Recently, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense reported that under an amended military ordinance, the new unit dubbed the Defense Security Support Command (DSSC) began operations September 1.
The DSSC replaces the disbanded, scandal-tainted Defense Security Command (DSC), shut down in early August by President Moon Jae-in. The new DSSC is severely limited in its mandate and manpower. The DSSC started its work with a highly reduced workforce. The former security command, the DSC, consisted of some 4,100 personnel. After the restructuring that began last month, the defense ministry decided to cap that number at 2,900.
The DSC has always been a rather powerful organization. Originally set up in 1950 as a consolidation of intelligence assets from all of South Korea’s military branches, DSC always enjoyed a highly privileged status. It was never really subservient to the defense minister, who was technically the boss of the organization. Top brass of DSC were able to report directly to the president, and thus developed close ties to, and influence over, broad national policy issues.
The DSC’s political meddling came to a head in 2016 during the controversy over President Park Geun-hye and her longtime abuse of government power. Revelations of Park’s scandals threw the country into a collective state of outrage. Massive protests were held all over the country. Some of these events attracted over a million participants. Many in the political establishment saw these organized campaigns as a threat to societal order.
As the decision of the Constitutional Court on the matter grew closer, the DSC decided to start planning for the worst. In early 2017, the military intelligence unit began secretly formulating strategies for the implementation of nationwide martial law. In the end, Park was impeached, and the protests subsided. But the scheming of the overly zealous DSC came back to haunt them. When reports of the unit’s plans became known to the public through an information leak some two months ago, it reignited the countrywide fury of the anti-Park movement.
Following revelations of the DSC conspiracies, public trust in the organization plummeted. According to polls, eighty percent of South Koreans wanted the organization disbanded. In early July, President Moon Jae-in ordered an independent investigation into the allegations against the DSC. As the investigation gained traction, more dubious activities of the intelligence body started to surface, including reports of spying on private citizens. Recognizing the power and influence of the DSC, and suspecting the unit may meddle in the proceedings, the independent investigation team was composed of military prosecutors outside the military establishment, with the head of the team tapped by Defense Minister Song.
The findings of the team were damning. “The military is supposed to serve the people, but it was trying to point guns at the people...We will hold everyone involved accountable and find out whether they committed treason,” said Rep. Choo Mi-ae, the leader of the ruling Democratic Party.
Considering the background leading up to the reform, it isn’t surprising that policymakers’ main concern is creating an organization the public can trust. In a ceremony to mark the establishment of the DSSC attended by President Moon Jae-in, Defense Minister Song Young-moo, and the newly appointed DSSC chief General Nam Young-sin, the leaders stressed that the newly-created military intel command would never be used for interference in domestic politics. Instead, the DSSC will focus on its original mission of anti-espionage and security-related intelligence activities.
President Moon in his remarks stated that the fundamental purpose of disbanding the DSC and creating a new military intel command is to make sure that the new command could completely sever ties with its history and never repeat past errors like political interference and civilian monitoring.
Hopefully, the overhaul of South Korea’s intelligence apparatus can finally give some closure to the country after two years of having to deal with deep governmental corruption.
For the outside observer, the events in South Korea over the recent period stand as a stark reminder to free societies: When military and intelligence organizations begin stepping into politics, it never ends well.