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Politics

South Korea revamps notorious spy agency for reconciliation

Police to track North's espionage as domestic intelligence operations end

South Korean police officers stand guard in front of the Constitutional Court in Seoul.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in's administration will strip down the spy agency used decades ago by predecessor Park Chung-hee to quash dissent, a long-sought goal of progressive reformers worried about interference in domestic politics.

The proposal agreed on by the government and the ruling party would rebrand the National Intelligence Service as the External Intelligence and Security Service while significantly limiting the scope of its activities. Domestic intelligence collection would be entirely halted, with responsibility for investigations into suspected espionage by the North shifted to the police.

A predecessor of the NIS, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, was established in 1961 under the rule of strongman Park, who was assassinated by the agency's director in 1979. Under President Chun Doo-hwan, who took power in a coup, the body was renamed the Agency for National Security Planning. The current name was adopted in 1999 during President Kim Dae-jung's tenure.

Whatever the name, the agency has a history of being used to take down political opponents and stamp out pro-democratic activism.

The KCIA was revealed to have engineered the 1973 abduction of Kim, then a dissident leader, in Tokyo. More recently, the government of conservative President Lee Myung-bak used the NIS to attack opposition candidates online and manipulate public opinion ahead of the 2012 presidential election.

Park Jie-won, who played a key role in the historic 2000 North-South summit, was named the new head of South Korea's National Intelligence Service last month.   © Yonhap/Reuters

Such activities have made reform of the NIS a major goal of progressives, along with prosecutorial reform. Moon's platform in the 2017 election called for changes to protect against abuses including political interference and fabrication of espionage charges.

But members of the intelligence community and conservative media warn that stripping the agency of investigative authority could weaken Seoul's counterintelligence capabilities. The NIS is more effective at keeping tabs on North Korea than even the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in large part because of human intelligence from refugees from the North and operatives along the Chinese border.

Pyongyang has positioned spies in Europe, Japan and Southeast Asia. South Korean police have few information-gathering resources overseas, making cooperation with intelligence services in other countries essential.

"The National Intelligence Service communicates with the CIA, Japan's Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office" and others, a source familiar with the situation said. "Whether their confidential information can be shared with police is an issue."

Meanwhile, Moon has pinned his hopes on the NIS for a different task: breaking through the deadlock in North-South relations. Appointments to top positions in the agency since July appear to have been made with an eye toward promoting reconciliation.

Most notably, Park Jie-won, a former chief presidential secretary to Kim, was confirmed as NIS director in late July. Park, who played a key role in the historic 2000 summit between his boss and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, is accused of having signed a secret agreement with Pyongyang that year pledging billions of dollars in economic assistance. He has denied the allegation.

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