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NIS probes its own abuse of power under past 2 presidents

July 13,2017
The country’s intelligence agency has decided to conduct internal investigations into 13 cases of its own domestic political interference as part of a campaign to clean up its act.

Suh Hoon, the new director at the National Intelligence Service (NIS), briefed the Intelligence Committee of the National Assembly on Tuesday about the agency’s plan to get to the bottom of some of the most controversial accusations against it. While Suh vowed to reveal the nasty secrets in an attempt at transparency, all 13 cases occurred during the tenures of the last two conservative administrations, prompting howls of outrage from the opposition parties.

Just hours after being sworn in, President Moon Jae-in appointed Suh as the new intelligence chief on May 10. Suh vowed to reinvent the agency by putting an end to a long history of intervening in domestic politics. Last month, the NIS established an internal reform committee comprised of two task forces. One of the teams is supposed to suggest ways to reorganize the agency. The other was tasked to investigate its unlawful interventions in domestic politics in the past.

According to Rep. Kim Byung-kee of the Democratic Party, who attended the briefing, Suh informed the committee that the task force chose 13 particular cases to probe and vowed to thoroughly investigate them.

Among them was the NIS’s cyber operation to smear Moon when he unsuccessfully ran for president in 2012. Moon was narrowly defeated by his conservative rival Park Geun-hye.

The team will also investigate the NIS’s decision in 2013 to make public a transcript of the 2007 inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang to back a claim by the ruling party at the time, the Saenuri Party, that was made during the presidential campaign a few months earlier. The party, the predecessor of the Liberty Korea Party, produced two conservative presidents, Lee Myung-bak in 2007 and Park in 2012.

On the eve of the 2012 presidential campaign, the Saenuri Party used a transcript of a dialogue between then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during the 2007 summit to discredit Moon, who had served as Roh’s chief of staff. It said Roh disavowed the Northern Limit Line, the de facto western maritime border with North Korea, at the summit. The Saenuri Party labeled Moon “pro-Pyongyang” for his role in the summit and his closeness with Roh.

In 2013, the NIS confirmed the veracity of the transcript that was leaked during the campaign, which violated the law governing national secrets.

The NIS said it will investigate how the transcript was leaked during the campaign and why the agency made the decision to later confirm its veracity.

The task force will also investigate the NIS’s manipulation of evidence in 2013 to accuse a North Korean defector working for the Seoul Metropolitan Government of being a North Korean spy. The Supreme Court acquitted Yu Wu-seong of the espionage charge, and a mid-ranking NIS official and an outsourced broker working for the agency were prosecuted for fabricating evidence against him.

The agency will also investigate an allegation that one of its internal reports was the basis of the Park administration’s campaign to crack down on artists critical of the government. The “blacklist” of artists was reportedly based on an internal report of the NIS describing the artists’ political views or activities.

An alleged operation in 2013 to weaken the political influence of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon will also be investigated.

Another target is a suspicion that the NIS was responsible for having leaked sensitive personal information about then-Prosecutor General Chae Dong-wook, prompting his resignation in 2013.

Chae was forced to step down because of rumors that he had a love child with a former paramour. At the time, he was leading the probe into whether the NIS had interfered in 2012 presidential campaign to help Park, and speculation was high that the Blue House and the NIS dredged up the scandal to get him off the investigation.

Another target of the task force will be the infamous “watch” scandal involving the late President Roh. The NIS was accused of making public a fabricated rumor about Roh and his wife while he was being investigated in a bribery scandal in 2009.

As the former president was being questioned by prosecutors, local media reported that he and his wife received two luxury watches from a patron, Taekwang Industrial Chairman Park Yeon-cha, in 2006 as birthday gifts. One of the reports said Roh told the prosecutors that his wife received the watches without informing him but later threw them away in a rice paddy nearby their home in Bongha, South Gyeongsang, after an investigation started.

The report made the former president a subject of public ridicule. After Roh committed suicide, the prosecution was condemned for having humiliated him.

In 2015, Lee In-kyu, who headed the Roh probe, said the NIS led the political operation to shame Roh over the watches, but the intelligence agency denied its responsibility. The upcoming probe will be the first attempt to reveal the truth about that scandal.

The internal probe will also look into an allegation that the NIS gave secret briefings to Woo Byung-woo when he was civil affairs senior secretary of the Park Blue House. The NIS’s alleged supports for conservative civic groups’ street protests will also be investigated.

Suspicions about the NIS’s ties with Cheonghaejin Marine Co., the operator of the Sewol ferry that sank in 2014, will also be investigated. Some media reported that the spy agency maintained a close relationship with the company for undetermined reasons. Some said the company had several phone calls with the NIS on the day of the tragic accident.

The task force will also investigate a suspicion that the NIS carried out a surveillance operation of the Constitutional Court while it was holding the impeachment trial of Park.

“If the cases require investigations, we are prepared to go after them, regardless of which administration the incidents took place under,” Suh told the lawmakers during the committee briefing.

The NIS told the committee that its plan to yank skeletons from its own closet won the approval of its own employees. An internal survey of its workers showed that 81 percent said the task force was necessary. Some 78 percent of NIS workers also responded that they will cooperate with the investigations if they have any knowledge of the cases.

The ruling Democratic Party welcomed the initiative and demanded thorough and intense probes to completely reform the NIS.

The opposition parties, who have the most to lose, said it was “political revenge” as most of the alleged abuses took place during the presidencies of Lee and Park. According to a committee member, opposition lawmakers said the task force’s investigation will actually drag the agency further into domestic politics and invite more political retaliation later.

“The aim of the NIS’s reform campaign should be ending its tie to politics,” Rep. Lee Cheol-woo of the Liberty Korea Party, chairman of the intelligence committee, said after the briefing.

The Bareun Party said the 13 cases are concentrated on a particular time period and that brings the political neutrality of the initiative into question.

Rep. Shin Kyoung-min of the Democratic Party defended the NIS’s decision. “It is fair to raise criticisms that the task force is targeting operations carried out under Presidents Lee and Park,” he said. “But it is still meaningful that the NIS has decided to investigate its own past. This is the starting point of reform.”

The NIS also told lawmakers about a reorganization. The agency will change the titles of its three deputy directors and redefine their roles. The first deputy director will be in charge of overseas intelligence operations, the second of North Korea affairs and the third of anti-espionage operations.

BY SER MYO-JA, YOO SEONG-WOON [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]