[Viewpoint]Spotlighting spiesAn intelligence agency can announce its failures, but not its successes. In other words, it works in a unique field where the activities of its members should be kept completely undercover.
During the last century, the world saw the largest number and the biggest amount of wars in history; fittingly, the 20th century is called the century of spies.
Espionage activities are considered to be “the art of the shadow.” This is because there is no easier means than having a specialized intelligence agency to defend the national interest by seizing the right opportunity to launch a clandestine surprise attack on enemy lines.
This is the reason why all major countries highly value their intelligence agencies as the last bastion of their national security.
It was shocking therefore to see pictures in which Lim Dong-won, at the time director of the National Intelligence Service, whispering in the ear of Kim Jong-il, the chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea, at a dinner party given by Kim during the first South-North Korea summit meeting in June 2000 in Pyongyang. The image was relayed to the world by a television camera covering the event.
That the intelligence chief of South Korea exchanged secret words with the leader of North Korea was an astounding event in itself, regardless of the content of the conversation.
Also, the fact that former President Kim Dae-jung got into the limousine of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il without the company of an aide was something that should not have taken place at all, according to the basic principles of intelligence.
Naturally, these two actions provoked rumors and speculation both at home and abroad. They were the talk of the town among diplomatic circles in Seoul for a long time and became a source of distrust of the Korean government in the international community.
South Korea failed to detect any signs in advance that North Korea was going to fire missiles into the East Sea in July of last year and test-fire a nuclear bomb on Oct. 9. The total lack of intelligence capability of South Korea’s spy agency derives from its negligence with information, ignoring basic principles.
There is no big difference in the behavior that Kim Man-bok, the director of the Korean intelligence agency, demonstrated in Afghanistan recently. His actions have also aroused suspicion and criticism inside and outside the country. Although he demonstrated high negotiating skills in working out the release of the Korean hostages held by the Taliban in Afghanistan, he violated the principle of keeping the role he played undercover. He eventually damaged the national interest by exposing “the art in the shadow” to the light.
In his capacity as head of an organization that should be operating an anti-terror activity center and playing the leading role in enacting an anti-terror law, it’s inevitable that some of his activities have to be made public. However, his movements should always be kept in complete obscurity. As soon as the words and deeds of the head of a spy agency are exposed to the public, everything can only be interpreted politically.
This is the same reason why George John Tenet, the former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, was said to have “committed political suicide” in publishing a memoir, “At the Center of the Storm,” recently, in spite of his many accomplishments. He betrayed his lifelong motto as an intelligence man, “to take all secrets to one’s grave.”
It cannot be denied that the National Intelligence Service has accomplished a lot of reforms over the years.
The spy agency deserves credit for its great accomplishment of protecting the national interest, saving industrial technologies that were on the brink of being smuggled out of the country by operating an industrial confidentiality protection center and a national cyber safety center. At the same time, Kim Man-bok was proposing to free the intelligence agency from politics and political influence.
The agency is doing its best, taking on the economy as a new security frontline in addition to its traditional anti-communism frontline. Adjusting the ratio of field and support operations through innovative restructuring and putting a lot of effort in training elite members in specialized fields should also be highly evaluated.
However, rushing to arrange the South and North Korean summit meeting right before the presidential election and arousing suspicion that it tried to investigate the background of a potential presidential candidate and misuse data found from the investigation are extremely dangerous actions. The fact that the South allowed the North to decide all aspects of the summit meeting, including the timing, agenda and venue, portends that the summit would not be a normal meeting.
Moreover, trying to undermine the opposition party candidate in front of North Korea by saying, “If the Grand National Party grasps political power, there will be a war,” is unpatriotic pandering.
The National Intelligence Service should learn a lesson from the role it played in the recent Afghanistan hostage situation and be born again as the bastion of national security, as its name suggests.
*The writer is a professor of international relations at Kyonggi University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Nam Joo-hong