Lee Byung-ki, the chief of the nation’s top intelligence agency, told a parliamentary confirmation hearing last month that he would erase the words “political interference” from his mind when he took over the post. He made the remark to demonstrate his determination to reform the National Intelligence Service that had been mired in a string of scandals.
During his inauguration ceremony, Lee reiterated his pledge to keep political neutrality, asking NIS staff to commit themselves solely to their proper mission. The new intelligence chief should live up to the task of depoliticizing his agency until the last day of his tenure.
In this regard, he needs to pay keen attention to a report released by a global think tank Wednesday, which looked into the malfunctions of South Korea’s state intelligence apparatus and warned of their possible “catastrophic consequences” on the country’s security.
The International Crisis Group claimed in its 55-page report that the NIS is so susceptible to three types of pathologies ― intelligence failure, the politicization of intelligence and intervention in domestic politics ―that it could lose the trust of even its U.S. counterpart. The group, headquartered in Brussels, raised the need for Seoul to take urgent measures to reform the agency.
The cases cited by the ICG are all too familiar to the public here. But it seems necessary and useful to review their implications again to set the correct course for the NIS and other intelligence entities of the country.
During a closed-door session of a parliamentary committee in December, NIS officials leaked secret information on the sudden purge of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle and mentor of North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un. The leak, which was seen as a move to deflect mounting criticism of its alleged involvement in the 2012 presidential election, may have cost the agency the collapse of its human intelligence network in the North, according to the report.
Earlier last year, the NIS released the full transcript of the 2007 inter-Korean summit in an apparent bid to give weight to allegations by lawmakers of the conservative ruling party that the late liberal South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun made concessions over the disputed western sea border at the time.
The ICG report noted that South Korean institutions’ “proclivity to leak classified information” has occasionally made the U.S. “feel it cannot share its most sensitive intelligence on North Korea with Seoul.”
An example of intelligence failure was the assessment by former NIS Director Won Sei-hoon that the North Korean regime was on the brink of collapse. The misplaced judgment augmented the uncompromising stance of the previous administration under President Lee Myung-bak on inter-Korean matters.
NIS officials have downplayed the report largely as “a subjective interpretation,” insisting there is no problem with intelligence sharing with the U.S. It may be partly so. But the work seems unignorable, as it is based on interviews with a broad group of former and incumbent intelligence officials and other pundits in selected foreign countries as well as South Korea.
It is oversensitive for some intelligence officials here to see the report as intended to discredit their institution. Instead, they need to accept it as an objective observation of the level of damage a politicized intelligence organization has done to national interests.
Quality intelligence on North Korea is needed more than ever at a time when the uncertainty over its course of action grows, heightening security risks on the peninsula and in Northeast Asia. These circumstances truly require all NIS staff to obliterate meddling in domestic politics from their memory.