When spies choose poorly

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When spies choose poorly

Questions loom over the National Intelligence Service’s decision to declassify the dialogue between President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il at a 2007 summit in Pyongyang. What brought disappointment and frustration to the public is not only what was said during the behind-closed-doors presidential talks, but also the way the top intelligence agency took the wraps off it.

The NIS insists there’s no legal problem in its decision. But the issue does not hinge on legalities alone, particularly given the spy agency’s countless departures from legal standards in the past.

The first question is why the agency decided to declassify the transcript at the height of another controversy over its illicit meddling in the December presidential election. Many harbor suspicion on the motives behind the decision: They say the NIS wanted to divert people’s attention away from its own woes and embarrassments.

The NIS said the transcript lost its value as a state secret since much of what was said in Pyongyang had already been disclosed in the media. If that’s the argument, why didn’t the agency declassify it earlier?

The agency’s self-serving behavior will undoubtedly cause a problem in future diplomatic meetings. Which foreign leaders would talk frankly with our president during a summit now?

The government also demonstrated a critical lack of respect for the opposition camp. The main Democratic Party is so enraged by the NIS disclosure that it has defined the case as a coup d’etat, which is understandable given the explosiveness of the transcript. The DP will likely raise its voice against the Saenuri Party to make up for immense political damage from the disclosure. If the NIS couldn’t foresee such political repercussions, it is incompetent. If it pushed for the disclosure regardless, that constitutes willful negligence.

The agency’s explication that it declassified the full text because more controversies followed even after its earlier disclosure of a summary doesn’t make sense either. It could surely have disclosed the full transcript to the leadership of each party.

Roh, too, was a president elected by the people. Is it good for our national interests to lay bare the conversation he had with Kim Jong-il? That’s an insult to the people’s choice.

NIS reform has emerged as a top issue. The declassification was likely ordered by a few senior officers with political aspirations, although most of the agency’s staff do good jobs in the shadows to promote our national interests. Our spy agency urgently needs moral and political uplift.
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