[Editorial] Crux of the problem

By Korea Herald

Ensuring political independence is key to reform of powerful agencies

  • Published : Jan 16, 2018 - 17:45
  • Updated : Jan 16, 2018 - 17:45
Few would raise questions about the need to reform the powerful agencies that have often been tainted by their interference with domestic politics. It is right, therefore, that the Moon Jae-in administration is committed to overhauling the intelligence service, state prosecution and police.

But the proposals made by the government raised more questions than answers. They are already encountering fierce objection from critics and skeptics, including the main opposition Liberty Korea Party.

One of the many problems with the proposals is that they simply seek “redistribution” of powers among the three agencies, without including measures to guarantee their political neutrality and independence.

The redistribution -- mainly a transfer of some key functions of the National Intelligence Service and the state prosecution to the national police -- is problematic in itself.

It is almost certain that the NIS’ handover of the investigation of anti-espionage cases to the police would create loopholes in national security. Most of all, the NIS has unmatched expertise and resources, including vast intelligence networks at home and abroad, in anti-espionage operations against North Korea.

It is true that the NIS had often abused its investigative right and other powers to suppress dissidents and activists in the name of national security. But it is also true that a simple switch of the agency in charge of the investigation would not guarantee prevention of similar abuses.

It is under the same context that questions are being raised about the proposal to have the police take charge of investigations into most criminal cases. Granted, the state prosecution has been notorious for meddling in domestic politics, abusing its power to investigate and indict criminals for political purposes.

But would giving the investigation to the police alone guarantee separation of politics from law-enforcement? Given our past experiences, any such redistribution of powers and investigative rights would not be sufficient to break the vicious circle of powerful agencies being used as a key governing tool of the government in power.

Look at some of the ongoing investigations into past governments. The Moon Jae-in administration calls those probes an act to address long-accumulated vices, while the opposition regards it as a political vendetta.

Another big problem with the government proposals, announced by senior Cheong Wa Dae aide Cho Kuk, is that the presidential office simply overlooked the role of the National Assembly.

It is indisputable that all the proposals made by the presidential office need to be legislated by the National Assembly. However, as Cho admitted, Cheong Wa Dae had consulted neither the ruling party nor the opposition.

Moreover, there are already a series of legislative bills regarding the reform of the NIS, state prosecution and police. Cho did not touch on those bills, some of which were written by ruling party lawmakers but differ from Cheong Wa Dae’s proposals.

What Cho also missed -- and this is the crux of the matter -- is how the government, i.e. the president, would ensure political neutrality and independence of the powerful agencies.

Cho also left out other powerful agencies that have often been exploited by the government in power, such as the tax service, antitrust watchdog, financial watchdog and the Board of Audit and Inspection.

What Moon and his aides including Cho should remember is that all past presidents, including the one now in jail for abusing and exploiting powerful agencies, promised to take their hands off them. Moon did, too, as he said in his inaugural address that he would ensure complete political independence of the agencies.

Few would believe that the proposals announced by Cho would be enough to guarantee that Moon fulfills his promise.