Change and Continuity: #Shigak no. 43

By | June 02, 2017 | No Comments

The National Intelligence Service building, located in Naegok-dong, southern Seoul. | Image: Sino-NK

Change and Continuity: #Shigak no. 43

by Sino-NK

We are three weeks into Moon Jae-in’s presidency. With a new government taking shape comes the articulation of new priorities; herein we see both change and continuity. This issue of #Shigak looks at both: a new vision for the country’s spy agency (change) and a commitment to the installation of THAAD, the anti-missile defense system, despite controversy (continuity). We also take a took at new political appointees and the accompanying scandals.

President Moon has nominated a number of current Minjoo Party lawmakers to various cabinet positions: Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs, Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Ministry of Transportation, and Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. Appointing current national assemblymen and woman is interpreted as the administration’s effort to get the nominees quickly approved, say the Chosun Ilbo.

President Moon has been a welcome change to the challenges of the previous administration, but many of his appointments are facing similar flaws that of previous administrations’ nominees. For instance, President Moon’s nominee for Prime Minister, Lee Nak-young, faced heavy criticism from the opposition because his wife holds a falsely registered residential address. The nominee for Foreign Affairs, Kang Kyung-hwa, is also accused of doing the same. Some accusations are on less than firm ground. The president’s pick for South Korea’s spy agency, Seo Hoon, is essentially accused of getting rich too quickly.

Politicized the process may be, political appointees must indeed pass a high ethnic standard in South Korea in order to be confirmed. It is common for the nominees to not get approved over things such as real estate speculation. Appointing seated lawmakers to ministries will likely increase the chance of the national assembly approving Moon’s nominees since they have already been subjected to thorough examination.

Out on the campaign trail over the course of the short 2017 presidential campaign, Moon Jae-in spoke regularly about the need to reform the National Intelligence Service, or NIS. The state intelligence agency of the Republic of Korea since it was created in 1961, the NIS famously attempted to influence the outcome of the 2012 presidential election. (With a winning margin of a million votes, Park Geun-hye would likely have won even without NIS help). The incident is just the most recent in a long and inglorious history of abuse of power by a government agency that has been a human rights blackspot for decades. A 2016 book, Secret File NIS [시크릿파일 국정원], takes a sensationalist approach to the topic, to be sure, but the stories it tells are real enough and cast the agency in an unpleasant light.

With the formal appointment of Moon’s pick for NIS director, Seo Hoon, and his three deputies on June 1, Moon reaffirmed that the duties of the leaders of this most controversial of institutions will henceforth include not merely securing South Korea against those who might wish it harm, but also ensuring that the agency does not involve itself in domestic politics and civil society. President Moon’s campaign promise to put a stop to NIS meddling in the South Korean democratic process and infringing on the human rights of the country’s citizens was made in all seriousness, he reminded Seo and his senior colleagues, and must not be ignored.

Seo revealed that his first order as NIS head would be to disband the system whereby NIS agents conduct surveillance of the work of government departments, state-run bodies, civil society and media companies from within, the “IO (Intelligence Officer)” system (국내정보 담당관제도).

On May 30 the Blue House confirmed that four additional anti-missile launchers, part of the THAAD deployment formation, had been installed. The problem is that the Blue House was not informed of the installations. In fact, the Moon Jae-in government is accusing the Ministry of Defense of deliberately omitting any mention of four additional launchers in a report it submitted to the new government, reports the Hankyoreh. The row between the Ministry of Defense and Blue House is the latest development on the domestic side of the THAAD debate. There are international developments, too.

Moon Jae-in’s national security advisor, Chung Eui-yong, traveled to Washington in order to finalize an agenda for the upcoming Moon-Trump summit. Chung’s DC trip was also meant to “quell fears over anti-missile system,” or assure South Korea’s American ally that President Moon meant it when he said to a visiting US senator that he doesn’t intend to halt the deployment of THAAD.

Moon stated during his presidential campaign that he’d review THAAD deployment, but he didn’t elaborate on what, exactly, he meant by this. Speaking to reporters at Dulles International Airport on behalf of his government, Chung announced South Korea’s intent to conduct environmental impact review of any additional installations. He did not, however, indicate any desire by Seoul to halt its complete installation or remove the anti-missile defense system altogether. “In order to throughly evaluate the environmental impact, [the full installation of THAAD] may take longer than initially anticipated,” Chung is reported as saying.