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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Feb. 18)

Editorials from Korean dailies 06:55 February 18, 2021

Illegal surveillance
NIS should prevent recurrence of bad practice

Controversy is growing over allegations that the nation's spy agency engaged in a wide range of illegal surveillance of lawmakers and other influential figures in 2009 during the 2008-13 Lee Myung-bak administration.

Rep. Lee Nak-yon, chairman of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), claimed Monday he had been informed that the National Intelligence Service (NIS) carried out illegal surveillance on 1,000 people, including 299 lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, journalists, civic activists and TV celebrities. DPK Rep. Kim Byung-kee submitted a motion calling for the release of the information the NIS had gathered through the alleged surveillance. The motion also demanded that the intelligence agency lay bare the truth behind the allegations and come up with measures to prevent a recurrence of such illegal spying practices. Fifty-two other DPK lawmakers joined Kim's move.

On Tuesday, NIS Director Park Jie-won said he would report details of the case to the National Assembly Intelligence Committee should more than two-thirds of committee members vote for it. Yet he said the private information of the people subject to surveillance should remain confidential. He also called on the Assembly to legislate a special law to end 60 years of illegal surveillance on civilians by the spy agency.

The move has triggered a backlash from the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), denouncing it as political maneuvering ahead of the April 7 mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan. It criticized the DPK for targeting Park Hyung-joon, a leading PPP aspirant to run for Busan mayor, who served as senior secretary for civil affairs for former President Lee between 2009 and 2010. In fact, DPK Rep. Jung Tae-ho, who is in charge of the party's strategic affairs, said in a radio interview, "It is natural to pay heed to Park as he served as the civil affairs aide to then President Lee."

It is not proper to talk about the possible impact the controversy will have on the by-elections. The rival parties should collaborate to get to the bottom of the allegations, reveal the truth behind them and legislate bills to terminate such illegal surveillance. The NIS, for its part, should properly deal with illicitly collected personal information and ensure that such illegalities never happen again. It must also be reborn as a new intelligence agency to better serve the national interest without meddling in politics.

According to some lawmakers briefed on the issue by the NIS chief, the Lee administration mobilized the prosecution, police and the National Tax Service to collect information on citizens. The NIS allegedly combined the information in a report to Cheong Wa Dae.

The NIS head indicated illegal surveillance continued during Park Geun-hye's 2013-17 administration. He said the NIS' collection of domestic information stopped under the Moon administration.

It is a grave crime for past presidential administrations to have carried out such an illegal practice to monitor lawmakers and other prominent figures by mobilizing state agencies. The political parties should collaborate to provide a legal base for the NIS to release relevant data regarding the illegal surveillance. The NIS should conduct an internal probe to confirm the allegations of illegal spying on citizens during the previous administrations.

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