NIS director and first and second deputy directors dismissed following a string of controversy: What’s happening in the NIS?

Park Kwang-yeon 2023. 11. 27. 14:30
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National Intelligence Service Director Kim Kyou-hyun (center) appears before the parliamentary Intelligence Committee on November 23. First Deputy Director Kwon Chun-taek (left) and Second Deputy Director Kim Soo-youn (right) are also present. Yonhap News

On November 26, President Yoon Suk-yeol replaced National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director Kim Kyou-hyun, First Deputy Director Kwon Chun-taek, and Second Deputy Director Kim Soo-youn in what appeared to be a reshuffle after continuous controversy over personnel issues inside the service. The opposition argued that the president’s decision was belated and attacked the president for inappropriately appointing the deputy directors before the new director.

The Intelligence Service has been caught in internal strife over personnel issues since last May, shortly after the Yoon Suk-yeol government entered office. Last October, Cho Sang-joon, a former prosecutor and the president’s close associate who served as the director of planning and coordination at the time, abruptly resigned on the day the parliamentary Intelligence Committee inspected the NIS. The NIS explained it was due to personal reasons, but word spread that it was due to conflicts over personnel issues with the NIS director, and soon, rumors of discord inside the service spread.

Last September, 27 high-ranking Grade-1 officials of the NIS resigned, and in December over 130 Grade-2 and 3 officials were either excluded from duties or transferred to sinecures. This raised allegations of political retaliation and attempts to erase the former government inside the NIS. In the process, rumors of a tug-of-war between the director, Kim Kyou-hyun (a former diplomat), an outsider trying to replace a large number of officials in the intelligence agency, and NIS officials who called for a gradual reshuffle were heard, along with the controversy that A, Director Kim’s former chief secretary and close aide, controlled personnel matters.

An unprecedented incident occurred in June, when the appointments of seven of the Grade-1 NIS officials whom President Yoon approved were overturned. The chiefs of NIS offices in major countries, such as the U.S. and Japan, were summoned back to the country, and again A’s reckless personnel decisions and the internal clash it triggered were mentioned.

When the nation’s most powerful intelligence agency stood at the center of repeated controversy over personnel matters, politicians claimed the organization was crumbling and demanded President Yoon to take a stand as the one in charge of appointments. But each time, the president supported Director Kim Kyou-hyun. This led to views that the president supported Kim’s attempt at internal reforms in the NIS.

Then early this month, again word spread of a tug-of-war inside the intelligence agency. Circumstances revealed that A, who was replaced because of the controversy over personnel matters in June, continued to intervene in personnel decisions. The Office of the President launched an investigation, and eventually Kim resigned. According to one media report, Kim Yong-hyun, a former Army general who currently serves as the chief of the Presidential Security Service, is a strong candidate to succeed Kim. There was also an allegation that First Deputy Director Kwon Chun-taek, who oversaw overseas intelligence, was being investigated by the presidential office because of corruption related to businesses.

It appears President Yoon decided to hold the NIS director and deputy directors responsible and replace them due to the constant conflicts inside the agency. Reportedly, the presidential office raised an issue with not only the internal strife, but the careless leaking of such information to the press.

However, on the surface, the presidential office denied that the latest appointments were caused by the controversial personnel decisions--possibly because the reshuffle in the nation’s most powerful intelligence agency due to personnel issues could add to the political burden on the incumbent government. A senior official from the presidential office said over the phone, “Would we have replaced the first and second deputy directors as well after months of searching for suitable candidates (if they were being replaced because of personnel affairs)?” and added, “Since we have additional appointments to make, such as a cabinet reshuffle, we first appointed the new officials in the NIS (after long deliberation) as soon as the president returned.”

Youn Kun-young, a Democratic Party of Korea legislator who serves as the party’s secretary in the parliamentary Intelligence Committee, said over the phone, “People referred to the National Intelligence Service as the National Concern Service after a stream of personnel fiascos, and the appointments came too late.” “If the president wanted to reform personnel, it would make sense to appoint the director first and then appoint the deputy directors after listening to the director’s thoughts,” the Democratic Party lawmaker said, adding, “The fact that that was not the way he handled it shows the intention of Yongsan (presidential office) to dominate the NIS.”

Former NIS director Park Jie-won said over the phone, “A world-class intelligence service experienced three to four personnel disasters in a year and a half. President Yoon is the one with the most responsibility for not being able to make up his mind.” He continued and said, “Director Kim and the deputy directors shouldn’t be dismissed, but be subject to an active investigation identifying the cause (of the personnel fiascos) and to punishment.” “The (new) director should create teamwork with the first and second deputy directors, and it doesn’t make sense (to appoint the deputy directors before appointing the director),” he criticized, adding, “We could end up witnessing another revolt against a superior official.”

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