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NIS vows to give up anti-espionage mission

Nov 30,2017
The country’s spy agency Wednesday vowed to surrender all investigative powers, including its long-held privilege to go after spies and pro-North Korea operatives, in order to reinvent itself and atone for meddling in domestic politics in the past.

In a meeting with lawmakers on the Intelligence Committee of the National Assembly, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) gave a briefing about its reform plan. A series of impressive measures were presented, including a plan to stop all domestic security operations.

“We plan to rename the NIS the Foreign Security Intelligence Service,” the NIS said in a press release. “We will also delete the term ‘domestic security’ from the scope of our duties because it allowed the NIS to use too much discretion.

“We will define our mission more specifically, such as gathering intelligence on North Korea, threats to our defense industry and economic security, and preventing cyber terrorism against the state and public entities,” it said. “Investigating pro-Communist activities and North Korea’s attempts to overthrow the South Korean government will be excluded from the scope of our duties.”

The NIS said it will relinquish its investigative powers on pro-North, anti-state cases to other institutions to avoid controversy, human rights abuses and abuse of power. “We will limit our activities to collecting information on national security infringements,” it said.

Abolishing the NIS’s power to investigate anti-state crimes was a presidential pledge of Moon Jae-in. Moon and his associates have long argued that the NIS’s predecessors - the Korea Central Intelligence Agency and the Agency for National Security Planning - abused their power to oppress opponents of authoritarian regimes in the past.

It remains to be seen who will take over the power to investigate anti-state activities. Speculation is high that the NIS will relinquish that power to the police. Moon’s presidential pledge was to create a security investigation bureau in the National Police Agency.

The NIS also said it will stop collecting intelligence on two particular crimes punishable under the National Security Act.

The law punishes a person who praises, incites or propagates antigovernment activities or a rebellion against the state with the knowledge of the fact that it may endanger the existence and security of the state or democratic fundamental order. Any person who fails to inform the authorities of a violator of the National Security Act can also be punished by the law.

According to the reform plan, the NIS said it will report to the Intelligence Committee the specifics of its budget proposals and spending. An oversight committee will be established inside the agency to review special operations expenses. The agency also plans to foreswear unsanctioned surveillance and wiretapping.

The NIS drafted a bill on its reform measures and submitted it to the Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.

Since Moon took office in May, the NIS has vowed to reveal misdeeds from the past, particularly domestic political operations conducted during the tenures of the last two conservative presidents, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. The reform measure was a part of the NIS’s attempt to reinvent the agency by ending a long history of intervening in domestic politics.

Meanwhile, the Intelligence Committee slashed 68 billion won ($63 million), or 19 percent, from the NIS’s budget proposal for next year’s special expenses account.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]