Questions about the purge

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Questions about the purge

The unconfirmed purge of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and vice chairman of the paramount National Defense Commission, gives us pause about the government’s intelligence systems on North Korea. What really happened to Jang is a grave issue for North Korea and our national security. We are dumbfounded by the topsy-turvy remarks coming from government officials on Jang’s whereabouts. They raise serious question about the government’s systems for collecting, evaluating, analyzing and sharing sensitive information.

On Wednesday, a day after the National Intelligence Service informed two leading members of the Intelligence Committee at the National Assembly of Jang’s purge, ministers in charge of unification and defense told a different story. Minister of Unification Ryoo Kihl-jae said, “I know where Jang is, but can’t confirm if he is under house arrest.” That’s a step further from the NIS’s announcement a day earlier that Jang disappeared after his supposed purge. After Ryoo’s remarks raised a stir, the Unification Ministry backed down by saying it meant that no noticeable change had been detected.

Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin’s explanations were different. At a lawmakers’ questioning session, he said it was too early to establish Jang’s purge as a fait accompli. Moreover, when asked by a lawmaker if he was aware of the NIS’s move to disclose Jang’s purge, the defense minister said he wasn’t. That means the spy agency made the alleged purge public without consultations with related ministries. When it comes to such an important issue, they should have discussed it and reached a conclusion on what happened to Jang and whether or not to release the news. But the National Security Office, which should have led such efforts, didn’t even hold an emergency meeting among the concerned parties. The NIS deserves the suspicions that have arisen over the timing of leaking the information.

Intelligence agencies want a monopoly on sensitive information. The aspirations and rivalry among intelligence authorities to grab information brings undesirable side-effects. That’s why the National Security Office must coordinate the government’s intelligence capabilities. We wonder if Kim Jang-soo, head of the office, is really doing his job.

Governments’ intelligence abilities are directly linked to their national credibility. But the NIS is doubted. If Jang’s purge turns out to be wrong, the international community won’t believe our government’s words when it cries wolf the next time. A colossal review and revamp of our intelligence systems is necessary.

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