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[Kim Myong-sik] Has South Korean intelligence lost its way?

Media outlets these days are speculating on a young woman who frequently accompanies new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on his on-the-spot guidance and encouragement visits to military and civilian installations. When she first appeared on North Korean TV, she was thought to be his sister, but it now looks more likely that she could be his wife or fiance.

Asked about her identity, the state intelligence agency offers no clear answer. Although it was seven months ago at the time of Kim Jong-il’s funeral that the woman was first spotted, the agency still does not know who she is. Naturally, we are a little disappointed that the National Intelligence Service, the main spying institution and an axis of national security, is groping in the dark to identify the lady walking right behind the North’s new absolute leader.

We guess it should be much easier now to look into the North, considering that about 24,000 North Korean refugees have come to the South in recent years and that hundreds of thousands are believed to be hiding in China. They all could serve as the source of human intelligence for our NIS operatives. The mobile revolution is spreading to the North allowing better communication through the territory, not to mention the audio and visual surveillance technologies.

Maybe we have seen too many spy movies, and expect too much from the intelligence agency. But over the past decades, the Republic of Korea has had a powerful state intelligence apparatus that did many things externally and internally. Since “democratization” in the late 1980s, the intelligence agency has undergone a process of transformation to rid it of political functions. The lingering question is: Have the changes compromised the overall capabilities of the giant organization?

Born in 1961 a few weeks after Gen. Park Chung-hee’s coup, the (Korean) Central Intelligence Agency was renamed “Agency for National Security Planning” and then to the present “National Intelligence Service” to ameliorate its early image as a tool of dictatorship. The agency’s motto has also changed to “Nameless devotion to freedom and truth” to demonstrate the NIS being true to its legitimate apolitical mission.

Public curiosity and anxiety have grown through developments in the North since Kim Jong-il fell ill in August 2008, and so has their expectations of the intelligence service.

People want to believe that the NIS is in full grasp of the sequence of events in Pyongyang after Kim’s death on Dec. 17, up until the sacking of the top military commander Ri Yong-ho and new leader Kim Jong-un’s taking full control of the People’s Army, bestowing the rank of marshal on himself last week.

North Korea has intensified military provocations to an unprecedented level over the past few years with the sinking of the Cheonan and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeongdo in the West Sea. While the people worry about whether our military is sufficiently prepared for the North’s belligerence, they are also anxious to know how closely our intelligence officials are watching them, reading their intent and helping the government make good plans to thwart their aggressiveness.

The problem in identifying Kim Jong-un’s companion may not be the best way to measure the capabilities of the National Intelligence Service, but it does indicate certain gaps in its North Korea dossier. If they do not know the relationship between the young leader and the woman within a few feet of him on his outings, how much can we expect them to identify the goings on between the many players in the North Korean ruling elite?

Since its inception, the National Intelligence Service, has enjoyed a number of privileges, including non-disclosure of budget details and its chief’s exclusion from parliamentary interpellation. An NIS special operations budget can be hidden in other agencies’ accounts and the director can temporarily hire as many personnel of other agencies as he wishes. Its agents can conduct criminal investigations on a variety of charges related to national security with the same authority as judiciary police.

The NIS is presumed to spend around 1 trillion won ($900 million) a year, although few outsiders know the exact amount. The continuing fluidity of the North Korean situation, the ever present danger of international terrorism and the uncertainty in the global economy have justified the annual increase of the budget for operations across the world. If thousands of NIS agents are doing a lot to fight espionage, terrorism and international crime, the public is not sufficiently informed of their accomplishments.

For some time in the democratization process, many in the media and NGOs welcomed the diminishing profile of the state intelligence apparatus for obvious reasons. People are now concerned that successive democratic governments’ emphasis on depoliticizing the agency and frequent restructuring of the organization has weakened the NIS’ original function with declining operational initiatives of its personnel.

The state intelligence agency has had as many as 30 directors in its 50-year history ― just one groomed from inside ― which could be a factor of organizational instability. It therefore means a significant improvement that there were only two NIS chiefs under the current Lee Myung-bak government ― compared to four under President Kim Dae-jung and three under Roh Moo-hyun.

The embarrassing controversy over the civilian surveillance by some officials at the Blue House and the Prime Minister’s Office in the present administration could ironically offer another sign of improvement. Amateurs in those offices were handling unofficial investigations rather clumsily, while in the past intelligence professionals did the job more neatly. The NIS can now cite the episode as proof that they are not doing it any more.

Changes with the intelligence service are not bad, but we hope that our intelligence authorities would be as capable and confident as they can be to authoritatively inform us of at least who the woman standing beside Kim Jong-un is and what happened to Gen. Ri Yong-ho before and after his sudden replacement. 

By Kim Myong-sik

Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer of The Korea Herald. ― Ed.