A 50-strong Indonesian government and business delegation visited Seoul for three days last week to promote trade and cooperation in defense industry projects. The group, which included defense, industry, trade, economic planning and investment ministers, came here under an agreement between President Lee Myung-bak and Susilo Yudhoyono in Bali last December.
They made a courtesy call on the Blue House, visits to major industrial facilities in Busan and its vicinity and had separate ministerial meetings with South Korean counterparts. Their time here went satisfactorily, except for one mysterious incident ― a break-in at the hotel room of a member of the delegation.
Two men and a woman in black business suits entered the room of an Indonesian minister’s assistant and tried to steal two notebook computers, but were foiled as they encountered the room’s occupant.
Police conducted an investigation as the Indonesian delegation reported the incident to the authorities. On Monday, four days after the visiting party returned home, the Chosun Ilbo led with a story that the aborted burglary was an act of spying by agents of the National Intelligence Service.
The state intelligence agency immediately denied its involvement. Its officials later acknowledged that agents had mistakenly gone into the wrong room. Their explanation: A senior NIS official had checked into a room on the 20th floor just above Room 1961 used by an Indonesian delegate. While staying outside, the NIS man asked his subordinates to fetch laptop computers from his room, but they went to the wrong floor and entered the Indonesian delegate’s room.
How the NIS agents got into the locked hotel room was not explained, and quite a few other questions about the incident have not been answered. Speculation has flared that it might be a clumsy attempt at gathering information regarding Indonesian arms purchase plans to help in negotiations for the sale of T-50 trainer jets and other equipment produced by Korea.
While here, the Indonesians said the computers did not contain any military or industrial secrets although they did not allow Korean police to access their contents. In Jakarta, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry corroborated the Korean NIS version of a mistaken entry into a hotel room.
It seems that both Korean and Indonesian authorities found their respective national interests in keeping mum about the incident and possibly forgetting it altogether. Korean National Police Director Cho Hyun-oh said investigation of this attempted burglary would be meaningless, as there would be no indictment or punishment if it was established that NIS personnel were involved in pursuit of national interest.
However, few would agree with the police chief. The incident caused serious embarrassment to officials and businesspeople who have genuinely tried to increase cooperation with the Southeast Asian country, a rising economic power in the region. The bungled information gathering activity damaged the overall credibility of the South Korean government and it must have negative impact on the immediate and future sales of strategic items.
The National Intelligence Service owes an apology to Indonesia, and the agency should provide Jakarta with the results of its own investigation into the incident truthfully and thoroughly. In the meantime, citizens are not willing to accept the intelligence community’s assertions that all nations do the same thing to help maximize profits in government-level deals. They want intelligence agents to use more sophisticated and effective methods in both overt and covert activities. They don’t want to see the NIS in newspaper headlines.