[Special reportage- NIS part I] Intel gathering, political interference and surveillance

Posted on : 2013-07-01 11:26 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Recent election scandal leads to investigation into wide net of NIS agents’ political involvement
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By Kim Nam-il, staff reporter

A parliamentary investigation into the National Intelligence Service’s (NIS) manipulation of public opinion during last December’s presidential election is set to begin soon. In the wake of this incident, calls for special measures to prevent political interference in the future are growing. Steps are being demanded to prevent the kind of widespread gathering of intelligence that is currently taking place not in the political and business worlds, but in with the media, academia, and civil society. This part of a special reportage series on the NIS looks at some of the problems with NIS’s intelligence-gathering tactics and offers some suggestions as to what kind of reforms might work.


It was the evening of June 24, and the politicians in Seoul’s Yeouido neighborhood were bowled over by the NIS’s surprising - and illegal - disclosure of transcripts from the 2007 inter-Korean summit between then-President Roh Moo-hyun and late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. A drinking party was taking place at a nearby restaurant, with an NIS agent in charge of the National Assembly in attendance. Others at the dinner included lawmakers’ aides, securities company senior managers, political journalists, and polling organization heads. They went back and forth over Roh’s purported comments about the Northern Limit Line (NLL) and the NIS’s election tactics, before the conversation eventually drifted to claims from the securities company senior manager that a figure from Roh’s administration had manipulated stock prices. The prosecutors hadn’t thoroughly investigated the matter, the senior manager griped.

In the past, the NIS had what used to be called “coordinators.” These were agents who frequented government agencies, courts, and prosecutors’ offices to gather information on personnel appointments, policies, and improprieties. They also handled various complaints, and even coordinated and resolved conflicts over duties between organizations. After the Roh administration took office in 2003, the resident coordinator system at government agencies was ended - part of an effort to prevent political meddling by the NIS. But the agents continue to be found all over, newly christened by the organization as “intelligence officers” (IOs) or “liaison officers.” Believed to number in the hundreds, these agents frequent the National Assembly, government agencies, local governments, courts, prosecutors’ offices, news outlets, businesses, financial institutions, hotels, universities, and civic groups to collect various kinds of intelligence, which is prepared and presented every afternoon in a report to NIS headquarters. Some of the more sensitive details are analyzed and processed by the NIS, the reported directly to the President.

Also, some of the IOs and liaison officers go beyond the call of their intelligence collection duties. The NIS has been plagued by recent scandals about political interference and surveillance while working on sensitive political moves such as pressuring the network YTN to edit its broadcasts and investigating statements from university students about its election activities.


■ What kind of dirt is the NIS digging for? 

One to three IOs are typically assigned to a given organization, where they make contact with senior officials ranging from the heads of major bureaus to Cabinet ministers. They openly present themselves as “the NIS agent in charge here”, despite requirements for intelligence organization agents to conceal their identities. They hand over a name card bearing just their name and cell phone number, making it difficult to determine if they actually are NIS agents.

They pay visits to each of the offices or set dinner dates by phone. One of their most important jobs is learning about major issues and personnel appointments. They focus especially on gathering internal evaluations of senior officials. They don’t miss any of the finer points, including complaints about the appointments over drinks after work. At the Ministry of Health and Welfare, one of the IOs’ important jobs has reportedly been finding out how people feel about President Park Geun-hye’s execution of her election pledges, including her broken promise to expand the basic pension - a recent item of Blue House interest.

Some of the “small fry” ministries welcome the IOs, using them as a kind of “problem-solving window.” Said an senior official at one such ministry, “Whenever there’s a conflict between ministries over some business, we tell the IOs all about our issues. Depending on how they write their ‘reports,’ it might end up helping us.”

Local governments, where complaints about the central government are rife, also reportedly take advantage of the IOs. A senior official at one municipal government in the Honam region said, “We don’t have any links with the current administration, so we ask them to represent local opinion.”

Senior government officials and public enterprise employees are very sensitive to the personnel records the IOs draft. The reason, they say, is that they don’t know if any bristling at the requests made of them might result in poor evaluations being reported to the Blue House. Allegations recently surfaced that former NIS chief Won Sei-hoon pressured a public enterprise head to give a project to a certain construction company, and some said the personnel records - which have a major impact on public enterprise personnel appointments - may have served as leverage.

“If you give a bad impression to the IOs, your personal information could be reported to bad places that affect your chances for promotion or contract extension,” said an intelligence organization source on condition of anonymity.

The IOs are also known to sometimes use their personnel intelligence as bait for “intelligence exchanges.”

IOs from the NIS are also frequent visitors at the prosecutors’ office. Sources say that from time to time they call on the chief prosecutor, the second in command, and department heads to ask them for information about investigations that are underway.


“While we cannot give them details for security reasons, we do provide the appropriate level of information,” a source at the prosecution said on condition of anonymity. “This is because we are always mindful of the annual personnel records that these IOs prepare.”

The NIS has a separate economics team, which is put in charge of chaebol and economic organizations. These kinds of agents are typically referred to by such titles as “managing director” or “vice president.” They typically meet with company executives, but in the majority of cases the executives don’t know who else they may be seeing, even inside the same company. The agents get the scoop on economic issues, unreleased company figures, and investment plans.


The explanation of the NIS's duties
The explanation of the NIS's duties

■ Are there legal grounds? 

It is obligatory for IOs to draft at least one report each day. They have to start writing their reports around 4pm and submit them to their senior when they are finished. These reports are filtered and processed as they pass through the NIS information bureau and strategic office. “The agents at the bottom only submit fragmentary information, but people at higher levels are putting together hundreds of reports coming in from all over the country like a jigsaw puzzle,” said an official had worked as an IO for the NIS on condition of anonymity. “That’s how they get to the big picture.” Special recognition is given to the IOs who report the intelligence that makes it all the way to the desk of the NIS director.

But there is no legal basis for such activity by NIS IOs. The National Intelligence Service Act (NIS Act)limits the scope of the NIS’s domestic intelligence collection to countering communism, activity intended to overthrow the government, counter-espionage, counter terrorism, and international criminal syndicates. For the NIS to use its IOs to sweep up background chatter that has no direct connection with national security is in clear violation of the NIS Act and outside of its authority.

The NIS counters these charges by claiming that the basis for these activities can be found in Article 3, Clause 1, Section 5 of the act, which mentions “planning and coordination of information and public security service.” The specific scope of the “coordination” in this act was not defined through legislation but rather through a presidential order. The enforcement order for the act calls for collection and collation of security intelligence for government ministries. This too is limited to security intelligence, but the NIS uses a broad interpretation of this to justify meticulously going through the actions of organization heads, personnel complaints, and government policies.

How could gossip swapped over drinks after work or rumors about senior officials be useful for running a government? “Sometimes I wonder how the intelligence that is collected in this way, which is sometimes on the level of the tabloids, is helpful for governing the country,” said a senior figure who worked with intelligence for an auditing organization. The NIS argues that it not only collects information on trends but that it also produces “policy intelligence” that assesses government policies. However, examining government policy is something that is supposed to be done by the government policy coordination office, a subordinate body of the Prime Minister’s office.

Aside from the fact that there is no legal basis for it, the work of these IOs is always liable to being used for political purposes. Or in other words, reports on political figures can be tools for political maneuvering, and reports on the press can be employed to manipulate the press.

Recently, allegations were made that an NIS IO working at YTN (Yonhap Television News) requested an editor in the newsroom to prevent a special report about the NIS manipulation of public opinion during the presidential election from being aired and that the IO’s request was acted on.

During the Roh administration (2003-2008), the NIS compiled a list of political and government officials said to have received bribes based on information it collected about criminal activities in the JU Group pyramid scheme - and then leaked this to the press.

In the trial related to this, the extent to which the NIS should be allowed to collect information inside South Korea became the point of contention. “Even in a case in which there may be many victims throughout the country, the task of collecting information and investigating the case falls upon the investigating authorities; it is not within the authority of the NIS,” the court ruled. The implication is that information about crimes is something for the investigators to gather, and it is not the business of the NIS to get involved in this.

A former agent who had worked as an IO for the NIS summed up the work he had done like this, on condition of anonymity: “Doesn’t my job sound a little strange? Nothing about it is clearly defined…”


Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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