[Up close in Yeouido] Spy
Since its establishment in 1961 as the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service has not only collected intelligence on cases related to North Korea, but also investigated them. Come January, the South’s most important intelligence headquarters will be barred from investigating cases related to North Korea.
Rep. Kim Byung-kee of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, a former high-ranking official at the NIS, says prohibiting the intelligence agency from engaging in law enforcement activities -- even those concerning North Korea -- was necessary to establish democratic control over its security services.
“The intelligence service has become accustomed to flouting legal boundaries on the pretext of protecting national security, and is nearly free from outside control,” the spy-turned-lawmaker told a recent interview with The Korea Herald.
Taking away investigative functions from the NIS is one of the first steps in “institutionalizing democratic control and accountability” of South Korean intelligence, he said, making the case for the contested law that bars NIS involvement in North Korea-related investigations. A key pledge of the previous President Moon Jae-in administration, the revised law was passed by the Democratic Party of Korea without support from the People Power Party.
The reason for removing the NIS’ authority to investigate cases with possible national security implications, mainly those specified in the National Security Act, is “very simple,” he said. The functions to collect intelligence and the authorities to investigate crimes, he argued, were a “dangerous mix” prone to abuse of power.
“For most intelligence communities around the world, a single agency does not possess both powers -- to collect intelligence information and to investigate criminal activities. That is the established norm for security and intelligence agencies in advanced democracies,” the lawmaker explained.
The NIS bypassing legal boundaries or constraints has been “excused to an extent by the nature of its role and responsibilities such as clandestine collection of foreign intelligence,” he said.
Kim said the agency’s domestic activities, however, needed to be placed under tighter scrutiny.
He said that the NIS was the “only state body that gets a pass operating almost lawlessly for the best interests of the country and our citizens," adding, "I think that the service should not be allowed to continue to wield those powers against private citizens right here at home,” he said.
Asked why it was the police taking over the jurisdiction currently held by the NIS, he said that the police are “naturally far more transparent.” “The police are much easier to keep tabs on than the intelligence service, which has to act in secrecy. The police, on the other hand, are an open and public organization,” he said.
Kim, who left the NIS in 2013 after 26 years of service, said that his mission in politics is to stop the top intelligence agency from repeating its dark history. The public distrust of the NIS, as shown in a string of public opinion polls, was a result of “its own record of civil rights abuses.”
He said that if left unchecked, the NIS could once again be put back in the business of gathering information about South Koreans or wrongly accusing them of working for enemies. “When you think about it, those days aren’t too far back in time,” he said.
To illustrate his point, he cited a 2013 case of a Seoul civil servant named Yu Woo-sung whom the court found was misidentified as a spy against the country.
Yu, an ethnic Chinese who defected from North Korea to the South, was then accused by the agency and the prosecution of leaking information about North Korean defectors while working at the city’s office. Two years later in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that he was innocent. Since the final ruling, the ex-civil servant has become a promotional figure for the country’s progressive front campaigning to reform the NIS.
“There could be hundreds who had been wrongfully targeted like Yu that we just haven’t heard about,” the lawmaker said.
Kim, rating the NIS as “among the best in the world” at what it does, stressed that the agency could afford to lose the authority to carry out criminal investigations without its national security capabilities being undermined.
Instead, the area in which the NIS needs beefing up was cybersecurity, said the former spy, whose tone on intelligence reform is much less radical still than his party’s rhetoric calling for further weakening of the top agency.
In 2021, he authored a bill making the NIS the government headquarters for cyber defense -- which never passed amid opposition in his own party.
He said he believes intelligence reform led by the Democratic Party comes with some side effects.
Barred from gathering domestic intelligence, he said the NIS lost its ability to monitor corruption occurring on a local level, leaving municipalities distant from central powers out of sight of surveillance.
The World Scout Jamboree fiasco, the botched global scouting event held in North Jeolla Province in August, has been cited by proponents in favor of reviving the NIS’ domestic intelligence gathering programs, as an example of why they are necessary.
According to Kim, to prevent the NIS from breaking laws and making incursions into the privacy of ordinary South Koreans, the service needs to be put under tighter surveillance by the National Assembly as well as the president.
While the NIS is subject to Assembly audits like other government agencies, it is still able to dodge questions or requests from lawmakers for reasons of national security.
“There has to be a system in place that requires the NIS to brief selected members of the Assembly, namely its intelligence committee, and to the president,” he said.
“Our intelligence community was able to engage in illegal activities such as controlling the press and violating the privacy of phone data in the past because we didn’t have a system that effectively prohibits them from engaging in such activities," according to Kim.
He said it is “no excuse” that these actions were conducted with the interests of the country in mind.
“We cannot allow the NIS to continue to exist without eliminating these risks that threaten our democracy,” he said. “More than anything the reform is necessary for the NIS to do its job, because in a democracy any institution must earn the trust of the public.”