Stranger than fiction

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Stranger than fiction


Ernest Volkman, a writer who specializes in military and espionage affairs, says spying is the second-oldest profession in the world, dating back 5,000 years ago to ancient Egypt. Spies are closely related to political systems, but hidden in the backdrop of history by their secret nature. The history of espionage is equivalent to an informal history of the world.
The 20th century has seen a renaissance of espionage, because two world wars, the Cold War, terrorism and local wars have made the competition for information intense. Volkman wrote in his book, “Espionage: the Greatest Spy Operations of the 20th Century,” that spy operations played a critical role in every key moment of the 20th century.
Great writers Ernest Hemingway and W. Somerset Maugham were amateur spies, according to Volkman. Hemingway informed the U.S. government of Japan’s plan to attack Pearl Harbor, but was ignored. Volkman also repeatedly raises suspicions that Ian Fleming, writer of the fictional 007 series, once worked as a spy. Indeed, Fleming worked at the Information Agency of the United Kingdom before starting a writing career, and he displays knowledge in his novels about the spy operations involved in the Normandy invasion by the Allies and in the Soviet Union’s development of a nuclear bomb.
Espionage is an important topic for films, too. Because movies require state-of-the-art weapons, convincing masquerade skills and intense action scenes, they flourished in the 1960s when impressive visual effects and spectacular scenes became possible. The 1960s saw a slew of spy films, dramas and novels. Popular images of spies were also established by these movies.
Spy movies played highly ideological roles as well. For instance, after the collapse of the Cold War system, movies put the Arabs and terrorists on the axis of evil.
Every spy movie has this recurrent rule: never disclose an agent’s identity. Agents do not disclose their identities even to family members, and spies on the same team do not know each other’s identity, either. Disclosing one’s identity is equivalent to the failure of a mission, that is, death.
The excessive exposure of the head of the National Intelligence Service to the media has become an issue after the rescuing of the hostages snatched at gunpoint by the Taliban. The president stood by the spy agency, saying it has reformulated itself to the 21st century. However, the NIS has a slogan that they work in the dark for the sake of a brighter side. Disclosing the identities of the agents in the dark seems embarrassing; even in spy movies, we never see such a thing.

*The writer is a deputy culture and sports editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Yang Sung-hee []
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