Police rush to wrap up NIS suicide

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Police rush to wrap up NIS suicide

Much mystery continues to surround the apparent suicide on Saturday of a National Intelligence Service (NIS) agent involved with the purchase and use of hacking programs from an Italian company.

The police are being accused of rushing to conclude their investigation, as questions remain about how and why the employee, surnamed Yim, ended up taking his life in his car on an isolated hillside in Yongin, Gyeonggi. Through preliminary forensic results, police said the agent’s death resulted from inhaling toxic fumes from a coal briquette burned in the car’s interior.

Yongin police officials on Monday said that there were no unusual circumstances surrounding Yim’s death and that their investigation will be concluded once final forensic results come out. While the results may take one to two weeks to be released, this signifies the investigation is, in effect, over.

Lawmakers, legal experts and the public have suggested the police take more time for a thorough examination into why 45-year-old Yim would have committed suicide.

In a three-page note left in his car, described by the Yongin East Police on Sunday, Yim denied that the NIS monitored ordinary South Koreans with the software he assisted in buying or used the programs for election-related spying in 2012. He went on to admit that he deleted material from NIS records that could “cause misunderstandings related to counterterrorism and North Korea operations.”

Controversy is expected to arise over the deleted materials, what they were and why they were deleted. Yim wrote in his suicide note that he made the decision to delete the material to protect the NIS.

Police said that according to CCTV footage, Yim left his house in Yongin at 4:52 a.m. Sunday and was confirmed driving his car alone at 5:07 a.m. Five minutes later, he bought one bottle of soju, a pack of cigarettes and two foil barbecue containers at a supermarket in Cheoin District in Yongin. At a different convenience store at 5:30 a.m., he purchased charcoal in cash. At another store 18 minutes later, he bought five beongaetan, barbecue starters, with a credit card. At 6:22 a.m., Yim was captured on CCTV footage driving up a road 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) from the hill in Idong-myeon, Cheoin District, where he was found dead at noon.

Yim was found in his parked car in an isolated location slumped over sideways from the driver’s seat. The remains of two beongaetan burned in the foil containers were found on the front and back seats. The soju bottle was found outside the car, but its cap inside.

A Gyeonggi Provincial Police Agency official overseeing the investigation said, “The deceased’s movements that day were generally traced, and it is certain that he took his own life, so as soon as his final cause of death is confirmed, we plan to close the investigation. There is no point in drawing it out.”

The blue-inked pen that Yim used to write his final note has not been traced, and the record of calls on his phone, connections with other people and other details that might shed light on his motive for suicide have not been investigated. Thus, there are concerns that the police are rushing to conclude the investigation into Yim’s death.

Yim was said to be in charge of purchasing and operating remote control system (RCS) software that the NIS admitted last week to furtively purchasing from Italian surveillance malware vendor Hacking Team in 2012. Based on data leaked from Hacking Team earlier this month, opposition lawmakers are accusing the NIS of spying on voters during the campaigns for presidential and local elections in 2012. The NIS claimed the RCS programs were only used to collect information on North Korean agents or for research purposes.

Yim’s grieving family members have told police he had been under stress at work.

There is also concern that he might have been pressured to commit suicide or insulted. But there was no mention of that in his note.

Even officials from the NIS have said that Yim’s death can’t be explained and that it “cannot find an answer yet as to why he would have done so.”

A group of bipartisan lawmakers on an intelligence committee held a meeting Monday to discuss the case.

One ruling Saenuri Party official well-informed about NIS matters told the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, “As the problematic software dates back to the previous administration [under President Lee Myung-bak in 2012], the auditing team did not feel any pressure and could have investigated without holding back.”

The source said that Yim’s role was to plant the malware in mobile devices of foreigners who were suspected of terror or pro-North activities. “However, if the hacking results were released, there would be logs traced to these people, as well as of Koreans.

“It seems Yim was concerned that these materials would be misunderstood as [the NIS] tapping [regular] Korean citizens.”

BY SARAH KIM, KIM HYOUNG-GU [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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