Jefferson Morley | January 9, 2019
South Korea’s National Security Act Goes On Trial
Writing in the Nation, Max Kim explains one of the biggest obstacles to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula: the South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and the notorious National Security Act that it enforces.
The NIS is the successor to the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, which played a bloody role in the country’s political life. In 1980 the head of the KCIA personally assassinated the president of South Korea ushering a decade of martial law and repression.
The National Security Act is a sweeping law that has been used to justify the need for a powerful intelligence service and to prosecute critics of the 30,000 troop-strong American military presence in South Korea as well as pro-unification civic groups.
The Act, Kim writes,
dates back to the division of the Korean peninsula just after World War II. Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first head of state and an anti-Communist autocrat backed by the United States, issued the law shortly after assuming office in 1948. He used it to consolidate power, arresting dissidents and carrying out political purges. Later, the military dictators of the 1970s and ’80s followed suit: They deployed the law to frame political opponents as spies, crush political activism, and suppress free speech.
In the 1990s, the KCIA was renamed the National Intelligence Service but involvement in politics has never ceased. In 2017, NIS officials admitted they had secretly intervened to support the election of conservative candidate Park Guen Hye in 2012. Park was impeached in 2017. Her successor, Moon Jae-in, has brought in new leadership and promised to depoliticize the intelligence service. It won’t be easy.
The prosecution of a businessman accused of spying for North Korea is laying bare the architecture and the culture of political control in South Korea.