The Korea Herald


Cho Tae-yong: Who is the new pick for South Korea’s spy chief?

Cho was Yoon’s national security adviser, top envoy to US. Now the president wants him to serve as No. 1 of NIS.

By Kim Arin

Published : Dec. 21, 2023 - 17:30

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Cho Tae-yong, 67, was nominated by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday to head the National Intelligence Service. (Yonhap) Cho Tae-yong, 67, was nominated by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday to head the National Intelligence Service. (Yonhap)

Cho Tae-yong was tapped again by President Yoon Suk Yeol earlier this week to head the National Intelligence Service, marking his third presidential nomination under the administration that is less than two years old.

Since Yoon took power about a year and a half ago, Cho was made his ambassador to the US and then his national security adviser -- a minister-level role he would be leaving if his appointment as the new leader of the spy agency is finalized.

A seasoned diplomat, Cho built a career in the country’s relations with the US and efforts to denuclearize North Korea, having served as Seoul’s top nuclear envoy in 2013. He took a brief turn in politics as a National Assembly member, a seat he won in 2020 as a proportional representative at the ruling conservative party that Yoon represents. He was part of Yoon’s presidential campaign as then-candidate’s foreign policy adviser.

The ruling People Power Party’s Rep. Yoo Sang-bum, the Assembly intelligence committee’s executive secretary, praised Yoon’s choice of Cho, calling the nominee “completely qualified.”

“As the national security adviser, he has worked closely with the intelligence community. He has intimate knowledge of the workings of the spy agency and deep understanding of its mission,” he told The Korea Herald.

One former NIS official told The Herald that Cho’s extensive background in dealing with North Korean nuclear challenges made him a “good fit” as the country’s top spy, given the present climate in the Korean Peninsula.

“We stand at a time of heightening North Korean nuclear threats, with Kim Jong-un launching missiles and reconnaissance satellites,” said the official, who worked for the service for about 30 years before retiring four years ago.

“Cho seems like the right man for the job right now, even though NIS employees typically prefer an insider -- meaning someone who has worked at the organization -- as their boss.”

The retired official added that it was “unusual” that it took Yoon nearly a month to name the next head of the spy service after the previous chief, Kim Kyou-hyun, bowed out late November. “It’s almost unheard of to leave the top post at the NIS unfilled for so long,” he said.

Some fierce criticisms came from the opposition, which took issue with the career diplomat jumping job to job over the first year of Yoon's presidency.

Rep. Youn Kun-young of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, and who was one of former President Moon Jae-in’s special envoys to North Korea, called Cho the president’s “recycled, worn out choice.”

“This is the third position Cho would be holding in this administration, and we are only into the second year of the president’s term,” the lawmaker told The Herald. “It’s almost as though this administration has no other options to choose from that it is willing to hand the same person three key positions in a row.”

There’s a precedent not long ago for one person being tasked to head the spy service and the national security office over the same administration. Suh Hoon served as spy chief as well as national security adviser for Moon.

Youn claimed that while Cho helmed the presidential national security office, “unseemly infighting” erupted at the country’s spy agency, which is believed to be the reason for the last spy chief deserting the post about a month ago.

“Cho failed to keep the ruckus under control when he was the national security adviser. It’s hard to see how he would be able to do better as the chief of the spy service,” he said.

The next spy chief-to-be, whether it be Cho or someone else, faces unique challenges of reining in the agency, says Park Ihn-hwi, an international relations professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

Speaking to The Herald, he said factions clashing within the secret agency have exploded into public view in recent months.

“Cho is a proven diplomat, but he has a fairly limited intelligence experience. It remains to be seen how he would fare as the leader of our intelligence community,” he said.

“One thing seems certain -- Cho has the president’s trust.”