The NIS turns 50: The good, the bad and the ugly

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The NIS turns 50: The good, the bad and the ugly


A view of the National Intelligence Service headquarters in Seoul. The intelligence agency marks its 50th anniversary today after its founding in 1961. [YONHAP]

Since it was founded in 1961, the National Intelligence Service has experienced continuous change, including its name. And, it now has to deal with many national threats, the number of which has increased considerably over the years.

Today is the 50th anniversary of its founding. Over the past half-century, the NIS has strived to stick by its motto, “Dedication of the unnamed, aimed at freedom and the truth.” Traces of the sacrifice NIS agents have made in service to the country can seen at a monument at the headquarters in Seoul, where 48 silver stars have been set in black marble. Open for all visitors to see, the stars carry no names and a small window beside the monument lends a small view of the mountain where the agents lay buried.

The NIS is well-known for its secrecy, just like all other intelligence agencies around the world, and the exact number of employees - even a vague estimate - is considered confidential. However, following growing discontent over the botching of several intelligence operations and projects and for concealing its mistakes, the agency is striving to be more open.

As part of its plan to do so, the intelligence service has opened up part of its headquarters to film crews working on movies and television dramas. Agents have had to get used to directors shouting orders inside the buildings, which some have complained is “inappropriate” for the nation’s intelligence bureau. But NIS officials say that opening up the offices has played a positive role in improving their image.


In the publicity hall of the NIS, visitors can now take pictures with “characters” from the latest Korean television drama with a story line heavily based on the NIS: “Iris.” All visitors have to do is stand before a blue screen and a few seconds later, they will have in their hands a picture of themselves and the stars of the show including Kim Byung-hun and Kim Tae-hee.

Despite the efforts to improve the bureau’s image in the public’s eye, there will be no celebrations at the bureau this year. Officials there have said the anniversary will be passed “quietly,” observing the scrapes the NIS has recently experienced.

The flood of incorrect reports last month from South Korean media saying Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son, was seen heading to China has been blamed on the NIS, as the intelligence agency had failed to pinpoint that it was the North’s leader who had chosen to leave suddenly for China.

The NIS has been under suspicion that it has lost its North Korean contacts in the media and legislature.

Also, the NIS was subject to criticism when it acknowledged that North Korea had been behind the hacking of Nonghyup Bank’s servers, which afflicted tens of thousands of accounts of bank customers.

The intelligence service had initially said that the crime had been an inside job before prosecutors carried out an investigation.

Over the last 50 years, the NIS has come a long way but there are tasks yet unfulfilled in order to protect the country from various forms of attack, including North Korean infiltration that also has evolved enormously.

If the Rangoon bombing in 1983 that killed several South Korean government officials was an example of North Korea’s terrorist attempts, in 2011 that stage has now moved on to cyberspace.

Sources have said that North Korea now has an army to fight battles over the Internet, well over 3,000-men strong. According to a South Korean official involved in national security who asked not to be named, “It’s right that the NIS places North Korea as its top priority. To do that, the NIS should relieve itself of its duties that involve policy planning for the government and focus on gathering intelligence.”

By Christine Kim []

한글 관련 기사 [중앙일보]
[국정원 50년] CIA처럼 정보활동에 주력, 정책 결정 과정서 빠져야

21세기 국정원은
국정원장의 임기 보장도
정치적 논란 막는 방안 될 것
1983년 10월 9일 아웅산 테러. 버마 랑군(현 미얀마 양곤) 아웅산 묘역 참배에 나선 전두환 당시 대통령 일행을 노린 북한의 테러였다. 서석준 부총리 등 17명이 숨졌다. “전혀 몰랐다. 아무리 못된 사람들이라고 해도 남의 성지에 들어가 폭파하리라 누가 생각했겠나.” 당시 국가안전기획부장(현 국정원장·82~85년)을 지낸 노신영(81) 전 총리의 회고다. 그는 재임 중 대북 정보 실패의 대표적 사례로 아웅산 테러를 꼽았다. 그로부터 27년이 지난 2010년 3월. 대한민국은 대북 정보 실패의 뼈아픈 경험을 또 해야 했다. 장병 46명이 숨진 천안함 폭침사건이다. 국정원은 수개월 전부터 취득한 수많은 정보의 점들을 선으로, 그림으로 엮어 내지 못했다.

 국정원 앞에 놓인 정보 전선(戰線)은 무한영역이다. 북한의 도발·위협은 더 교묘해졌다. 대량살상무기(WMD) 확산, 테러, 산업스파이, 해적, 사이버 안보 등 ‘신(新)안보’ 분야도 끝이 없다. 정보전에 국가 생존이 걸린 시대다. 국정원 1차장을 지낸 염돈재 성균관대 국가전략대학원장은 “신안보 위협 가운데 ‘선택과 집중’을 해야 하지만 국정원의 최우선 정보 목표는 여전히 북한”이라고 말했다. 국정원 3차장을 지낸 한기범 통일연구원 객원연구위원도 “분단국가의 숙명을 진 대한민국은 앞으로 한 세대는 더 북한 정보에 집중해야 한다”며 “통일 준비와 통일 직후 상황 관리를 위한 ‘통일 정보’에도 역량을 투입해야 할 것”이라고 말했다.

  미래 국정원의 바람직한 위상은 무엇보다 정보 전문기관으로서의 자리매김이다. 국정원 측은 내부 개혁으로 탈정치의 과제를 완성했다고 하지만 외부의 시각은 다르다. 안보부서 관계자는 “중견 간부로 올라가면서 정치바람을 타는 게 문제”라고 말했다.

 국정원이 ‘국가보다 정권 안보를 위해 일한다’는 논란에서 벗어나려면 미국 정보기관처럼 정보를 생산·판단해 정책부서에 넘겨주고 정책 결정 과정에서 빠져야 한다는 목소리가 나온다. 미국은 중앙정보국(CIA)이 정보 활동 외에 해외에서 대테러 활동을 할 경우 대통령의 결재를 받도록 하고 있다. 전직 핵심 정보 관계자는 “ 정보기관장의 임기를 보장하는 게 정치적 논란을 없애면서 강한 정보 전문기관을 만드는 방안이 될 것”이라고 말했다.
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