We call this intelligence?Twenty-something North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who succeeded to the throne occupied by his grandfather and father last December, celebrated his nearly first year in office in a highly spectacular way and is almost certainly beaming with pride and self-accomplishment.
Pyongyang took the world by surprise by launching a long-range rocket despite an earlier announcement that there would be a delay due to a technical glitch. Most impressively, the three-stage Unha-3 rocket seems to have deposited some payload in orbit, supposedly a communications satellite.
Leaders, experts and even financial markets in Seoul, Tokyo, Washington, Beijing, New York and Moscow that have been concerned about the plan, which most of the international community considers a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Generally they were cynical and dubious about the latest attempt after four previous failures. The rocket’s success dumbfounded them.
Most mortified is South Korea. The Blue House, defense and intelligence offices fell flat on their faces due to misinformation. The local media was equally embarrassed for reporting just a day earlier that North Korea was dismantling the rocket after discovering technical problems. They quoted a government official saying that North Koreans were using a crane to dismantle the three-stage rocket. One newspaper said the launch might not be possible within a year.
But the rocket blasted off around 10. a.m. Korean time Wednesday, and unlike the spectacular failure in April, it skidded above Japan and the Philippines, dropping stages in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea before entering orbit.
North Korea initially set the date for the launch from Dec. 10-22, but pushed it back to as far as the 29th due to some glitch in the first stage. That glitch may have been true. With wishful thinking and skepticism, intelligence officers misread satellite pictures. Faulty information was leaked to the press, bringing a stain on the credibility of both the local government and the media.
It appears that there are major flaws in the entire process of intelligence management from the gathering stage through analysis, assessment, packaging and distribution. If authorities had been thorough and professional in their analysis and judgment, they could not have brought about such embarrassment upon themselves.
Self-centeredness and mutual distrust among different agencies also generated a fog of faulty information. Wrong information was first provided by the Blue House and then confirmed by the Ministry of National Defense. The news was reported by all of the local press. The defense minister scheduled a year-end dinner with correspondents on Friday, suggesting the ministry was confident that the launch wouldn’t take place before then. But after the launch, officials insisted they were monitoring the possibility closely.
The government only learned of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death on Dec. 17 after Pyongyang formerly announced it on TV - 52 hours after he passed away. Seoul had no idea what was up even when North Korea announced it was making an important statement on Dec. 19. On the day of announcement, presidential aides were celebrating President Lee Myung-bak’s birthday and wedding anniversary. Senior officials at the Unification Ministry hurried back to the government headquarters after noting the North Korean announcer was dressed in black. That’s how they gather crucial intelligence!
The National Intelligence Service’s incompetence is hardly a surprise under the helm of Won Sei-hoon, who is far from a spy master. He served as a local administrator in the Seoul Metropolitan Government under President Lee when he was mayor. He disbanded the North Korea strategy office, breaking up a crucial spy team on North Korea. He implemented a sweeping reshuffle to kick out loyalists of the previous liberal governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, which, to be fair, were probably more sympathetic to North Korea than desirable.
The spy agency, which spends 1 trillion won ($930 million) every year, was turned into a more or less useless organization. The defense intelligence network that monitors communications from North Korea is equally incompetent. This is a result of an ego-driven power struggle between the Defense Ministry and NIS over authority over North Korean intelligence.
We may not have the sophisticated satellites that can read license plates from space, but at least our spy agency and military intelligence officers should have been able to correctly read the satellite data Washington shares with us. But from the fiasco surrounding North Korea’s launch, it seems doubtful that they can even do that.
Intelligence is crucial to us because we are surrounded by global powers and are technically at war with North Korea. The country’s viability depends on how quickly and accurately we acquire information and use it. Whoever becomes the president next week, one of the first things he or she should do is to restore the state’s intelligence capabilities. The public’s safety depends on it.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok