BEIJING - On Tuesday, South Korea's Yonhap
News had the headline "S Korean rescue team
launches search operations in quake-devastated
Japan". On the same day, the Wall Street Journal
web site prominently pitched: "South Korean
Celebrities Move to Support Japan", featuring
actor Bae Yong-joon, a popular Korean soap opera
star in Japan, especially among middle-aged
housewives. The New York Times was also busy with
Japan's earthquake story. That was good news for
the Korean government, which was likely heaving a
sigh of relief.
The classic theory - that
an external crisis diverts people's attention from
domestic problems - appears to have been proven
For days, the Lee Myung-bak
government had been under a barrage of criticism
for allegations that agents of the National
Intelligence Service (NIS),
the nation's main spy agency, had secretly entered
the hotel room of visiting Indonesian President
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's delegation, including
Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro. The episode
sparked a national controversy, with bipartisan
calls for the resignation of NIS director Won
Sei-hoon, a crony of Lee.
agents, two males and one female, all dressed in
black suits, allegedly broke into the Indonesian
delegation's hotel room last month in downtown
Seoul in an attempt to steal classified arms deal
information from the envoy's laptop computer.
Unexpectedly, an Indonesian aide returned to the
room and encountered the intruders who were in the
middle of copying files from the computer. The
three trespassers didn't harm the Indonesian, but
Jakarta officially asked
Seoul to verify the media allegations, which cited
senior government officials acknowledging the act,
anonymously. The spy agency remained
non-committal. South Korean media outlets for days
headlined the spy bungle, leading to a closed-door
parliamentary hearing and with the attendance of
NIS head Won. People were outraged too, citing a
"national shame" for doing unethical things to a
visiting foreign delegation. Pundits also jeered
at the "lack of professionalism" of the nation's
top intelligence apparatus.
police chief Cho Hyun-oh was reluctant to probe
the case, saying there wouldn't be any "national
benefit" for a police investigation. Under
intensifying pressure, the police have been
compelled to act, however, as the NIS easily
outranks the police; they are in the odd position
of having to give the appearance of carrying out
an investigation, while also not making the NIS
seem in the wrong.
For instance, the faces
of the unmasked three agents were filmed by
numerous closed-circuit TV cameras, which numbered
as many as 250 at the five-star Lotte Hotel, but
police said the footage was blurry, making it hard
to identify the individuals, a claim disputed by
There were also fingerprints on
the laptop computer from which the agents were
trying to copy the classified information, but the
police said it would take a "considerable time" to
identify suspects because some of the fingerprints
were from the Indonesian delegation.
Korea strictly enforces fingerprinting when
issuing resident registration cards. So, there
would no technical problem identifying any
suspect, according to South Korean media reports.
Hotel employees also saw the fleeing agents, but
police didn't bother to contact them until five
days after the incident.
addition to the media and the public, politicians
across party lines have come forward to criticize
the spy caper. Lawmaker Hong Joon-pyo, a Supreme
Council member at President Lee's Grand National
Party (GNP), harshly decried the NIS, asking Won
to resign. "The NIS, which has been criticized for
failing to anticipate and adequately cope with
North Korea's attacks last year on the corvette
Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island, is now
drawing international jeers," Hong fumed.
Another GNP legislator, Chung Doo-un, also
directly called for Lee to sack Won. That's an
indirect challenge to Lee, since Won is a crony of
Lee. When Lee was mayor of Seoul, Won was the vice
mayor. It was widely believed that Won, without
previous intelligence work, got the position as
head of the NIS due to his personal ties with Lee.
"The criterion for choice is how close he is to
the president," said the local weekly Sisa
Journal. The resignation of Won therefore would
deal a severe blow to Lee, who is already battling
charges he is a lame-duck.
the NIS fiasco point out that the intelligence
service was merely "doing its job" for the
national interest, even if the target was a
visiting foreign delegation. The infiltration was
likely aimed at gaining an upper hand in
negotiations over the possible sale of T-50 Golden
Eagle, an advanced jet trainer that can be
upgraded to a fighter-bomber, to Indonesia.
The Indonesians were said to be also
considering a subsonic Russian plane, the Yak-130.
NIS supporters also say that espionage is "common"
even among friendly countries, citing how South
Korean negotiators for a free-trade agreement with
the United States, Seoul's staunch ally, were very
careful while staying in the United States about
which hotel they chose.
the domestic discourse, the spy bungle has sparked
calls for the agency to do some "soul-searching".
It has a bad reputation of serving as a
governmental tool to suppress democracy in South
Korea's history. In the recent history of
successive military dictatorships, the powerful
agency primarily served to oppress dissidents,
torture democracy activists and incarcerate
The NIS, which used to
be called the "Korean CIA", as it was modeled
after the US Central Intelligence Agency,
kidnapped Kim Dae-jung, a democracy dissident who
later became president, and tried to dump him into
the sea with his body bound. Kim later won a Nobel
Peace Prize. Nonetheless Kim, after he became
president, also faced accusations that his
government was conducting illegal wiretapping on
It was fashionable in
the agency's past to accuse political opponents
and democracy activities of being "North Korean
sympathizers" and subject them to harsh torture.
Even lawmakers were no exception if they didn't
offer "cooperation" to the South's military
Lawmaker Kim Seong-gon, for
example, had his moustache pulled out one hair at
a time, according to the investigative Sisa
Journal magazine. The beating that was handed out
to Gil Jae-ho, another lawmaker arrested together
with Kim, left him disabled for life. Both were
tortured at the agency's interrogation center,
located inside Seoul's central Namsan Mountain.
The agency also summoned journalists who
wrote critical articles about the dictatorship
government to beat them. The phrase, "I ate
noodles at Namsan," was used among journalists in
reference to the food NIS interrogators handed
out, according to the Sisa Journal.
NIS has also been accused of rigging the stock
market, profiting from major developments and
illegally importing Japanese cars for sale on the
domestic market, wrote the Sisa Journal.
Lawmakers have said that in response to
the scandal, the NIS has also planted
misinformation to divert people's attention.
On March 4, there were reports about
imminent visits of Kim Jong-eun, North Korea's
heir, to China that grabbed wide attention. But
lawmaker Choi Jae-sung claimed the NIS, attributed
as source of the story, was "leaking inaccurate
North Korean intelligence" in an effort to divert
the public's attention from the NIS fiasco. "It is
very common for the NIS to provide such
unconfirmed North Korean intelligence," Choi said
in a briefing to reporters.
chairman of the main opposition Democratic Party
(DP), urged President Lee to "normalize" the spy
agency, arguing that it, under Won, made the
overzealous blunder due to internal competition to
please the nation's top leader, Lee. "I demand
President Lee put all state organizations back to
where they were and pave the grounds for
democracy," Sohn said. Park Jie-won, the floor
leader of the DP, said the resignation of Won
would bring the NIS back to its "original mission
of serving the people", and not serving the
interests of those in power.
One year ago,
the South Korean magazine Monthly Chosun ran an
article comparing Mossad, Israel's main spy
agency, with the NIS in terms of their track
records and professionalism. It concluded that
"the NIS is an amateur" in comparison. A year
later, with the Indonesian spy fiasco, the NIS
seems to have confirmed this appraisal.
a recently democratized country, which has become
the world's 14th-largest economy, the reform of
the spy agency from an amateur organ into a truly
professional and respectable intelligence agency
should include not just better skills of espionage
and bugging, but also the necessity to serve the
While reporting the NIS fiasco,
the South Korean newspaper Pressian described the
spy organization as "unscrewed", a popular Korean
expression that indicates morally laxity or ill
discipline. Perhaps, it's time that the NIS was
(firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Seoul-born
columnist and journalist; he has degrees from the
US and China.
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