SOUTH KOREA: The National Intelligence Service is a root cause of the crackdown on democracy and human rights 

The country has entered into political turmoil. It is because of a series of allegations of illegal interference by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in the Presidential election, held in December last year. As more information is released, those who worry about democracy in the country – including students – are starting to decry the current political situation. There is involvement from civil society groups, such as religious groups, as well as scholars, journalists, and Koreans living overseas.

It has been reported by the media that the NIS has systematically run a team that conducts advertising policies from the current ruling party, criticising opposition parties on the Internet. The NIS team was established for psychological warfare against North Korea, but the actual tasks undertaken were to influence and control public opinion of ordinary citizens deemed to be the leftist in South Korea. Reportedly, the team, under the orders of the former Director of the NIS, wrote thousands of comments on the Internet prior to the Presidential election, praising the former President and the new candidate from the ruling party, who is the current President, and criticising the candidate from opposition party.

There is no question that fair elections are an important element in guaranteeing democracy and human rights. Elections should be conducted fairly so that both parties, regardless of the results of the election, are able to accept the result. However, it may lead to a different situation if government institutions with power interfere in the process of elections try to influence the electorate, which normally occurs in countries where democracy and the rule of law are yet to become reality or are not stable.

In the context of South Korea, the NIS has historically been at the centre of such bodies influencing other ordinary government organs, including the police, prosecutor’s office and the judiciary. This is because the NIS is legally under the direct control of the President. The role of the NIS has been defined according to the character of past governments. After the June 10 democracy movement in 1987, it has been thought that the NIS also changed. Thus, it has been forgotten that the NIS continued to work from behind and not in the open like in the past.

The heads of political parties, including the ruling and opposition parties, have agreed to have an investigation into state administration at the National Assembly, whose proposal will be voted on at the National Assembly on July 2. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) strongly supports thorough investigations into the alleged interference by the NIS in the Presidential election and, at the same time, urges all parties concerned to reform the NIS Act.

Firstly, the investigations into state administration at the National Assembly are the result of political negotiations. Therefore, as often happens, the right and desire to find out the truth is not always the goal of this sort of investigation, and there is a high chance that the investigative process will be used for the benefit of parties in political disputes. All parties involved should be warned not to take advantage of this process, but to find out the truth for the people, who have the right to know. The evidence obtained through the investigations must be able to be used for the prosecution and punishment of those alleged offenders according to the law.

Secondly, the current debate should be enlarged by looking into the reason for the failure of the investigatory agencies in the country. Before the NIS interference came into the view of the public, the police did investigate one of the staff at the NIS and hurriedly released an interim investigation report before the Presidential election. This investigation was later found to have had serious flaws. In South Korea, the Prosecutor’s Service has de facto investigatory as well as prosecutorial power. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that the Prosecutor’s Service were involved in the police investigation that ended before the election, since the matter itself was serious enough to bring to the notice of the Prosecutor’s Service.

As shown by the limitations in the investigation itself, as pointed out earlier, the investigatory agencies should be reformed. They should be strengthened, but not under the current setup; these reforms should come only after the reformation of those other agencies. Reforms should not be based on giving agencies more power than others, but rather on how the investigatory power can be checked and balanced among the government institutions. This also applies to the prosecutorial power.

The AHRC is of the view that, regardless of the findings of the investigation at the National Assembly, this opportunity to reform the NIS Act should be taken. The allegations of interference into the Presidential election by the NIS, although it is serious matter, is not the sole issue, but is one of many, including illegal surveillance and pressure on enterprises. The activity of the NIS should be controlled not by the President, as it is now, but by the relevant oversight committee, where policy makers would get full reports from the NIS.

The current setup of the NIS Act, under the sole control of the President, is a remnant of past military dictatorship. It is high time to democratically control the activity of the NIS so as to meet the level of democracy and rule of law in the country. History tells us that, when there are attempts to conceal the truth, more and more will emerge in the end.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-123-2013
Countries : South Korea,
Issues : Democracy, Judicial system, Military, Rule of law,