Spy school: Learning how to be nobody

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Spy school: Learning how to be nobody


Guards in berets and sunglasses stand in front of the school at the National Intelligence Service, Korea’s spy agency. Civilians come in. Secret agents go out.
It’s in this building in Pangyo district, Seongnam city, that new recruits learn to become spies (the institution also trains Blue House guards and employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Normally as secretive as one would expect, the agency agreed to show JoongAng Ilbo its training procedures and facilities; it was the first time the school opened its doors to the press.
At 2 p.m., a taekwondo class for new recruits began at a school’s gym. Men and women started warming up, doing pushups on their fists, and soon began sparring. This wasn’t the regular stuff used in exhibitions, though: The students used more powerful side kicks and punches.
“We focus on teaching moves that are useful in real fights,” said an instructor identified only as Mr. Kim, a seventh dan in the art (a dan indicates one’s level above black belt).
In sport taekwondo, attackers use the instep of the foot, which delivers a louder crack and gains points, more often.
“Side kicks and back kicks are important, while punches are emphasized when the opponent is within reach,” Mr. Kim said. All the recruits must advance through the dan while they are in training.
In another class, other recruits were learning memorization techniques. The agency said they taught creative ways to remember important details, something of great use to every agent. The instructor wouldn’t go into detail, but said the technique uses all five senses to visualize data or register data like a recording. In addition, they also learn psychology, to help them predict what other people are thinking.
Not everything taught here involves espionage. Earlier that morning, a guest instructor had arrived at the auditorium. It was Lee Youn-taek, nicknamed “Guerrilla,” and he had come to give a two-hour lecture on appreciating the fine art of theater. After talking about classic plays, including “Oedipus Rex” and “Hamlet,” Mr. Lee got to the point: “I don’t belong anywhere. I’m a marginal man. So are you. Marginal men shouldn’t take sides, but must deliver objective information to keep balance.”
The agency also has courses in musicals and operas. “If [agents] are familiar with everything in the world, they will be able to connect with anybody,” one instructor said. Hence, all recruits also learn how to play golf.
The uniforms are simple. All agents wear black suits and carry black briefcases. The current class joined the agency in January, and will receive specialized training in the second half of the year before being placed in their various departments next year.
Stamina is equally important to an agent. Students are taught how to swim for long periods, using a “survival swimming” style similar to a breast stroke.
One recruit walked in on crutches, his leg in a cast. He had been injured while attempting to parachute from a helicopter 700 meters (2,296 feet) above ground. Given that the agents aren’t in the military, it seemed to be an odd thing to learn.
“It’s for their frame of mind. If they risk their lives by jumping, they can feel a sense of duty and a spirit of self-sacrifice for the country,” the instructor said.


The National Intelligence Service headquarters in Naegok-dong, southern Seoul, has a shrine containing 46 tablets, one for each agent who died on the job. The only one with a name on it, however, honors the late Korean consul Choi Deok-geun, who was assigned to Vladivostok, Russia, and was attacked and killed in 1996. The agency opened the facilities to reporters, but would not disclose the names and faces of its recruits and employees.
Kim Seung-kyu, who was appointed the head of the agency in July 2005, has been pushing new approaches and techniques. Each department in the agency, for example, has formed a “junior board,” which consists of young employees whose job is to bring new ideas to department heads (the idea is meant to make the agency’s hierarchical structure more flexible). Mr. Kim has also arranged more frequent meetings between high-ranking officials and working-level employees. The agency’s atmosphere is so conservative, employees must wait for their boss to leave the office before they can turn off the lights and go home themselves; under Mr. Kim’s tenure, however, that practice is slowly disappearing.
These days specialization is more emphasized than ever. “We do not welcome applicants who come here because they want job security or just want to show off,” an instructor said. “We do conduct very strict evaluations of employees, and it is hard to survive.” Those who do not get promoted within a given time are pushed out of the agency.
All the employees said they agreed that the agency is no longer a powerful organization, and that working there is no longer something to brag about. An employee identified as Mr. Oh said that he could not tell his friends and relatives what he does.
“It’s difficult to adjust unless they have a sense of duty and are willing to work unnoticed,” said Mr. Park, 39, who collects information overseas.
Ms. Mun, 29, said she asked an officiator at her wedding to not announce her work or her husband’s work when introducing them to guests.

by Suh Kyoung-ho

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