Photo: The National Intelligence Service. Credit: The National Intelligence Service.
In an unprecedented move, the Yoon Suk-yeol 윤석열 administration suspended all 27 section chiefs 국장 of the National Intelligence Service 국가정보원, purging the spy agency.
Section chiefs are the third-highest ranked officials of the NIS, subordinate only to the director and deputy directors, who are politically appointed. Although section chiefs typically change with the administration, there has never been an instance in which all section chiefs were suspended across the board before their successors were named. The sudden removal of the spy agency’s highest ranking officials comes at a time when North Korea is preparing to conduct another nuclear test, which would end the nuclear moratorium established during the Moon Jae-in 문재인 administration.
Also firming the administration's grip on South Korea's surveillance organs, the Ministry of Interior and Safety 행정안전부 proposed to establish a new bureau to supervise the police for the first time since the aftermath of the dictatorship era. On June 21, the Interior Ministry announced its recommendation to establish a new Advisory Committee on Police Policy Improvement 경찰제도개선자문위원회, which would propose the structure of a new bureau within the Interior Ministry that would direct police investigation and control the hiring and firing of high ranking police officials.
The new bureau, if established, would undo the reform from 1991 when the National Policy Agency 경찰청 was established as an independent agency in response to the South Korean dictatorship’s abuse of the police to arrest and torture democracy activists. The Yoon Suk-yeol 윤석열 administration argued the new bureau was needed to oversee the police, whose authority was expanded significantly during the Moon Jae-in 문재인 administration, which strengthened the police as a counterweight to the Public Prosecutors’ Office 검찰청. (See previous coverage, “Prosecutors vs Police.”)
Protesting the proposal, Kim Chang-ryong 김창룡, the head of the NPA, tendered his resignation on June 27. The National Police Officers Union 전국경찰직장협의회 reacted strongly, calling the new proposed bureau “an infringement of the police’s political neutrality and independence” and “a return to the Security Command 치안본부 of the dictatorship past.” People Power Party Assembly Member Kwon Eun-hee 권은희 국민의힘 국회의원, a conservative legislator who was formerly a police officer, said establishing the new bureau would exceed the authority of Interior Minister Lee Sang-min 이상민 행정안전부 장관 and accordingly would be “grounds for impeachment” of Lee.
Around the same time, the Interior Ministry walked back the appointment of 28 high ranking police officials, changing the position of seven officials two hours after the appointment was announced. The ministry claimed administrative error; many in the police saw the move as a retaliation, as the appointments were subject to presidential approval.