NIS mired in power struggle amid security crisis


President Yoon Suk Yeol sacked National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director Kim Kyou-hyun and his two deputies last Friday.

It was unprecedented for a president to simultaneously dismiss the top three officials of the nation’s spy agency. He has since filled the two deputy director posts but left the top NIS position vacant.

That was another first.

Chief executives usually appoint an NIS director first and pick the deputies based on the director's recommendations. The presidential office said selecting the NIS chief takes time as it requires a confirmation hearing in the National Assembly. However, critics suspect the move reflects Yoon’s intention to bring the NIS under his direct control. Maybe, maybe not.

The reversed appointment could lead to disharmony — or mutiny — at the top echelon of the spy agency. These concerns are valid, given the ongoing turmoil was caused by friction among the three officials. Few outsiders know what’s going on inside the spy agency. Only time will tell.

There are things even the general public knows well, however.

Since Yoon took office in May last year, the NIS has been embroiled in a power struggle between the old and new cadres. That is not news itself. Whenever a new government begins business, the spy agency undergoes a personnel reshuffle. The change is especially big when the power shifts from conservatives to progressives and vice versa.

Still, the internal strife accompanying the power change used to end after a few months. In this government, however, it has lasted 18 months. That reportedly was because Kim’s attempts at a sweeping purge of the previous government’s staff ran into stiff resistance from the existing officials who called for a more gradual change. Yoon’s foot-dragging has also aggravated the conflict. It may be due to the chief executive’s lack of leadership or hidden intentions. Whatever the case, the NIS is now in shambles.

Why the president abruptly sacked the top three officials after procrastinating for so long needs to be clarified. Yoon doesn’t even have a candidate for the next NIS chief. Media reports say he was upset to hear they kept fighting when the entire government was busy in Paris trying to bring the World Expo 2030 to Busan. If true, that only shows the incumbent leader is more emotional than calculating.

Opposition parties blamed Yoon for letting the NIS go astray and called for convening the Assembly's Intelligence Committee. We agree.

The turmoil at the NIS couldn’t have come at a worse moment. Wars are going on in Europe and the Middle East, and North Korea is more hostile than ever. Now is not the time, and there has never been such a time, for the NIS to be mired in an internal struggle. The world is returning to the Cold War era under which the intelligence war will intensify.

South Koreans are unsure whether their spy agency is prepared for the North’s sophisticated cyberwarfare tactics. Industrial espionage is also of increasing importance. Rapid chasers, including China, try to steal Korea’s manufacturing technology. The NIS has no time to waste.

We know most NIS officials work hard for their country. However, there have been some dark sides to the top spy agency since its beginning as the Korea Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). It once cracked down on pro-democracy activists and meddled in politics later. Liberal presidents tried to turn it into an apolitical agency focusing on intelligence-gathering duties. Such efforts should continue regardless of changes in political power.

The NIS must not go back to its politicized past. Inter-Korean relations show signs of going back several decades, but the top spy agency must not follow suit. Monitoring political opponents and manipulating spies should have no place in a 21st-century intelligence agency.

The country's president must pick the next NIS chief among politically neutral experts. NIS agents may need to cooperate with their counterparts from friendly countries, but must be able to outflank them when needed.

When lawmakers pressed the former NIS director on the allegation that the U.S. installed surveillance devices in the presidential office, he kept mum.

The next NIS chief must display more capability and independence.

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Spy agency in disarray

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28.11.2023
NIS mired in power struggle amid security crisis


President Yoon Suk Yeol sacked National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director Kim Kyou-hyun and his two deputies last Friday.

It was unprecedented for a president to simultaneously dismiss the top three officials of the nation’s spy agency. He has since filled the two deputy director posts but left the top NIS position vacant.

That was another first.

Chief executives usually appoint an NIS director first and pick the deputies based on the director's recommendations. The presidential office said selecting the NIS chief takes time as it requires a confirmation hearing in the National Assembly. However, critics suspect the move reflects Yoon’s intention to bring the NIS under his direct control. Maybe, maybe not.

The reversed appointment could lead to disharmony — or mutiny — at the top echelon of the spy agency. These concerns are valid, given the ongoing turmoil was caused by friction among the three officials. Few outsiders know what’s going on inside the spy agency. Only time will........

© The Korea Times


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