President Yoon Suk Yeol is rethinking the new law that will let police handle espionage cases, according to the ruling People Power Party spokesperson Yang Kum-hee.
In December 2020, the laws on the National Intelligence Service were amended to forfeit the intelligence agency of the authority to investigate crimes related to North Korean espionage and other foreign meddling.
The controversial amendment was unilaterally passed by the Democratic Party of Korea.
Yang said there was “shared understanding” between the president and the leaders of the People Power Party at a meeting on Thursday that the amended laws, which are due to take effect from January next year, “may need to be revisited.”
The spokesperson said the president spoke of a “room for reconsideration” as the police take over the intelligence agency’s authority to investigate North Korean spies.
People Power Party Rep. Yoo Sang-bum of the parliamentary intelligence committee said in a phone call with The Korea Herald on Friday that the NIS “already has years and years of experience working secretly overseas to gather information.”
“To work organically with intelligence services of other countries, trust is key and the police don’t have that yet,” he said. “I urge my colleagues at the Democratic Party to look into the matter again.”
Police are likely limited in their ability to carry out operations overseas, according to Oh Yoon-sung, a police studies professor at Soonchunhyang University.
“Our police don’t have much experience investigating international crimes. Spies often work globally, and the realm of their activities isn't confined to Korea,” he said. “Some complementary measures are probably necessary before handing the investigations over to the police.”
In a statement Friday, Lawyers for a Democratic Society called on Yoon to “retract his statement," referring to the announcement that he was considering a change to the law.
“If what is briefed by the lawmakers is true, the president appears to be saying he will undo the reform of the NIS,” the progressive lawyers’ group said.
The group accused the president and the ruling party of “using the NIS for their political gain like the two previous conservative administrations did.”
“By reverting the NIS reform, Yoon and the People Power Party are challenging the very foundation of our democracy.”
In a Jan. 20 phone call with The Korea Herald, Park Jie-won, who headed the NIS from July 2020 to May 2022, similarly said that having police investigate espionage crimes, rather than the intelligence agency, was “a matter of intelligence reform.”
The renewed debate on the investigative functions of the NIS comes after the intelligence agency and the police’s joint search of the office of South Korea’s main umbrella labor union, Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, last week. The NIS then explained that the labor union was being investigated over its suspected links to North Korea.
Ruling party Rep. Tae Yong-ho, who was a North Korean diplomat before defecting to Seoul in 2016, questioned the labor union’s calls for withdrawal of US forces from South Korea in connection with its recently surfaced suspicions of engaging in espionage.
“According to former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s new memoir, even Kim Jong-un didn’t agree to the US military leaving so it’s hard not to question where the labor union is coming from, especially in light of the ongoing investigation,” he said in a statement released Friday.