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Living Up to its own Hype: The Re-invention of the NIS

Dr Seung-chan Boo

Researcher, Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies

The NIS ‘the nation’s top intelligence agency’ is granted the mission of promoting the nation and protecting national security information. The NIS will never be a group of amateurs but of professionals.’

However, is the NIS truly professional? On the 13th of May this past spring, the Intelligence Committee of the National Assembly held a meeting. The NIS shared, without verification, information about the possible death (by shooting) of the North Korean Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol. If the NIS is professional, it would not have provided this information to the general public guiding them to think a certain way but rather report the verification of Hyon Yong-chol’s death with evidence so the general public could gather by the facts what had happened. Luckily for the NIS, two months after they announced that Hyon Yong-chol was executed by anti-aircraft fire, it was confirmed to be true. However imagine how the NIS would have been perceived if they had turned out to be wrong. The relationship between North and South Korea was strained to begin with, but the relationship along with the NIS’s image could have dramatically worsened if the NIS’s announcement turned out to be incorrect.

Recent news regarding the “hacking program purchases” by the NIS is also amplifying social controversy. Lee Byung-ho, the chief of the NIS claimed, “it is true that we purchased the hacking program but it was not for domestic surveillance purposes.” However the truth that the NIS used hacking programs on South Korean civilians was later revealed; as controversial truths are revealed one after the other, the NIS is falling into a mysterious labyrinth. The purchase of the hacking program for counter-intelligence or hacking civilians will be determined through lawful procedures, and if the NIS is found guilty, it will need to take full responsibility for its action. However beyond this, the manner in which the NIS’s went about purchasing the hacking program makes it difficult for the intelligence agency to live up to its claim of being ‘the nation’s best’. The hacking program was purchased for the purpose of intelligence activities, yet with a complete lack of discretion since the NIS wrote its own address for the shipment. As a ‘gun’ is life for a soldier, ‘invisibility’ is life for an intelligence agency. In other words, the moment an intelligence agency loses invisibility, the value of the intelligence agency, and its very existence loses all meaning.

The National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee is also required to keep national secrets, yet they don’t. This is making it even more difficult for the NIS to reinvent itself as the nation’s best intelligence agency. As the general public can check recent events, the committee members of the National Assembly could check and share the sensitive information of the NIS according their own interest (yet the National Assembly should be keeping matters of national intelligence a secret). In the case of the United States, the CIA Committee issues thousands of reports each year, yet rarely leak information. In the US if the committee doesn’t keep these secrets, the court can give the senator a warning, impeach him/her, or sentence the senator for criminal offenses. Unlike the United States, the NIS is not required to report intelligence information to the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee (Paragraph 1 Section 13 of the National Intelligence Service Act states ‘the Chief of the NIS does not have to report all national secrets to the National Assembly). The NIS is not required to tell the National Assembly everything and if a senator revealed a national secret there is no penalty clause. The Saenuridang Party is currently distorting intelligence information according to its own interests there is no end in sight to this cycle.

In conclusion, in order for the NIS to reinvent itself as the nation’s best intelligence agency, it and the National Assembly both need laws for them to take full responsibility when revealing national secrets. In order to do so, more than anything else, an amendment requiring the overseeing of the NIS’s funding and activities by the National Assembly must be created. The National Committee members who have not kept national secrets should also be impeached and face criminal penalty, like the US policies require.

Translated by Victoria Kim

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