Korea's top intelligence agency is at the center of another controversy. This time, the former leader of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) faces investigation for allegedly manipulating the presidential campaign.
Controversy is nothing new for the NIS. Over the last decade, seven out of its 10 directors were either investigated or jailed, and now Won Sei-hoon faces a similar fate.
Won, who was appointed director under the Lee Myung-bak administration, was banned from leaving Korea this week. The opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) plans to file a criminal complaint against Won, alleging he masterminded a plot to influence the most recent presidential election. The party claims Won manipulated public opinion by instructing agents to write comments online in support of President Park Geun-hye and her party during the presidential campaign last year.
A female NIS agent admitted to writing comments online through multiple social media accounts. The allegation was only confirmed after the election.
The DUP called this kind of political manipulation a grave crime that deserves jail time. It urged President Park to arrest Won and apologize for the agency's wrongdoings. If President Park refuses, the party said it will uncover the truth behind Won's crimes.
Won is also accused of mobilizing NIS agents to further Lee's iconic projects, including the Four-River Restoration Project, the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and Lee's initiative to help Korean firms secure orders to build nuclear power plants in the Middle East.
During Won's four-year term, the NIS made critical errors. In 2010, Libyan leaders claimed NIS agents illegally gained intelligence in Tripoli, and because of this threatened to sever diplomatic ties with Korea. In another instance, an NIS agent was photographed in his car while trailing a UN human rights personnel in Seoul. In 2011, an NIS agent was accused of stealing a computer from a hotel in Seoul where an Indonesian delegation was staying. In 2012, an NIS agent was caught conducting surveillance, and consequently was tied upside down in a phone booth by progressive activists.
The agency was also slow in recovering information. For example, it did not know about the death of Kim Jong-il until North Korea's media announced it. It also failed to warn the government about North Korea's sinking Navy ship, shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 and missile launch last December.
Many of the crimes former agency directors committed are connected to greed and attempts to please their boss, namely the incumbent President. For example, director Kim Jae-kyu killed former President Park Chung-hee in 1979. Kwon Young-hae was indicted four times for his plot to portray presidential candidate Kim Dae-jung as a Communist during the 1997 campaign. His predecessor, Kim Deok, was investigated for running an eavesdropping team outside the NIS. Lee Jong-chan, a director under the Kim Dae-jung administration, was humiliated for his alleged manipulation of the media in1999. Two other directors, Shin Kuhn and Lim Dong-won, were convicted for wiretapping. In fact, many NIS employees were victims of the government. During the transitions from the conservative to the liberal governments and vice versa, many talented and experienced agents were sidelined, which weakened the NIS.
Whenever there is a shift in power at the agency, the new director sidelines old agents and promotes new ones. This divided the agency and caused disgruntled agents to leak sensitive information to the opposition party and the media. For instance, many of the tips on Won's recent wrongdoings came from alienated NIS agents.
Such problems undermine the positive work of the agency, including the successful rescuing of Korean sailors Somali pirates held in Aden Bay in 2011.
Former liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun sought to overhaul the agency. In 2003, Roh named a former human rights lawyer, Ko Young-koo, to head the agency. Both presidents tried to remove the anti-communist bureaus inside the agency and to transfer domestic intelligence and surveillance activities to the police. However, the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration restored the anti-communist bureaus.
Conservative leaders blamed liberal presidents for weakening the NIS while liberal leaders criticized conservative presidents for mobilizing the agency for suppressing human rights, taming progressive activists, eulogizing the heads of state and trying to manipulate the media.
Won tried to prevent agents from leaking information to outside parties by subjecting them to a lie detector test, but this did little to curb the behavior of NIS employees.
The new NIS Director Nam Jae-joon, a former four-star general, pledged to increase intelligence gathering on North Korea; however, to be successful, Nam will have to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors.
To this end, Nam needs to make some changes. First, he must ensure the agency promotes employees on merit, not on cronyism or regional ties.
Even when power shifts in government, he must ensure NIS employees are fairly treated. Without such a guarantee, NIS employees will only work for those who help them get promoted and might be tempted to abuse confidential intelligence for personal gains.
The NIS is an invaluable resource to the country's national security. To protect it, the government should make the agency politically neutral, so it can work for the country, not for those in power.
Conservatives and liberals should transcend ideology and work together to help the agency protect liberal democracy in a divided Korean Peninsula. The government should leave the agency alone to ensure its integrity.