The Korea Herald


Spy chief nominee says NIS won’t meddle in politics

By Kim Arin

Published : Jan. 11, 2024 - 16:26

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Cho Tae-yong, who was nominated to lead the South Korean intelligence agency, speaks during a confirmation hearing held at the National Assembly on Thursday. (Yonhap) Cho Tae-yong, who was nominated to lead the South Korean intelligence agency, speaks during a confirmation hearing held at the National Assembly on Thursday. (Yonhap)

Cho Tae-yong, who was nominated by President Yoon Suk Yeol last month for the National Intelligence Service’s top post, said Thursday he would steer clear of meddling in politics if he is confirmed as its director.

During the confirmation hearing held at the National Assembly, Cho was asked to give his stance on the NIS’ history of getting involved in domestic politics, for which several of its high-level officials had been convicted.

“I recognize that there had been such incidents in the past,” he said, vowing to prevent a repetition.

He added that the NIS however has a responsibility to thwart possibilities of outside interference. “For instance, there may be some Chinese operations, not by China as a country I should add, that are intended to interfere with domestic affairs. In that case, it would be the NIS’ job to respond to them,” he said.

In a rare move, the NIS told the press in October last year that the National Election Commission, a constitutional body overseeing all aspects of national elections, was exposed to hacking risks the day before a municipal election for the head of a Seoul district. The ruling People Power Party lost the high-stakes election to the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea by a large margin.

The NIS was criticized then for disclosing the security risks surrounding the national election watchdog to the public so close to the election, which some claimed could have had a possible impact on voter sentiments.

Cho avoided commenting on his predecessor’s decision to announce the typically confidential information ahead of the election, while stating that he would make sure that the NIS “steer clear of political meddling” if he is appointed.

The nominee, who was until recently the national security adviser to the president, said the failure to secure the administration’s bid to host the World Expo in Busan was his biggest regret.

He admitted that as the head of the presidential office for national security, he briefed the president on the chances of South Korea being selected host based on intelligence from the NIS and other agencies. He declined to say if the estimates of the number of votes the country could earn in the competition matched the actual results.

The nominee was also asked to clarify the suspicions surrounding his renting out a property in 2017-19 to a subsidiary of the US oil and gas company Exxon Mobil, where then-Trump’s secretary of state Rex Tillerson had served as CEO.

He replied that he has “no personal or official connections whatsoever” to Exxon Mobil, and that he has “never met anybody” from the company to this day. He said he found the tenant through a realtor and that the contract took place after he had left public office.

He was grilled over his records of having had his license suspended for driving under the influence in 1999 while he was a public servant at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which first became known through a Jan. 2 report by The Korea Herald. His blood alcohol content level was 0.061 percent, and the license suspension lasted 100 days. He was handed a fine of 700,000 won by a Seoul district court.

“It is something that I should not have done, and it will not happen again,” he said. He said at the time he informed the police of his status as a public servant but besides a license suspension that lasted 100 days and a fine of 700,000 won, he did not receive disciplinary measures from the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

In other known past violations of traffic laws, he was caught speeding four times in 2021.

Prior to his nomination as the NIS director, Cho served two important posts of the presidential national security adviser and the top ambassador to the US under the Yoon administration.