[Viewpoint] Spies like us: A comedy

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[Viewpoint] Spies like us: A comedy

Enough time has passed to blow the whistle. On July 16, 1998, when the Kim Dae-jung administration was still enjoying its honeymoon stage, the newsroom of the JoongAng Ilbo had a strange visitor. A man in his 40s in slippers and underwear stained with blood roamed into the newsroom at two in the morning.

He appealed for help, claiming he had been tortured by intelligence officers. A city reporter on the night shift alerted his seniors and the security affairs reporter rushed to the office at the order of the chief editor.

The testimony of the man - Choi In-soo - was astounding. He had been caught trying to smuggle North Korean antiques from Shenyang, China, to South Korea and was instead cajoled to work as a double agent.

But he annoyed South Korea’s intelligence agency by peddling fabricated reports. He believed the agency’s offer of allowing him to pay his dues in South Korea and was lured into the country. He was immediately taken to the agency’s secret interrogation headquarters. He was tortured when he failed to give the information they expected.

A few days later, agency officials concluded that they might be barking up the wrong tree. On the night of July 15, Choi’s interrogators left for dinner without leaving a guard or locking the door. Choi seized the chance to escape. He got in a taxi and headed for the opposition Grand National Party headquarters, but was scared off by a security officer. He turned to the JoongAng Ilbo.

The security affairs reporter could not believe his ears. He called the agency and asked if they were missing a detainee. They said yes and asked if he was there.

The newsroom was facing a dilemma with the information that dropped in their laps. It would be a great scoop to report the National Intelligence Service’s misapprehension and torture of an innocent man. But it would come at the expense of national interests. A leak that South Korean intelligence officers seized a North Korean active in China would jeopardize relations with North Korea as well as China.

The paper asked the man if he wanted his story reported. He said he just wanted to return to China safely. After thorough consideration, the paper decided to bury the story but, in exchange, required the agency to guarantee Choi’s safe return and punishment of the officials on the case.

The agency agreed and took the man. He was later confirmed to have returned to China. The bureau in charge of his case was dismissed and the head of the bureau sacked.

The latest, much-publicized mysterious break-in at a visiting Indonesian delegate’s hotel room in Seoul, allegedly by our spies, provides a good source of knee-slapping comedy. The so-called spies - allegedly on a mission to steal documents about a possible arms deal - were used to desk work and questioning corporate figures, but lacked skills in secret “ops.”

The spies, who allegedly were caught copying files from a laptop computer when the delegate returned to his room, failed to prepare themselves for the basic risk of being caught in action.

They were careless because the hotel more or less served as their office, since the agency rented a room right above the Indonesian’s room. The agency’s secret headquarters was also nearby.

Former intelligence officials said agents can err in the field, but should not expose themselves. The agency has lost much of its organizational skills that, in the past, pulled off the defection of high-profile North Korean figure Hwang Jang-yop due to internal power struggles.

The agency mimicked the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, except in one crucial element. The CIA, to safeguard its independence, never has had a figure close to the country’s president as its head. The White House often extends the term of a politically neutral CIA chief named by the previous administration.

The recent fiasco is petering out, mostly because Indonesia graciously shrugged it off. Up until now, the JoongAng Ilbo hasn’t regretted walking away from a major scoop 13 years ago. But now we are thinking it may not have been for the best.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho

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