Intelligence and information

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Intelligence and information

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Some well-known experts on North Korea gathered for a closed-door seminar in Seoul last week. The meeting hoped to shed light on the direction of North Korea after Kim Jong-un, the third-generation leader of the Kim dynasty who stunned the world last month with a public purge and quick execution of his uncle-by-marriage Jang Song-thaek, the second most powerful man in the country.

The meeting turned out to be a kind of jigsaw puzzle. The experts each came with their pieces of the puzzle drawn from North Korean media statements, rumors from North Korean defectors and intelligence connections to help put together a sense of the big picture. Some insisted their pieces fit better than others. Others said the same. At the end of the day, no one could really figure out what the picture looked like or what it was supposed to be.

“If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be in peril,” is an adage from China’s most famous ancient strategist, Sun Tzu, from his book “The Art of War.” We don’t have to refer to ancient books or sages to know the importance of learning about an opponent before entering into any kind of game or contest. No one can win a game of cards if one does not pay attention to the cards the other players hold. Anyone with the ability to play his cards close to his chest while discerning his opponents’ is bound to win.

The same rule applies in the international context. The amount of information and intelligence a country has stacked up can determine its destiny. The United States continues spying on others by employing its resources and technology, even while under fire for playing the Big Brother of the 21st century, by keeping a watch on every move that goes on around the world. Koreans have always been weak in intelligence warfare. The Hermit Kingdom legacy cost the country pain and shame at many points in its history in both big and small ways.

Professor Han Myung-ki of Myongji University, an expert on the Joseon Dynasty’s wars with Japan and China, claimed that the Chinese and Japanese were historically way ahead in intelligence activities. The Chinese from the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) sent spies to the Korean Peninsula and paid Koreans in the northern border areas for their spying. They sent prisoners from Joseon back to their country disguised as merchants and officers to act as their agents. The royal court of the Qing Dynasty knew Joseon inside and out while the Koreans were oblivious, which led to invasions and humiliating peace treaties.

The Japanese were equally shrewd. Japan dispatched trade and diplomatic envoys to reside in Joseon for at least a year at a time and had them familiarize themselves with the language and everyday society in Joseon. They knew what went on in the streets and in the palaces. But the royal court of Joseon was divided into two factions arguing over alliances with the old Ming Dynasty or the rising power of the Qing Dynasty in China. They continued fighting among themselves until the enemy arrived on their doorstep.

North Korea has been upping the dovish rhetoric and friendly overtures toward South Korea since the beginning of the year. In a New Year message, Kim Jong-un emphasized the need for improvement in inter-Korean relations. Last week, North Korea’s powerful National Defense Commission proposed a moratorium on mutual criticism, verbal attacks and provocative military activities and laid out actions to prevent nuclear catastrophe. It added its usual warnings and petulant demand for cancellation of the annual February-March South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises.

Both Seoul and Washington promptly snubbed Pyongyang’s self-described “significant proposal.” In a statement, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said it was North Korea that broke past agreements to refrain from slander in the first place. It reiterated its stance that Pyongyang should demonstrate some concrete actions toward denuclearization and take responsibility for past provocations instead of finding fault with military drills that are held every year. Instead of lashing back as it usually does and decrying Seoul’s hostility, Pyongyang calmly said it will demonstrate its intentions around the Lunar New Year holiday in late January.

Of course, the Seoul government cannot give into Pyongyang’s demands and cancel major annual military drills with U.S. forces. President Park Geun-hye actually ordered her security authorities to be more vigilant because North Korea was making what sounded like peace overtures. It is not easy to believe the words of Pyongyang when it has used the reconciliation trick so many times. Such a stern response from Seoul is understandable given Pyongyang’s track record.

But at the same time, one has to wonder if the government is responding wisely considering the latest developments in North Korea. The country’s well-being could be at risk if the government makes judgments based on wishful thinking or skewed information.

President Park wrote, “North Koreans also wants to try to keep their promise when you really talk with them,” after she returned from a visit to Pyongyang and met with leader Kim Jong-il in May 2002. “After I returned from North Korea, I saw hope in inter-Korean ties. If trust is built through sincerity, we can expect effective negotiations and pledges.” As president, she must question the sincerity behind Pyongyang’s dovish gestures. But if she has suspicions, they must be based on accurate and objective information.

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

by Bae Myung-bok
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