[Viewpoint] Gang that can’t shoot straight

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[Viewpoint] Gang that can’t shoot straight

The National Intelligence Service of Korea used to be considered the best in Asia. They orchestrated the defection of Hwang Jang-yop and arranged a North Korean ambassador’s passage to Egypt to seek political asylum in the United States.

However, the intelligence agency’s feelers on North Korean activities seem to have become dulled. In 2009, a North Korean defectors Web site reported the currency reform going on in North Korea before the NIS. It confirmed the appointment of Kim Jong-un as heir to his father Kim Jong-il far later than foreign press reports.

Last year, it suffered a disgrace when its agents were caught infiltrating the hotel room of an Indonesian delegation visiting the country. The agency did not learn of the death of Kim Jong-il on time. Then Grand National Party chairman Hong Joon-pyo condemned it with the words, “The agency is spending enormous amounts of money but is still derided as ‘the neighborhood intelligence service.’”

This year is a sensitive period in North Korean affairs, but the National Intelligence Service is fumbling. The NIS did not know when North Korean Chief of the General Staff of the Army Ri Yong-ho was purged. Video footage was published showing a woman who could be the wife of Kim Jong-un, but the NIS has not clarified the rumor. It is perhaps in an awkward position because NIS chief Won Se-hoon assured the public a few months ago that Kim Jong-un has not married.

Now, the entire nation is edgy about goings on in Pyongyang. When North Korea gave notice of an important announcement on July 18, stocks related to North Korea fluctuated greatly. (It turned out that Jong-un had been named a “marshal.”) When North Korean intelligence is not provided properly, the stock market is influenced by the stock manipulators.

Lately, President Lee Myung-bak is escalating the level of his comments on North Korea. Last year, he said, “Reunification will stealthily come like a thief.” Not so long ago, he said, “Just as we can tell the sunset by the glow, reunification is near us.” His judgment must be based on intelligence provided by the NIS. The agency may have analyzed that the power struggle in the North would bring together reformists in the military to take some extreme actions.

They may base their assessments on human intelligence. Some media reported that there was an armed clash in the course of arresting Ri Yong-ho. However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which has more technological intelligence gathered through interception and other methods, denied that possibility. Jung Seung-jo, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated firmly that there was no irregular activity in the North.

Contradictory reports confuse the public. If there are signs of an internal clash in North Korea, it is undoubtedly best to watch the situation. However, if Kim Jong-un’s succession achieves a soft-landing and he wants to shift some of the country’s focus from the military to the economy, Seoul should actively reach out and encourage changes. At this critical juncture, the authorities are creating more confusion rather than setting a clear direction.

A more serious problem is that the intelligence fiasco is turning into a political battle. An opposition party complained that the current administration has made the National Intelligence Service into an ordinary information-gathering agency after making frequent personnel reshuffles and organizational reforms. The ruling party defended itself by claiming that the “original sin” in that regard was the dismissal of 581 intelligence professionals during the Kim Dae-jung administration.

Neither side can afford to hurl stones in this regard. In every presidential election, NIS employees never fail to take a side politically, and whenever the administration changes, the NIS becomes a target of reform. Cynics say that qualified, veteran agents have been pushed out to remote branch offices or to the intelligence academy. If the ruling and opposition parties want to revive the National Intelligence Service, the presidential candidates must promise not to exploit the intelligence apparatus for personal use.

Our political circles seem to consider the NIS more of an event planner than an espionage organization. The politicians are not very enthusiastic about the information provided by it. A series of major incidents are happening in the North, but the National Assembly has not called the NIS head for an emergency committee meeting.

The most painful part is the reaction of North Korea. Pyongyang has long been demanding abolition of the National Security Law and dissolution of the National Intelligence Service. However, its call to disband the NIS hasn’t been heard for some time. Maybe the presence of the NIS is not so threatening any more. Whether reunification comes like a thief or a sunset, the NIS must stand at the frontline to bring unification if it doesn’t want to be derided as a neighborhood watch.

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

by Lee Chul-ho

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