On 3 April, the founder of South Korea’s first intelligence agency, Kim Jong-pil, did something rather unexpected for an elderly spymaster: he told the press the National Intelligence Service (NIS) should return to its core mission of collecting intelligence and refrain from meddling in domestic investigations. “[The NIS] just needs to focus on the basic responsibilities of an intelligence organization,” he said, “and leave the anti-Communist investigation tasks to the police.”
Kim’s criticism of the NIS overstepping its bounds hit an already sensitive nerve in South Korea’s intelligence community, which had been already reeling from a series of recent corruption scandals. Some in South Korea are grumbling the service has reverted back to old practices of Korea’s era of military rule, using coercion and trumped up evidence to benefit the Park Geun-hye administration.
For South Korea, a robust, fully-functioning and reliable security and intelligence cooperation is crucial in protecting its homeland against the constant threats of North Korea’s WMDs and provocations. Yet NIS’ continuing behavior will only continue to weaken South Korea’s security cooperation with the United States, its strongest and most reliable ally. This is because NIS’ reputation as a porous, politically pliant organization diminishes Seoul’s credibility as a reliable partner.
The net effect may be the U.S. might always be thinking twice about providing truly sensitive intelligence to South Korea. This would be a pity, since both nations need each other’s help to face real threats on the peninsula and in the Pacific.
The NIS has long been accused of politicizing intelligence, but it was hoped when South Korea’s transitioned from dictatorship to democracy, this behavior might have lessened. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case.
The NIS frequently leaks intelligence to the press to showcase its “successes” to the domestic audience, regardless of the consequences to national security, collection efforts, and sources. For example, in October 2014, a district court in South Korea convicted two NIS counterintelligence officials of fabricating Chinese documents to build a case against a North Korean refugee named Yu. They faked immigration documents and accused Yu of spying for North Korea’s State Security Department. The NIS faced blowback and embarrassment, however, when Yu’s sister gave a news conference asserting the service coerced her to make false accusations against her brother. Moreover, she was held for six months in the Joint Interrogation Center near the capital in near-isolation and without access to a lawyer.
This February, former NIS chief Won Sei-hoon was sentenced to three years in jail for meddling in South Korea’s 2012 presidential elections. Won, who served as head of the spy agency during the Lee Myung-bak administration, was charged with violating South Korea’s election law by willfully neglecting a NIS-enacted political smear campaign against opposition candidates to sway public opinion in favor of the ruling party’s then-candidate, Park Geun-hye. This came on the heels of Won’s earlier conviction in January 2014 for accepting bribes from a South Korean businessman in exchange for securing construction deals with major corporations.
These scandals are beginning to add up. Now, core American interests could be at risk because intelligence “success” leaks could reveal the shared sources and collection methods between the Korean and U.S. intelligence services, undoing the time and manpower invested in these operations. American intelligence capabilities against certain targets — North Korea in this case — could be severely weakened and compromised. By extension, the U.S.-South Korea security partnership would be made more vulnerable to North Korean threats and provocations.
It goes without saying these ugly incidents also chip away at the South Korean public’s confidence in the spy organization. NIS’ recent shenanigans undermine the actual purpose of having an intelligence organization in the first place — which, in South Korea’s case, is to collect and analyze information to ultimately topple the North Korean regime, as well as protect the homeland from DPRK attacks. Also, from North Korea’s perspective, it just makes the South look more penetrable and susceptible to Pyongyang’s political and ideological assaults.
The secrecy surrounding the business of intelligence makes it all too convenient for the NIS and the presidential office to skirt legislation designed to hold them accountable for their actions. It’s also difficult for South Korean citizens to fully comprehend the responsibilities and limitations on the NIS. The idea of giving greater transparency into the NIS’ activities has been entertained, but presidential administrations have been hesitant to follow through, for restrictions on the intelligence service’s influence would also undercut the Blue House’s own powers.
Seoul’s efforts to address these perennial issues merely scrape the surface of the problem. Forcing resignations and imprisoning select intelligence officials does not address the root causes of the problem. Without addressing certain systemic issues, the NIS will continue with flawed practices and misuse of its responsibilities.
South Korea should take several real steps to fix this situation. First, the NIS must remove itself from being utilized as a tool of political influence by the ruling government. Second, South Korean legislators also must exercise greater oversight into the NIS’ activities. Right now, the NIS’ extensive powers with little surveillance have enabled the service to define “unreasonably expansively” its activities and scope of power. Finally, the NIS should also be restricted from intervening in domestic politics in any shape or form.
With regard to intelligence cooperation with partner countries — most importantly, the U.S. — the NIS and the South Korean government must realize these leaks and power-meddling scandals only hurt the Korean intelligence service’s credibility and damage the partnership. The disclosure of sources and collection efforts weaken the intelligence capabilities of the U.S.-South Korean intelligence partnership. In the long run, will make other countries more hesitant to cooperate with Seoul on future intelligence and security efforts.
The South Korean government and intelligence service are aware of the need to address these flaws. In March, the newly-nominated NIS chief Lee Byung-ho affirmed his commitment to make national security the priority in his management of the agency and prevent the NIS from meddling in political affairs. But he isn’t the first spy chief to make such promises. And Lee has been under fire for his background — seven of his children and grandchildren hold citizenship or permanent resident statuses in the U.S. — and alleged personal views that align with those of the Park administration.
The Park administration’s selection of Lee indicates it will take more than just a new chief of intelligence with well-intentioned ambitions to change the NIS’ old habits. As spymaster Kim noted, the fundamentals of South Korean intelligence needs to remember its core mission and get back to basics for any real changes to occur in the spy agency.
Soo Kim is a former CIA analyst and linguist for Northeast Asia. She specializes in leadership dynamics, decision-making, authoritarian regimes, and political psychology. She is currently a national security fellow at a DC-based think tank.
Photo: South Korean President Park arriving in the U.S. in 2013. (Republic of Korea official photograph)