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Rebuilding the NIS

NIS agents have been valued for their political loyalty instead of their expertise. That has to change.
Nov 07,2017
Israel and Iran have long been engaged in a proxy conflict with each other. Five Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated between 2007, when Tehran accelerated nuclear development, and 2012. Iran suspected the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, was behind the killings, but due to the Mossad’s meticulous and clandestine work, no one was found accountable.

Iran’s spy agency, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, threatened counterterrorist efforts, but they were stopped by the Mossad every time. Iran was no match against Israel’s espionage skill. In July 2015, Iran reached a landmark deal with the United States and European Union to freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions. Assassination is a serious crime, but it must be a huge comfort for the Israelis to have such an apt security agency fighting for their safety and national interests.

Israel and South Korea both founded governments in 1948. The Korean Peninsula is in as perilous a state as the Middle East and has long been considered a potential flashpoint. North Korea claims to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb and flaunts its long-range missiles that can carry a nuclear warhead over the Pacific. The world is closely watching how far North Korea will go in its nuclear provocations and reign of terror.

The barrage of news and revelations about political meddling at the hands of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) raises questions about what our spy agency has been doing over the years. Has it actually been doing any of its primary work, such as espionage to stop North Korea’s nuclear development? From the prosecution’s findings, the NIS under its chief Won Sei-hoon in the Lee Myung-bak administration may have been too busy blacklisting, spying and carrying out negative campaigns on anti-government and liberal figures to have any time or resources left for its surveillance of North Korea.

During this period, the NIS was behind a slanderous campaign against opposition lawmakers, banning outspoken entertainers and blacklisting artists critical of the conservative government. Because of its engagement at home, its intelligence on external and North Korean affairs weakened. Its human intelligence capacity was destabilized. The 4 billion won ($3.6 million) that President Park Geun-hye’s three closest aides took out from the agency’s special activities account to spend on Park’s campaign should have gone to external espionage missions. That money, which was excluded from the legislature’s budgetary scrutiny, should have been spent on external intelligence activities, not on espionage against the country’s own citizens.

The conservative presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, who criticized their liberal predecessors Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun for their generous charity to North Korea, appear to have helped themselves to the intelligence agency’s special budget for domestic political maneuvering and private expenses.

The ruling power should be blamed for the fall of the NIS. Although Pyongyang in essence never changed, Seoul under liberal and conservative governments has shifted its approach and policies. During 10 years of liberal governments, past elites were treated as national traitors. Then conservative governments purged left-leaning officials and made appointments in their favor. NIS agents have been valued for their political loyalty instead of their expertise. In 2011, the agency became a source of ridicule when its agents were caught trying to steal documents from Indian delegates who were in Seoul in 2011 for negotiations on arms purchases.

The South Korean people have become immune to warlike tensions. They have become indifferent to North Korean news, as if they were affairs on the other side of the world. No intelligence agency in the world has been more humiliated than the NIS.

Under the current liberal president, Moon Jae-in, the NIS has become the top target for overhaul. Moon said the work to fix the past ills is not politically motivated but aimed to restore national discipline. If that is true, the faster the better. NIS agents must no longer be treated as secret police doing the dirty work of the ruling power. We must recreate the NIS as the home to efficient, reliable and skilled spy agents.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 6, Page 32

*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Jo Kang-su