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SEOUL, March 18 (Yonhap) -- The main task of South Korea's spy agency is to strengthen the country's security posture in the face of mounting threats from North Korea, President Park Geun-hye's intelligence chief nominee said Monday.
Nam Jae-joon, a 69-year-old former Army chief of staff who was tapped to lead the National Intelligence Service (NIS), said at his parliamentary confirmation hearing that the country is at a critical security crossroads.
"The single most important mission for the NIS is to firmly establish readiness to cope with security risks," he told lawmakers at the National Assembly. He made clear the agency, if he is appointed, will do its utmost to meet the requirements of present circumstances and wishes of the people.
Pyongyang detonated its third nuclear device last month and has been ratcheting up tensions by claiming it will no longer respect the Armistice Agreement that halted the Korean War (1950-53) or the nonaggression pacts reached between the two Koreas in the past.
The isolationist country has also said it will turn Seoul and Washington into a "sea of fire" for pushing forward punitive action at the United Nations against Pyongyang's latest nuclear test, and for conducting joint military exercises that it sees as a dress rehearsal for war.
Nam made clear peace and security on the Korean Peninsula is a key precondition to meeting the Park administration's pledge to open a new era for peoples' happiness.
"If appointed, I will endeavor to upgrade the NIS so it can win the trust of the people and make it into a strong and competent intelligence agency," he said.
At the parliamentary session, both ruling and opposition party lawmakers called for the spy agency to rebuild itself to do its job properly, although there was a difference in where lawmakers placed emphasis.
The ruling Saenuri Party said the NIS should now pay more attention to its North Korean operations and strengthen its intelligence gathering capability on the neighboring country. Lawmakers also touched on the need for the agency to do more to deal with espionage and national security investigations.
Nam said that it is correct for the spy agency to hold onto its investigative powers in criminal cases closely linked with national security and espionage. There had been calls for the NIS to hand over its investigative powers to the police and state prosecutors' office.
"Investigations involving national security are not the same as ordinary criminal probes," he argued, pointing out that the Korean War ended in a cease-fire and not a peace treaty. This arrangement means South and North Korea are technically still at war. He said the country must guard effectively against the propaganda blitz carried out by Pyongyang to subvert the South.
The opposition, on the other hand, stressed the NIS must maintain political neutrality. Some lawmakers even questioned Nam's ability to lead the agency in a neutral manner when he repeatedly praised late President Park Chung-hee and criticized Seoul's North Korean policies under liberal President Roh Moo-hyun.
Late President Park in the father of the incumbent chief executive, who took office as the country's first woman leader on Feb. 25.
Related to questions raised by the opposition on his ability to do his job in an impartial manner, Nam pledge to guard the political neutrality principle with his life.
He then said that while the late President Park took power through a coup d'etat, the general-turned-statesman was able to unite the aspirations of the people and by successfully pushing forward industrialization, bring about the country's prosperity.
Opposition lawmakers, meanwhile, claimed the nominee engaged in real estate speculation involving two apartments and a plot of land that Nam bought in the past, although the nominee countered there were not any irregularities.
The parliamentary confirmation hearing is a must for the NIS chief nominee, although under South Korean law no approval is required for the appointment.
Nam taught military science at Seoul's Seokyeong University after retirement and was a top defense policy adviser for Park when she was the presidential candidate for the ruling Saenuri Party. Besides serving as Army chief of staff, he was director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Operations Headquarters and the deputy commander of the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command.
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