SEOUL — Three years ago Kim Young Sam, South Korea's first civilian president in decades, defanged the country's notorious intelligence agency, the Agency for National Security Planning (NSP). Now his ruling Democratic Liberal Party wants to restore its powers.
While opposition lawmakers and human rights groups worry about the return of abuses, the ruling party says changes are needed to meet a renewed threat of North Korean subversion.
Recent violent student demonstrations and the infiltration of North Korean agents in September aboard a submarine provide the latest proof, ruling party lawmakers say, that the National Security Law remains essential, and that the NSP needs its old powers back to administer it.
For years, the NSP was accused of abusing its right to investigate citizens who might have committed two crimes: praising North Korea or not reporting encounters with North Korean spies.
The legal ambiguities of its charter allowed the intelligence agency to repress political opponents of former military regimes. When President Kim's democratic government took power in 1993, it stripped the NSP of these powers.
Human rights groups worry that if the NSP's powers are reinstated, abuses such as all-night interrogation sessions will increase. "Even ... in the past three years, there are countless cases where people weren't able to [contact] a lawyer right after they were arrested," says Suzy Kim of Mingahyop, a group in Seoul founded by families of political prisoners.
Opposition lawmakers also say the NSP could use its restored powers against them. One of them, Kim Sang-woo, says that the security law was used "to paint the opposition as being pro-Communist, pro-North Korea," and thus undermine its popular support.
Kim Sang-woo and others have suggested that the push to re-empower the NSP is coming from President Kim. They say it would give him an unfair advantage in next year's presidential election.
Although President Kim can't run himself, he has an interest in guaranteeing that his successor is friendly to him. Having set a precedent by prosecuting former Presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, Mr. Kim may worry that alleged irregularities in his 1992 election campaign fund will become a political target.
But the ruling party argues that the stakes for national security are too high not to restore the NSP's powers. Since the intelligence agency's "wings have been clipped," says an agency official, life has become too easy for North Korean spies.
Lack of investigative powers hampers the NSP's effectiveness, argues Sohn Hak-kyu, chairman of a policy-coordination committee for the ruling party. The agency has "accumulated know-how" on ways to prevent North Korean spies from operating in South Korea. But the NSP can't use it fully without a return of broad investigative powers, he says.
The NSP's effectiveness has become more important, Mr. Sohn says, because South Korean student protesters who spout North Korean rhetoric have become more violent and fanatical.
The government has been cracking down: In the 1980s, an average of 220 people a year were arrested under the security law. But even in the past three years, arrests have averaged well over 300 per year, according to figures kept by the Mingahyop prisoners' support group. Following demonstrations in August, 444 students went on trial. A number of them were convicted and handed sentences of up to three years. The roundup continued yesterday with the arrest of 24 more students.
Sohn argues that curtailment of the NSP's powers was justified in 1993, but is no longer needed. If its powers were reinstated, a free press and legislative oversight would check any abuses.
The opposition party recognizes a need for some kind of security law, but says it should be administered by the police, not the NSP.
Many worry that prohibiting favorable speech about North Korea in broad terms has the potential for serious abuses of civil liberties. Other say that stifling opinions on North Korea actually helps incubate the violent student movement. "We have always maintained that these student [groups] came about because the government [hasn't provided an adequate forum] for the public discussion of North-South issues," says Mr. Kim, the opposition lawmaker.
Mike Breen, a Seoul-based expert on North Korea, says reinstating the NSP's investigative powers would be "a giant step backward ... we should be lifting restrictions" on discussion of inter-Korean issues. South Koreans also should be freer to visit the North, Mr. Breen adds, because these contacts lay the groundwork for reconciling the two governments.