air mattress and ladders — to search the desk and cabinet of a single union official, when they weren’t even executing an arrest warrant or targeting the entire union with their search.
In fact, the union cooperated with the search and seizure once an attorney was present. Another difference from ordinary national security investigations is the fact that details about what the NIS was investigating were reported in detail in certain news outlets — when things have not even reached the stage of requesting arrest warrants.
Observers in civil society are saying the investigation is a show of force meant to keep national security investigation authority in NIS hands.
“We have to wonder if this was not a case of making a show of raiding KCTU and putting on a media spectacle as part of a plan to regain national security investigation authority, the transfer of which is central to NIS reforms,” said the National Intelligence Service Watchdog Network — an organization with members including MINBYUN-Lawyers for a Democratic Society, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, and the Catholic Human Rights Committee — in a statement Wednesday.
Adding to these concerns is the fact that around the same time details about the NIS investigations were being leaked to the press, the People Power Party (PPP) began broaching the topic of keeping national security investigation powers with the NIS.
On Jan. 12, Chung Jin-suk, who chairs the PPP’s emergency committee, said that it was “right that the NIS should capture spies.” The presidential office has reportedly been pursuing the creation of a permanent joint investigation team between the NIS and police.
This sort of regressive activity undoes the NIS reforms achieved by the Moon Jae-in administration. The NIS has a history of numerous episodes involving false espionage allegations; not all that long ago, it forged evidence during the Park Geun-hye administration to falsely accuse Seoul metropolitan government employee Yu Woo-sung of spying.
Reforming the NIS is something that our era demands of us as a way of breaking the vicious cycle of fraudulent, human rights-violating investigation and interference in domestic politics.
The NIS should keep in mind that its attempts to undo what progress has been made only underline the need for those reforms in the first place.
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